Kashmir's Iconic Dal Lake: A Tragic decline threatening its existence

Kashmir’s Iconic Dal Lake: A Tragic decline threatening its existence

By: Majid Maqbool

Amid much fanfare last month, visiting G20 delegates arrived in Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar to attend a tourism working group meeting in a convention center overlooking the iconic Dal Lake, which has drawn tourists from across the world for decades for its stunning beauty. It is called variously the “Lake of Flowers,” the “Jewel in the crown of Kashmir” or “Srinagar’s Jewel.” Walter R. Lawrence, the British Resettlement Commissioner of Kashmir wrote in 1887 that “Perhaps in the whole world there is no corner as pleasant as Dal Lake. The water of the Dal is clear and soft as silk.”

The delegates also enjoyed a Shikara (houseboat) ride on the lake, which was decked up with fancy golden lights. But beneath the glitter on the lake’s 15.4 km shoreline lies an unpleasant reality – it is dying. Researchers warn that if timely action isn’t taken, the famed lake might be history. Increased urbanization, unchecked encroachment and lack of proper sewage have taken a heavy toll on the ecosystem. The water is polluted, full of weed growth, and unfit for human consumption.

Last month, a fish identified as an exotic Alligator Gar was found in Dal Lake, which set the alarm bells ringing among scientists who fear that presence of non-native fish species could spell doom for its fragile ecosystem. That was followed by the sudden die-off of a large number of fish, to the point where local inhabitants said that they had never seen so many dead fish floating on the lake. Although authorities said that it was a normal annual affair due to “thermal stratification,” or a change in the temperature at different depths, which may indirectly cause large die-offs, experts said that a major cause of fish mortality is increased pollution and continued inflow of untreated sewage.

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A research study carried out in 2022 found that the water quality of Dal Lake has undergone “monstrous anthropogenetic pressure” for the last four decades. “Houseboats, sewage treatment plants, hotels, agricultural practices around the lake, floating gardens, lake encroachment, and other non-point sources have degraded the water quality as well as aesthetic properties of the lake,” the study found.

“Over the years, the concentration of harmful substances, phosphates, chlorides, and nitrates has increased tremendously. Concentration of total phosphorous has increased from 0.1 to 0.4 mg/l in 1997 to about 6 mg/l in 2017. Similarly, chlorides have shown a steep increase from 2–2.7 mg/l 329 in 2007 to 10.3 mg/l in 2017. Other elements like calcium and magnesium have also witnessed an increasing trend in the lake,” according to the study.

The study revealed that the lake has become hyper-eutrophic at several places, severely affecting the ecosystem. Hyper-eutrophism is a term describing a situation where a water body has lost so much of its dissolved oxygen that normal aquatic life begins to die off. The result is a lake the color of green pea soup.

“Changes caused due to these factors have affected the lake water quality to such an extent that these cannot be corrected naturally, and if proper and timely measures are not implemented, the chances of lake survival are bleak,” the study concluded while calling for an urgent need for restoration, management and conservation by both authorities and local population

Khalid Z. Masoodi, Assistant Professor and Junior Scientist at the Division of Plant Biotechnology, Faculty of Horticulture, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST), was part of a recent study focused on identifying the macrophytes (plants that grow in water) of Dal Lake using DNA Barcoding. Their study found that not only fish but also new macrophytes have been found in Dal Lake.

“A study was recently done by my lab in which we collected various Macrophytes from Dal Lake to ascertain their use as Superfood and to identify them at DNA Level. To our utter surprise, we discovered three new macrophytes in Dal Lake using DNA Barcoding that were never shown to be present in Dal Lake before,” Masoodi told Asia Sentinel.

The scientist believes that the major issue confronting the lake is uncontrolled sewage waste which accounts for the largest pollutant going into the lake. “All the fields that are above Dal level, their water containing pesticides, nutrients, and fungicides flush into Dal Lake. The first and foremost thing to help Dal is to prevent all sewage going into the lake,” said Masoodi.

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Ather Masoodi, another researcher who specializes in aquatic weed biology and management, said that untreated sewage inflow is “extremely detrimental” to the lake. “And then the accompanying runoff of fertilizers increases disease-causing pathogens and weed growth and low levels of oxygen for fish and other animals,” the researcher said.

Khalid Masoodi believes if the dying lake is to be saved, timely action is important, which includes stopping sewage from going into the lake, complete rehabilitation of Dal dwellers to nearby places, introducing fish which are herbivorous and eat macrophytes voraciously, and identifying invasive fish species by using artificial intelligence tools.

According to Ather Masoodi, a long-term plan is extremely important along with regular short-term measures. “We need to check the nutrients flowing into the lake. SWOT analysis of any activity aimed at conservation should be a priority, so that the mistakes and lessons learned can be applied to other sites,” he said adding that is unfortunately not happening and we are “repeating the mistakes while managing other lakes and wetlands. Managing a lake should be based on ecological principles and not seen with a purely engineering prism. Any conservation activity should be decided on data.”

“What makes Dal, a glacial oligotrophic alpine and spring-fed lake, different from other water bodies is that it is dotted with human habitations, houseboats, agricultural and floating gardens,” journalist Arif Shafi Wani, who has extensively reported on the lake’s condition, told Asia Sentinel.

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“However due to extensive pollution, the lake has been overwhelmed by extensive growth of weeds and lily pads,” he said. Although in the last year, the concerned authorities have somewhat succeeded in controlling weed infestations in some areas by carrying out extensive de-weeding, a lot remains to be done.

According to Arif, another major problem confronting Dal is the lack of proper water circulation in absence of cleaning of its inflow and outflow canals. “Many interior areas in the lake are yet to be connected with Sewage Treatment Plants and have turned into point sources of pollution for the lake,” he said.

There’s a need to take long-term scientific measures for better management and conservation of the lake. “It needs a joint effort by the government and the public, especially by Dal Lake dwellers to help restore the past glory of the famed lake,” he said.

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