Can the ru­ined Kash­mir lake be fixed?

A story of de­vel­op­ment at na­ture’s ex­pense, of wet­lands dis­ap­pear­ing

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Tucked within Kash­mir’s Hi­malayan foothills sits a fresh­wa­ter lake that was once among Asia’s largest. Long an in­spi­ra­tion to poets, beloved by kings, Wu­lar Lake has been re­duced in places to a fetid and stink­ing swamp.

Just the sight of it makes Mo­hammed Sub­han Dar feel sick. He ad­mits he’s partly re­spon­si­ble. Dar was among dozens of vil­lagers em­ployed in the 1950s by the re­gional gov­ern­ment to plant mil­lions of wa­ter-suck­ing wil­lows in the crys­talline lake. The goal had been to cre­ate vast plan­ta­tions for grow­ing fire­wood and tim­ber for con­struc­tion and cricket bats. The result was the ac­ci­den­tal nearde­struc­tion of the lake, as the trees drank from its wa­ters and their tan­gled roots cap­tured soil and built up the land.

The lake, now less than half of its for­mer ca­pac­ity, no longer churns and heaves with high waves, but me­an­ders across mossy swamps and trash-strewn back­wa­ters. Chil­dren long ago stopped play­ing in the wa­ter. Fam­i­lies no longer use it to cook. “It used to be so beau­ti­ful, so clear you could see the bot­tom. That glory is gone,” said Dar, whose fam­ily has lived lake­side for seven gen­er­a­tions. He alone planted at least a hectare (2 acres) of what is now a full-blown wil­low for­est.

“I feel ashamed ev­ery day. But it was work,” he said. “We’ve felt so help­less as gov­ern­ments med­dled with the lake.” As Wu­lar lost its ap­peal, its value de­clined. Poverty rates in the 31 sur­round­ing vil­lages shot up to around 50 per­cent - five times the state av­er­age.

The au­thor­i­ties “did not re­al­ize what they were trad­ing. They were so fo­cused on pro­tect­ing and grow­ing the for­est they lost sight of the lake,” said Rahul Kaul of the non­profit Wildlife Trust of In­dia , which last year worked on an economic as­sess­ment of Wu­lar’s re­pair.

Kash­mir and New Delhi of­fi­cials now want to fell mil­lions of trees, re­move acres (hectares) of soil and dredge enor­mous patches of lake bot­tom. Pro­pos­als have been drafted, ex­perts con­sulted and money pledged, in­clud­ing nearly $1 mil­lion al­ready spent tear­ing up wil­low for­est on the lake’s east­ern flank.

But restor­ing an enor­mous alpine lake is no sim­ple thing, espe­cially with cli­mate change now threat­en­ing the Hi­malayan glaciers that feed Wu­lar’s wa­ters, and de­for­esta­tion still un­leash­ing soil to clog it up once more.

Restor­ing such a lake in In­dian-con­trolled Kash­mir where a decades-long vi­o­lent con­flict of­ten su­per­sedes all other gov­ern­ment plans - may be near im­pos­si­ble.

“Wu­lar Lake is still in floods, The North Wind howl­ing strong; The shore is far away, and you Must steer your course with care.” — Kash­miri poet Mahjoor (1885-1952)

The name Wu­lar it­self means “stormy” in the lo­cal Kash­miri lan­guage, and once de­scribed the lake’s strong winds and choppy wa­ters. Formed within a deep cav­ern cre­ated by an­cient earth­quakes, the lake was for cen­turies con­sid­ered a par­adise by writ­ers, philoso­phers, no­bles and trav­el­ers who camped on its banks and rev­eled in le­gends of an an­cient city that van­ished in the 5th cen­tury when a mas­sive flood filled in the lake.

Mo­hammed Azim Tu­man re­mem­bers a boy­hood spent steer­ing his house­boat by moonlight over tow­er­ing waves. “My heart would be rac­ing as I clung to the rail­ing to keep from fall­ing into the wa­ter,” said Tu­man, the el­derly pro­pri­etor of a tourism busi­ness. “When a storm hit, the wa­ter would splash so high I thought, ‘My god, the boat will be swal­lowed whole.’”

Back then, Kash­mir was still a sleepy prin­ci­pal­ity at the edge of the Bri­tish Em­pire. In the seven decades since, In­dia and Pak­istan won in­de­pen­dence and be­gan fight­ing over Kash­mir, a pro­longed sep­a­ratist con­flict has erupted and tens of thou­sands have been killed.

To­day hun­dreds of thou­sands of In­dian troops hunt for rebels through the cities and coun­try­side. Ra­zor wire snakes across the land­scape. Mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles trun­dle along moun­tain roads.

Wu­lar’s sur­face lies flat, life­less and in some spots stag­nant, teem­ing with mos­qui­toes. The wa­ter trick­les in from the Jhelum River, and me­an­ders some 16 kilo­me­ters (10 miles) be­fore emp­ty­ing through a dam on its way to­ward Pak­istan. The sur­face and its sur­round­ing marsh­lands have shrunk from 216 square kilo­me­ters (83 square miles) in 1911 to just 104 square kilo­me­ters (40 square miles) in 2008. Along the fringes, im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties tend rice pad­dies and in au­tumn har­vest wild wa­ter chest­nuts from the lake shal­lows. The or­nately carved wooden house­boats that once surfed Wu­lar’s waves are gone.

Wu­lar’s de­graded state has not only ru­ined its prospects for tourism, but also has com­pro­mised the lake’s func­tion in ab­sorb­ing heavy snow and ice melt from the moun­tains.

In 2014, Kash­mir’s main city of Sri­na­gar, just 34 kilo­me­ters (21 miles) south­east of the lake, was in­un­dated with flood­wa­ters that wreaked bil­lions of dol­lars in dam­age. It happened again a few months later in 2015, rais­ing calls for re­newed ef­forts to re­store the re­gion’s nat­u­ral wa­ter sys­tems.

Wu­lar’s story is a fa­mil­iar one - a story of de­vel­op­ment at na­ture’s ex­pense, of good in­ten­tions and pro­found re­gret, of wet­lands dis­ap­pear­ing. Since 1990, the planet has lost 75 per­cent of its wet­lands as com­mu­ni­ties drained the wa­ter and built on the land. What’s left to­day of­fers about $3.4 bil­lion in ser­vices in­clud­ing wa­ter fil­tra­tion, flood con­trol and wildlife sup­port, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 re­port for The Economics of Ecosys­tems & Bio­di­ver­sity , an on­go­ing project pro­posed by the Group of Eight in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions to study mone­tary val­ues for the en­vi­ron­ment.

More than half of that annual value in wet­lands - or $1.8 bil­lion - is de­liv­ered by wet­lands in Asia.

“It’s typ­i­cal through­out In­dia, not just in Kash­mir. The crit­i­cal bal­ance be­tween ecol­ogy and econ­omy that is missed,” said An­zar A. Khuroo, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of bio­di­ver­sity at the Univer­sity of Kash­mir in Sri­na­gar. Kash­mir’s other losses in­clude An­char Lake, now al­most en­tirely gone, and the famed Dal Lake in Sri­na­gar, which has lost 70 per­cent of its ca­pac­ity.

In 2008, Wet­lands In­ter­na­tional came out with an $82 mil­lion plan to re­store Wu­lar’s ecol­ogy. The costs would be re­couped with 12 years from tim­ber prof­its, im­proved fish stocks and an ex­pected 40 per­cent boom in eco­tourism. Within 20 years, the re­port es­ti­mated, ev­ery $1 spent on restora­tion would lead to $2.74 in value re­turned.

The In­dian gov­ern­ment was in­trigued. Ex­perts con­firmed there were prof­its to be made from a cleaner, health­ier lake. Some sug­gested it could be done for a third of the cost.

In­dia’s par­lia­ment in 2011 ap­proved a bud­get of $26 mil­lion. Of­fi­cials be­gan talk­ing about five-star ho­tels, river­side parks and boule­vards for frol­ick­ing mid­dle-class tourists and auc­tion­ing rights for run­ning wa­ter sports. If only it had been so easy. “How long will they re­main hid­den from the world, The unique gems that Wu­lar Lake holds in its depth.” —Urdu poet Dr. Mo­hammed Iqbal (1877-1938)

Get­ting ev­ery­one on board was a ma­jor ef­fort. The wil­low plan­ta­tions alone are carved into blocks con­trolled by in­di­vid­u­als, vil­lages and a mul­ti­tude of state gov­ern­ment bod­ies, while the lake’s over­all man­age­ment in­volves even more de­part­ments in­clud­ing forestry, farm­ing, fish­eries, pol­lu­tion con­trol and the army.

It took years just to agree on the lake’s bound­aries. The project was again re-eval­u­ated. The ap­proved bud­get dropped to just $2 mil­lion.

By the time the first wil­lows were chopped down, it was 2015. Only half the bud­get had been al­lo­cated, and those in charge of the work saw it wasn’t enough.

Still, they chopped and dredged. They re­moved about a mil­lion cu­bic me­ters (1.3 mil­lion cu­bic yards) of silt - or 200,000 truck­loads - be­fore fed­eral fund­ing ex­pired.

Project of­fi­cials say the future felling of trees could bring in enough to rein­vest $44 mil­lion in lake restora­tion. In the mean­time, they want fund­ing to re­store 5 square kilo­me­ters (2 square miles) while they keep lob­by­ing for more.

“What we’ve spent so far will be fatu­ous. It will have no impact at all,” said Rashid Naqash, a gov­ern­ment for­est of­fi­cer in charge of the pro­gram. “And then peo­ple will say it was a waste, de­clare it a fail­ure and for­get about it. But we can’t give up.”

Whether the project can sur­vive is de­bat­able. Any fur­ther work will need a new pro­posal, more eval­u­a­tion, an­other en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment, fur­ther de­bate and higher costs. Naqash said they’d need about $280 mil­lion more for the even­tual goal of restor­ing 27 square kilo­me­ters (10 square miles).

That’s many times more what has been spent so far, but just over a third of what In­dia spends on se­cu­rity in Kash­mir in a sin­gle month. In­dian of­fi­cials are sin­gu­larly fo­cused on their enor­mous mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment in the re­gion amid a pub­lic up­ris­ing and re­newed pop­u­lar rebellion against In­dian rule.

Sci­en­tists warn that any ef­forts to re­pair Wu­lar will be fu­tile un­less the plan also deals with ar­eas far up­stream, where lake-clog­ging soil and silts are still be­ing loosed from newly de­for­ested lands. The plan would also have to con­sider cli­mate change, they say, which is up­set­ting Hi­malayan rain­fall pat­terns and may af­fect how much wa­ter is avail­able for the lake.

“I don’t think the gov­ern­ment has an un­der­stand­ing of how dif­fi­cult this work would be,” said Hi­malayan ge­ol­o­gist and glaciol­o­gist Shakil Romshoo, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Kash­mir who was part of a gov­ern­men­tap­pointed team that as­sessed Wu­lar’s restora­tion in 2010. “We know a lot about the lake, the glaciers, the forests and ecosys­tems. But that knowl­edge is still not in­form­ing pol­icy. And so any restora­tion project is go­ing to be point­less.” —AP

SRI­NA­GAR: A Kash­miri vil­lager col­lects wa­ter to wash his boat at the Wu­lar Lake, north­east of Sri­na­gar, In­dian con­trolled Kash­mir. In­dia has re­al­ized a vast, alpine lake in Kash­mir would be worth more pris­tine than ex­ploited for re­sources. —AP

“The earth is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing tremor af­ter tremor, The warn­ings of Na­ture are but too clear.

Khidr, stand­ing by Wu­lar, is think­ing: When will the Hi­malayan springs burst?”

—Urdu poet Dr Mo­hammed Iqbal (1877-1938)

SRI­NA­GAR: A Kash­miri boat­man rows his boat on the wa­ters of Wu­lar Lake, north­east of Sri­na­gar, In­dian con­trolled Kash­mir. — AP

SRI­NA­GAR: Kash­miri vil­lagers stand at a dried por­tion of Wu­lar Lake, north­east of Sri­na­gar, In­dian con­trolled Kash­mir. — AP

SRI­NA­GAR: Ducks swim on the wa­ters of Wu­lar Lake, north­east of Sri­na­gar, In­dian con­trolled Kash­mir. In­dia has re­al­ized a vast, alpine lake in Kash­mir would be worth more pris­tine than ex­ploited for re­sources.—AP

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