Heat and dust consume India's City of the Lakes

<preform>Camels now graze where shimmering waters once made the Lake Palace Hotel at Udaipur one of the sub-continent's top tourist spots. Justin Huggler </b></i>reports on how drought damaged a dream resort</preform>
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Where the waters used to lap at the entrance to the Lake Palace Hotel, today camels lazily graze on the green scrub that covers the empty lake- bed. Water buffalo wallow in the last few puddles. A car from the city taking a short cut across the dry lake bed sends up a cloud of dust. Wild horses have come down from the hills to graze, and nose up curiously as you pass.

Where the waters used to lap at the entrance to the Lake Palace Hotel, today camels lazily graze on the green scrub that covers the empty lake- bed. Water buffalo wallow in the last few puddles. A car from the city taking a short cut across the dry lake bed sends up a cloud of dust. Wild horses have come down from the hills to graze, and nose up curiously as you pass.

India's most famous lake has almost disappeared, leaving the Lake Palace, usually an island surrounded by shimmering water, all but stranded in a green field instead. This is where they filmed the lake scenes for the James Bond film Octopussy. The lakeshore, with its seemingly endless vista of palaces, has long been considered one of India's great sights.

And the Lake Palace, where they can arrange a candle-lit dinner for two on a table moored on its own tiny pontoon in the middle of the lake to which the waiters bring the food by motor launch, has long been said to be the world's most romantic hotel.

Udaipur is one of India's most important tourist destinations. It is known as the City of Lakes, but without its main lake, it is sadly depleted. There is a little water still left, and they still ferry guests out to the Lake Palace by motor launch, but the magic is somehow spoilt when you can see a car driving up to the hotel entrance across the dry lake-bed a short distance away.

The drying up of Lake Pichola, the city's main lake, is just one of the most visible signs of the terrible droughts that have plagued India in recent years. This week, the Archaeological Survey of India admitted what historians have been alleging for some time is true: that the minarets of the Taj Mahal have begun to tilt. Experts are warning that it is being caused by the drying up of the river Yamuna next to the Taj, which is endangering the monument's foundations.

In the south of India, the state of Andhra Pradesh has seen an unprecedented rise in suicides by farmers unable to pay off loans because the drought has ruined their crops. And in the Rajasthan countryside around Udaipur, the droughts have taken their toll as well. At least 44 villagers died from starvation because of failed crops this year. Last year it was 69. And human rights activists found nine cases in which families had sold their daughters into marriage in exchange for as little as 5,000 rupees (£60) to buy food.

Some say all this is evidence of global warming - and it may be a contributing factor. But Udaipur's woes are a result of a far more direct local confrontation between man and nature, according to environmental activists.

The drying up of Udaipur's most famous tourist asset, Lake Pichola, is threatening the tourism industry on which the city so heavily depends. Bookings are down by 20 to 30 per cent in some of the city's hotels. Cancellations have started to come in. "But now is not when you will see the worst," says Saji Joseph, a senior executive at the Lake Palace. "You will really see the effect of this in future bookings, around February next year."

Lake Pichola is also the city's primary source of drinking water. There is now a severe shortage. Houses in the city are supplied with water on alternate days, and the water board is thinking of making it every third day. Water is now being pumped in from another lake more than 20 miles away, but the cost is very high.

With the city's tourist industry under threat, the authorities are taking drastic action. A canal is being dug to bring water in from where it has been blocked upstream. This is an emergency measure that will at best fill the lake to 40 per cent of its normal level. Not even halfway - but it's better than the 8 per cent the lake is at now. But the lake needs a more permanent solution, and the Rajasthan state government has ordered an urgent inquiry into why it has dried up.

It is all rather late in the day, say critics. They point out that this crisis has been building for years while the Rajasthan government did nothing. When you ask most of the city's inhabitants why the lake has dried up, they just point to the sky and shrug. "The monsoon failed again," they tell you. "The rain did not come."

But it is more complicated than that, according to the activists. It is a story of a delicate balance between man and nature that has gone badly wrong - of a local ecosystem that has been drastically changed and a micro-climate spinning out of control. It is not global climate change, but local climate change.

Lake Pichola has not been full since 1996. For the past eight years, the monsoons have failed, and the lake has been slowly drying up. This year, it reached crisis point.

The people of Udaipur are only now beginning to understand how the lake is more than just a beauty spot. In fact, it is part of a highly sophisticated rainwater catchment system planned in the 16th century. When the then Maharana of Mewar laid out the city as his new capital, he built dams to create Lake Pichola as part of a series of artificial lakes he constructed around the city. They are strategically placed so that if the monsoon fails over one lake, another will catch rainwater from the other side of the watershed that runs near Udaipur, and the lakes are interconnected.

But in recent years the intricate lake scheme of Udaipur has been interfered with. Villagers have built their own dams upstream to store water, which have prevented it from reaching Lake Pichola. In fact, so many of them have been built that there are dark mutterings in Udaipur of a conspiracy to wreck the city's economy.

On top of that, the water course was changed when local brickmakers dug up the bed for clay with which to make bricks, unwittingly creating a new artificial lake upstream that prevented water reaching Lake Pichola. It is from this "lake" that the authorities are now digging a canal to divert the waters to Lake Pichola, and trying to salvage what they can.

But the environmentalists say it doesn't stop there. This isn't the first time Lake Pichola has dried out. It happened in the drought of 1972. The different this time, according to local activists, is that it is not the effect of one severe drought, but the consequence of eight years when the rains have not come.

This year, the monsoon arrived over most of Rajasthan. There was sufficient rainfall and the years of despair were quickly forgotten. Except in a narrow strip around Udaipur. Here the rain clouds gathered, but did not burst. They just hung overhead.

Madan Modi, a local activist, points to some rather alarming statistics. Over the past 24 years, he says, there have been 18 years of drought, a particularly severe stretch without water. Even more alarmingly, he claims that over the past 15 years the maximum temperature recorded in Udaipur has risen by a whopping 17C, from 35C to 48C - a far more drastic rise than those generally credited to global warming.

The reason for all this may lie in the hills outside Udaipur. From the terrace of the Lake Palace, the tourists watch the sun slowly sink behind the mountain ranger. It must be the only hotel in the world where a flautist serenades the sunset from a hidden alcove above the main courtyard.

But what the tourists do not see from the beauty of Udaipur is that in the hills lies another scene - one of devastation. The forests that once covered the hillsides have been cut down. The past 15 years have seen massive deforestation. As much as 70 per cent of the tree cover has been destroyed.

It is a scene you can see repeated over much of India. But here activists say the deforestation has contributed to the droughts and the drying up of the lake. The topsoil has been eroded and a delicate ecosystem has been disturbed. The environmentalists say that it is not a case of simply shrugging and saying it depends on the rain: man, they claim, has stopped the rain.

Mr Madan goes further. A social activist, he first became interested in the droughts because of his work with local tribal people - those who have been starving because of the drought.

He points to another of the lakes in the Maharana's intricate system, Rajsamand, which he says has dried up for the first time in 325 years. In the mountains around Rajsamand lies another scene the tourists don't see: open-cast marble mining that is fast reducing the scenery to a rocky desert. There is huge demand for marble in India, one of few places where it is so plentiful that it is not only the ultra-rich who can afford marble floors in their homes.

Mr Madan claims the mining is changing the local ecosystem and contributing to the warming and the droughts, coating large areas of land in marble slurry.

The mining industry also consumes a huge amount of water in a place where it is scarce. "In one day, the mines use the same amount of water as the whole of Udaipur city consumes," Mr Madan says.

The drought situation has been aggravated by a large increase in water demand. Indian society is changing. People are installing Western-style showers and buying washing machines. Water consumption is going up, and many charge that the authorities have simply pumped too much water out of the lake over the past eight years, blithely ignoring the falling water levels.

The authorities have simply not done enough to protect the tourist industry, says Trilok Sharma. Mr Sharma works in an airy office in the City Palace complex of the former Maharanas. He works for the descendant of the royal family, who is today a wealthy hotelier and philanthropist, and who has been pushing for something to be done about the lake. Though Mr Sharma works on the philanthropic side, the Maharana's stance is in his own interest - he owns two hotels in parts of the former City Palace.

"Let me say it frankly," says Mr Sharma. "The state government, as well as the central government, is not serious about the development of tourism. It really is a great sorrow." Looking at the sadly depleted Lake Pichola, once one of the jewels in India's tourist crown, it is hard not to agree with him. "Udaipur has two lifelines," he says. "The biggest is tourism. The second is mining. Tourism accounts for 60 per cent of the local economy. Mining accounts for 20 per cent."

Put like that, it is hard to justify the continuing mining which, whatever the truth in Mr Madan's assertions about its effect on rainfall, is wrecking the landscape around Udaipur. Already one historic fort has been demolished to make way for the mining.

But the state government is now, at last, taking steps in the right direction, say the people of Udaipur. They have started a major programme of reforestation for the denuded hills. Refilling Lake Pichola has been made the top priority, and the authorities have pledged to remove any villagers' dams that are blocking the flow of water. They have also pledged to stop pumping drinking water out of the lake until it is restored to its former level.

Riding on horseback over the green lake-bed, Mr Joseph, the executive at the Lake Palace, says: "You know, some guests have told me Udaipur doesn't need its lake. It still has so much to offer." He points to the wild horses grazing. "You would never see them if the lake was full. They wouldn't come down from the hills. The palace still has so much to offer." And he is right. Even as he speaks, a traditional musical troupe is preparing to use the dry lake- bed as a performance area to entertain the guests.

But Mr Joseph is also a realistic man. "It's a matter of perception," he says. "People will not come to Udaipur if they hear the lake has dried up."