The Dull Affair

Over the years, all attempts to conserve Dal Lake have turned out to be half hearted efforts. Despite official claims that modern day lake management tools are in practice, the extent of onslaught encountered by this lake on day to day basis escalates doubts over lake conservation measures in place, reports Bilal Handoo.

Dal-Cleaning

During Janmashtami celebrations in Kashmir this year, Kashmiri pandits prayed for longevity of the dying Dal Lake. Seeking divine interventions has apparently made it clear that humans have failed in their endeavour to save the ecology of water-body, which is nicknamed as the “Jewel in the crown of Kashmir”.

The urban lake is located within a catchment area covering 316 square kilometres in the lap of Zabarwan hills. Dal Lake, which is the second largest lake in Kashmir, is integral to tourism and recreation in Kashmir.

Dal Lake is divided into four basins, namely Gagribal, Lokut Dal, Bod Dal and Nigeen. Lokut-dal and Bod-dal each have an island in the centre, known as Rup Lank (or Char Chinari) and Sona Lank respectively. The main basin draining of the lake is a complex of five interconnected basins with causeways; the Nehru Park basin, the Nishat basin, the Hazratbal basin, the Nagin basin and the Barari Nambad basin. Navigational channels provide the transportation links to all the five basins. There are two outlets for the lake, namely the Dalgate and Aamir Khan Nallah that connects the lakes of Nagin and Anchar. The outflow from these two outlets has been estimated as 275.6 million cubic metres.

=Scientific research over the years reveals that sewage drains are responsible for a substantial influx of nitrogen and phosphorus into the lake. Quantitatively, fifteen drains and several other sources release a total of 156.62 tonnes (56.36 tonnes by drains alone) of phosphorus, and 241.18 tonnes of inorganic nitrogen into the lake from a discharge of 11.701 million cubic metres /year. Non-point sources, such as seepage and diffused runoff, also add to this pollution and have been recorded as further adding 4.5 tonnes of total phosphates and 18.14 tonnes of nitrogen to the lake.

“The sewerage drains are feeding the lake with an enormous amount of sewage, rubbish and all types of waste,” says Abdul Rashid, a resident of Srinagar’s Rainawari, where a large drain is feeding waste to the lake. “Free run of drains has not only spoiled the lake, but it has given rise to strong stench, which is now making life unbearable for people living here.”

In the first week of August 2012, when myriad dead fishes were seen floating on the waters of Nigeen Lake, all of the sudden, lake conservation measures turned eye balls around. The suspicions grew when glitches were detected during the same time in sewerage treatment plants (STPs) in Dal Lake. The STPs are designed for removing impurities present in wastewater in the form of floating material, suspended solids, biodegradable organics and pathogens.

Previously, tests conducted by government revealed high levels of lead, arsenic, iron, manganese, copper and cadmium in lake water. “These elements accumulate in fish which are then consumed by humans, posing serious health risks. Effects of these elements can cause damage to brain, liver and kidneys of the consumers,” the government report warned.

Technical lacunae in STPs made judiciary to jump into the fray last September, which directed the warden of water bodies in the state – Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) – to consult the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) Hyderabad, which is an expert agency in handling the STPs, to find out defects for malfunctioning of three STPs in Dal Lake.

Irfan Yasin, Vice Chairman, LAWDA, soon informed the High Court that three STPs are malfunctioning, while five new STPs are required to be installed in various parts of the Dal Lake.

Significantly, LAWDA has been created by the Government of J&K as an autonomous body under development Act, 1970 AD vide Government order No.117 of HUD dated 11.04.1997 to serve a one point agency to look after, manage and conserve the water bodies and waterways of the state of J&K. The Authority has a whole time mandate to conserve and manage the Dal/Nigeen Lakes under National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP) of the government of India under the aegis of Ministry of Environment and Forests (GOI).

LAWDA through its elaborate network of sewer lines in the form of trunk sewers, lateral sewers and house connections spread over in seven zones around the lake collects millions of litres of raw domestic sewage on daily basis for treatment through STPs augmented by IPS’s (Intermediate Pumping Stations) at various locations.

The combined capacity of the treatment plants is 36.7 million litres/day of raw sewage, besides two truckloads of solid waste from the lake body is being collected on daily basis by LAWDA from 58 hamlets, 1000 houseboats and Shikara’s and open water surface area.

“In spite of check and cross-checks on wastes by LAWDA officials,” says Mushtaq Sidiq, a local in Srinagar’s Dalgate area, “the lake looks like a pool of dirt, which is irony in itself.”

Dal-Cleaning-ProcessA multidisciplinary team of experts, after observing the ailing plight of the lake over the years, prepared detailed project report (DPR) titled “Conservation and Management of Dal Lake” few years ago.

Six STPs were projected to be constructed in the DPR which includes Hazratbal, Laam, Habbak, Brari Nambal, Nallah Aamir Khan and Hotel Welcome at an estimated cost of Rs 21.45 crore. Financed by the Government of India (GOI), the implementation of DPR has been authorized to LAWDA.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in its civil and commercial report earlier highlighted real doubts over the functioning of three Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) managed by LAWDA at a whopping cost of Rs 9.30 crore in valley.

On the spot verification by CAG team of the three completed STPs showed that sewage collection chambers in all three STPs were sans any covering/roof causing air pollution and foul smell.

LAWDA in its reply stated that providing of covering was not mentioned in the contract and were not required at all. “The reply was not acceptable as during a spot visit to the area it was found that the sewage collection chambers were emitting a very foul smell,” the CAG report noted.

Digging further at the work executed by the LAWDA, the CAG report highlights that tests of outflow of the two (Hazratbal, Habak) STPs conducted in August 2006 by LAWDA, however, showed that despite receiving treatment, the concentration  of nutrients present in the wastewater had increased at the outflow stage vis-à- vis inflow stage.

The project of conservation and management of Dal Lake was sanctioned in September 2005 by GoI under National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP) at an estimated cost of Rs. 298.76 crores. The project was supposed to be completed by March 2010 but the deadline was subsequently extended to March 2012.

“The implementation of the programme was sluggish during initial stages and huge funds ranging between 32 to 60 percent remained unutilized during 2005-11,” the CAG report pointed out.

However, Irfan Yasin, Vice Chairman, LAWDA attributed underutilization of funds to unfavourable conditions in the valley, ranging from land disputes to non-cooperation of houseboat owners.

Environmentalists term eutrophication (decrease in dissolved oxygen) as the biggest choking factor for lake’s flora and fauna. In fact, the last year’s Nigeen fish tragedy is also being attributed to it. Alarmingly, the size of the lake has shrunk from its original area of 22 square kilometres to the present area of 18 square kilometres, and there is a concerning rate of sediment deposition due to catchment area degradation.

Experts like Dr A A Kazmi (Associate Professor, IIT Roorkee and in charge of the Environmental Engineering Lab) believe that deforestation in the catchment of Dal Lake and Telbal stream may have led to more nitrogen and phosphorus-rich run-off, further aiding eutrophication.

“The IIT Roorkee report apart, the JK government even failed to implement its own comprehensive 256-page report that was submitted in the legislative assembly,” says valley based environmentalist. “The report had shed light on the deteriorating condition of the lake and advised how to save the water-body.”

The report was submitted by a 13 member house committee under the chairmanship of Sadiq Ali to the legislative Assembly in 2002. The report emphasized on the preservation of the water-bodies of Kashmir. It gave recommendations on how to save these reserves of water. “But till date no work on these recommendations has been done. Even this report has not been able to make its way out of the assembly, due to unknown reasons,” he further adds.

The report pointed out that only 7 percent of the sewage and dirt is treated in the sewerage treatment plants, while remaining 93 percent still finds its way into these water bodies. The report says that a certain plan needs to be made which will give suggestions about the treatment of this 93 percent of sewage.

During eighties, Kango and Fotedar (1982) reported that the area of Dal Lake shrunk from 23.4 square kilometres to 13.82 square kilometres during 118 years. According to latest surveys carried out by the JK Revenue Department, the total area of the Dal and Nigeen Lakes are estimated to be 50432 kanals of which 3922 kanals are open waters and 10206 kanals land mass.

The human incursions within the lake too are unabated. Thousands of kanals of open water area is converted into floating gardens, Radhs and into land masses every year.

Concerned about this, a law student filed public interest litigation in 2003 in the state High Court. This ensured that many landmark decisions were passed by the Court for restoration of the lakes. The Court directions instructed the state to remove encroachments, illegal trees planted to reclaim lake, direct establishment of proper sewage treatment plants and cleaning of the lake. LAWDA cut almost 400,000 trees around the lake because environmentalists believed they were constricting Dal’s water.

But in the last few years, thousands of trees have been planted by encroachers and the trunks left from the old trees have grown, bringing all these half hearted restoration efforts to a naught. “Besides, pesticides used by farmers on floating vegetable gardens find their way into the lake, which cause damage to its fauna and flora,” Gowher Ali, one of inhabitants of Dal Lake, informs.

With the help of Water Master, an improvised de-weeding machine, more than 80,000 cubic meters of dredging and 12,000 cubic meters de-weeding has been competed while 40,000 square meters of lily pads have been extracted from the lake.

The officials at the LAWDA divulged that during excavation, de-weeding and dredging, they have to look after the whole aquatic plants in Dal. This is what they have to say: “Keeping natural, but prolific growth of weeds and uncontrolled wastes into lake under consideration, we can’t say that lake will be completely cleaned in the next ten years.”

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