Connect to share and comment

A heaven on earth? Not so much

With the tourists frightened away by Kashmir's separatist struggle, the famous Dal Lake is slowly succumbing to pollution.

Kashmiri men manually remove weeds from Dal Lake in Srinagar, June 23, 2009. India will spend more than $290 million cleaning up two iconic lakes in Kashmir, which have been polluted during decades of neglect and a separatist revolt. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — From the shores of Srinagar's Dal Lake, once described as heaven on earth, the water looks dull and brackish. The storied houseboats that were the summer playgrounds of India's British colonizers are lined up across what from this vantage appears to be a weed-choked pond, no larger than a football field.

The boats' garish decorations and cheery names — “New Australia,” “Sansouci,” “Young Dreams,” “The Golden Fleece” — hint at a Gatsbyish heyday of long, lazy afternoons and parties that echoed across the water through the night. But packed chock-a-block, in all their faded grandeur, most of the boats lie empty.

Dal Lake is dying, and along with it a remarkable culture.

“If you had seen Kashmir 20 years back, 30 years back, then half of the population lived in boats,” Rashid Dangola, owner of a houseboat named “Hilton Kashmir” tells me. “In the next 20 years, day by day, this culture will go.”

In fact, the football field-sized parcel where the Hilton Kashmir lies moored is only a tiny portion of the real Dal Lake, which spreads over six square miles but which over the last 30 years has shrunk to half its original size. It has been reclaimed by weeds and eventually land, paved over by the government in an effort to improve roadways and accommodate Srinagar's growing population, or simply converted to real estate and farmland by people in need of a place to live.

Only a small part of the remaining lake can be seen from the shore, because at its heart it is a sort of floating, rural Venice — a maze of canals, vegetable gardens and lotus-root farms where houseboats have been converted into souvenir stores and papier mache factories, and islands have been reclaimed to erect towering colonial brick houses.

These islands, and the “floating land” that an estimated 40,000 farmers use to grow eggplant, squash and tomatoes, multiplies every year. So do the people. And so does the waste they create. Garbage spills into the water from the Dal's banks, and a thick green scum covers canals that 20 years ago were splashing playgrounds for local children.

“[The] Dal has become a vegetable garden; where is the water body?” an exasperated high court Chief Justice Bashir Ahmad Khan reflected recently, as he issued a stern warning to the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), which have failed to arrest the lake's decline despite investments of some $125 million over the years.

As a rented shikhara — India's version of the gondola — ferries us through the lake's floating villages, Dangola tells me: “I was proud to bring people to this side, so they would understand how we live. But now it is all spoiled.”

Conventional wisdom once blamed the pollution problem on the lake's 1,200 houseboats, but in reality these boats account for only about 3 percent of the waste released into the lake. The real culprits are a succession of poor planners and the city of Srinagar itself — with a population of about a million — which releases tons of raw sewage into the waters of the Dal through 15 different drains along the shore. Moreover, due to a poorly thought out decision to pave over the network of canals that once linked the Dal Lake to several other bodies of water surrounding Srinagar and the fast-flowing River Jhellum, the waters here are now stagnant.