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Tourist hotspot in Kashmir under threat of pollution

Dal Lake in Indian-administered Kashmir is a magnet for tourists. Famous for its natural beauty and the houseboat hotels which dot the shoreline, the popular holiday destination is now under threat of pollution.

Brightly-painted gondolas, known as shikaras, skim across the Kashmir lake’s surface, and tourists come to stay on the ornately-carved cedar houseboats moored on the lake by the region’s capital Srinagar. But not all is as tranquil as it seems above the surface.

Beneath this natural beauty lies a silent killer – pollution, which threatens to kill off the lake’s wildlife. One of the reasons for this could be the biggest draw of the lake itself, its houseboats.

Waste from both the 1,200 floating homes and nearby hotels and houses on the shore empty directly into the lake. During the summer tourist season roughly 100,000 litres of raw sewage spews into the lake, causing a rampant spread of weeds, which suffocates the aquatic life therein.

“The main problem is that the people staying here on houseboats and on the shore, all their drainage comes into this lake. Also, for over two years we have not had enough snow and rain that refreshes the lake,” says boatman Lateef Ahmed Mattoo.

Six months ago, the state government told houseboat owners to install proper drainage removal, but compliance with the order has been almost non-existent. The owners complain that the equipment is too expensive and that they cannot afford the investment at a time when business is only just beginning to recover, but there may be another alternative.

“The Lake Authority has come up with a plan to install septic tanks. Two companies have set up sample tanks on a few houseboats – they work fine, the waste water goes into the tank, and only some gas and manure is left as residue. It’s successful – if they put it in all houseboats then there will be no problem and the houseboats will be perfectly fine,” says houseboat owner Mohammad Yousuf.

The federal government in New Delhi has provided $230 million for the conservation effort, part of which goes to clearing the huge underwater tracts of weed that are choking other plant species. However, many locals feel this money is being wasted.

“They should check how much weed the machine cuts in a day, and demand this amount be cut on a daily basis, but the staff just sit around. They run the machine only for an hour in the morning and evening,” says Mohammad Yousuf.

For the past 20 years, the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir has hit the local tourist industry, but with the level of violence falling significantly, visitors are returning – and pollution levels are rising. With thousands of local families dependent on Dal Lake, conservation of this icon is now as important as ever.