Friday, January 30, 2009

How to kill a lake

[Wular lake, near Sopore, Kashmir]

Text and images Sameer

There is a lake in Scotland called Loch Ness. Legend has it that it is home to the Loch Ness monster. For ages the monster has captured popular imagination in the western world and kept it at such frenzied levels that hordes can still be seen descending upon Loch just to catch a glimpse of the beauty, dubbed Nessie. Of course the monster story is pure imagination. With or without its famed beast the Loch is reported to have more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales.

Back home in Kashmir, a few minutes’ drive from home is another beautiful lake. This one has no beast in it. My sister likes to garnish history with some local lore. She believes there is an entire city submerged in the lake [Kalhana, the 12th century Kashmiri chronicler of historic fables supports her claim]. Wular, the Indian sub-continent’s largest fresh water lake, is no less mysterious.

Wular is azure everywhere you look. It has schools of carp and rosy barb swimming in its blue waters. Across the lake shore it is not uncommon to see little egrets, pecking away, their snowy feathers reflecting in the water. Dabbling ducks, with green heads like the Pakistani national flag, quack to each other on Wular’s placid waters. Pallas's fish eagle with a light chocolate hood over a white face can be spotted flying over the lake, watching over the marbled teal, the diving duck that is both rare and friendly.

Kashmir's celebrated King Zain-ul-Abedin is known to have been bewitched by the lily-embroidered lake. On many clear moonlit nights in 1444, the noble king – watched the still waves of Wular -- slowly weave their lakelet magic in ancient aqua loops. To contemplate in nature’s lap the King got an artificial island made in the middle of the lake. It still remains and is locally called Zaina lank. People say that at noon, almost daily, tides occur in Wular which are usually accompanied by mild storms. Fishermen at the lake take refuge in Zaina lank if the storm gets bad.

I have been bothered by recent reports from Wetland International [WI], South Asia, a reputed global organization dedicated to conservation of wetlands. The report for Wular is particularly distressing. The lake has shrunk to half its size due to massive encroachment, inflow of sewage and siltation. The reason – no brownies for guessing this one – bad policies by subsequent state governments. The WI note further says that deterioration of Wular has led to increased floods and droughts in the region besides affecting the fish and bird species. The 217 sq km lake has now been reduced to a mere 87 sq km. Encroachment continues.

In a place where opportunities are limited and ignorance is unlimited – and the specter of poverty always haunts -- it does not come as a surprise that such things transpire. As many as 18 villages tucked away around the shores of Wular have their sustenance attached to the lake in one form or the other. Close to 10,000 fishermen make their living by catching fish in the lake. The conversion of vast catchment into agriculture land and the hunting pressure on waterfowl remains widespread. This nonsense has to end. And now.

Wular is our heritage. All the fat guys in the ecology and wildlife department are busy in Srinagar, ostensibly cleaning the Dal up. That is another scandal where endless money has gone down the drain [or Dal must we say]. No one cares, not the least the environment and remote sensing department of the J&K government. They watch as the largest fresh water body in the sub-continent gets dirtier, than their deeds. The Environment and forest minister has to ensure that his guys don’t come to plant trees around the lake, which they did in the past in clear violation of wildlife norms [they forget to plant the saplings where they need to].

At the community level too there is absolutely no alternative to people’s active involvement. Awareness is key. People just cannot afford to dump garbage into the lake. Any illegal encroachment around Wular has to be quickly reported. We need the Pied Woodpeckers and European Hoopoes in our midst.

Already the number of migratory birds [which used to number upwards of 30,000 each year] is dwindling. If we don’t act now Wular will be a stinking pool filled with carcasses, plastic and human shit.