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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Recruitment Genius: Application Support Engineer - Software

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A small rapidly expanding IT So...

The Grange Retirement Home: Full Time Care Team Manager

£22,400: The Grange Retirement Home: This is a key role which requires a sound...

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada