A £180m weeding job: The lake that has shrunk to half its original size

Kashmir's Dal Lake is dying, choked by algae that thrives on pollution. But a plan to clean it up threatens the livelihoods of local people

Every day, amid the early morning mists that sit low over the water of Dal Lake, a remarkable piece of theatre is played out. Emerging from the islands and the alleyways of reeds, men paddle traditional wooden boats to an area of the lake that is heavy with weeds. There, using nets fixed atop willow branches, they haul the weeds into their boats. With their vessels partially submerged by the weight, they then paddle slowly away, to use their bounty as fertiliser for crops.

On Kashmir's Dal Lake – whose tranquillity has lured everyone from Mughal emperors to George Harrison and Ravi Shankar – there is no shortage of boatmen and no shortage of weeds. Indeed, despite more than a decade of efforts to arrest its spread, the clogging, spinach-green algae appears to be everywhere.

This week, in what might underline a new determination to try to rescue the lake, the Indian government announced £180m to fund a new clean-up of the Dal and another of the state's iconic lakes, the Wular, one of the largest freshwater bodies in Asia. "This conservation effort is the first serious fully-funded effort," announced the Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh.

The slow death of Dal Lake, which less than 30 years ago measured at least double its current size, is a story of tawdry neglect that has played out against the backdrop of Kashmir's separatist insurgency. Once a favoured spot for both the elite of the British Raj and backpacking hippies who escaped the crushing heat of India's plains by relaxing on the lake's famous houseboats, the Dal is now polluted with litter, rubbish and thousands of tonnes of sewage that are pumped into it untreated. The increased nitrogen in the water gives rise to the growth in algae and weeds which choke the lake's aquatic life.

Yet for all that, the lake's majesty is still obvious and the tragedy of its decline all the more sad.

Pushing off his wooden shikhara from a shoreline shaded by huge chinar trees and alive with the song of wakening birds, boatman Lassa Dar gave a tour of his world. His paddle angled in the weed-filled water, he remembered the days when the water used to be much cleaner and people swam in it. "The weeds have got much worse," he said. "It is all the run-off that enters the lake."

On the east of the lake boatmen were hauling out weeds on behalf of the local authorities. On this side, however, the boatmen gathering the dark-green algae were farmers collecting it for their own use. Mr Dar, 62, who has been working as a boatman for 50 years, paddled to one of the lake's numerous floating gardens where, on a buoyant "field" made of reeds and composted weeds, the farmers raise a variety of crops.

"I grow tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and marrows," said Gulam Hassan, who was gathering weeds, leaning with all his weight on the supple willow pole to lever his dripping green haul from the water.

It is estimated that there are around 40,000 farmers such as Mr Hassan living on islands dotted around the lake who make their living in this way. As part of the plan for the Dal drawn up by the state and federal authorities, all will be forced to relocate to new homes in Srinagar, the state's summer capital that sprawls around the southern end of the lake. Many of these farmers are angry about the plan, saying it will mean an end to their livelihoods.

Although the new money to clean up the Dal has come from Delhi, much of the energy behind the effort belongs to Jammu and Kashmir's youthful Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah. He has made restoring the lake one of the top policy priorities. In an interview, the Chief Minister said that for decades people had considered the Dal a refuse dump where sewage could be pumped. "We did not wake up to the fact that it was going to fill up and catch up with us. A very concerted effort is now needed to clean it up," he added. "I am sure that we can rescue it. Without the Dal, Srinagar is just another town in the hills."

In addition to the shifting of the lake's residents, the two-year clean-up plan involves the building of new treatment works, a halt to deforestation and the purchase of heavy-duty de-weeding machines from Finland. Houseboat owners will also be required to fit septic tanks.

Some observers have expressed the hope that now the militant violence that has killed at least 70,000 people appears to have paused, more focus can be put on the Dal. Yet the authorities may also wish to consider the need for greater oversight. Talk of corruption abounds in Srinagar. Earlier this year it was reported that 50 officials with the government's Lakes and Waterways Development Authority had been cited by the state's top anti-corruption body.

Though such allegations might breed a degree of cynicism among the people of Kashmir, the public desire to save and restore the Dal is overwhelming. Earlier this year, Kashmir's most famous playwright, Mohammed Amin Bhat, produced a play, April Fool, to highlight the plight of the lake. It was performed to enthusiastic reviews. "For us, it's not just a water body," said Bhat. "It's a symbol of our culture and our heritage. That is why we are so possessive of it."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there