Contaminating India’s Largest Freshwater Lake: Garbage Dumping and Landfilling at Wular Lake, Kashmir

In May 2017 an article was published in Kashmir by Owais Farooqi to raise the problem of landfilling and contamination through garbage dumping at Wular Lake, Kashmir. Wular Lake is India’s largest freshwater lake. I personally see this, and the wider issue of garbage dumping in Kashmir, as incomprehensible and decided to republish the link to Farooqi’s article and reiterate several of Farooqi’s messages in this article. I add some personal thoughts on the matter based upon my own observations, and because I believe that the attitudes towards natural heritage and cultural heritage are closely connected. In the case of Wular Lake and the wider garbage dumping practices in the valley, I hope that the more people speak up about this, the bigger the chance gets that this will be looked into more seriously by the relevant authorities, and international conservation bodies.

Wular Lake, Kashmir, the largest freshwater lake in India, and declared as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Jan Haenraets, 2011).

, a Kashmiri journalist for the Kashmir Reader, has raised on many occasions current issues in the valley. Many of these relate to the Kashmiri conflict, but he also speak up about the challenges that the heritage and environment face in the valley. In his article that was published on May 26, 2017, Farooqi highlights the major threats of waste dumping and landfilling at Wular Lake. Wular Lake is located in the north of Kashmir, and his hometown Bandipora is located at the lakeside. Farooqi has been in a position to witness and observe the issues from the front row.

His article was entitled “Wullar lake is biggest dumping site, Conservation Authority clueless on remedies” and it points out a number of the most worrying issues and the apparently unwillingness of the authorities to alter their practices, and to resolve the situation. This while the lake is internationally recognised as being of major nature conservation and biodiversity significance. In 1990 Wular Lake was officially declared as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites Information Service, 1990).

The Ramsar Sites Information Service describes Wular Lake as follows: “The largest freshwater lake in India with extensive marshes of emergent and floating vegetation, particularly water chestnut, that provide an important source of revenue for the State Government and fodder for domestic livestock. The lake supports an important fishing industry and is a valuable source of water for irrigation and domestic use. The area is important for wintering, staging and breeding birds. Human activities include rice cultivation and tree farming.” (Ramsar Sites Information Service, 1990).

The Location of Wular Lake in the north of the valley of Kashmir (Google maps, 2017).

In 2011, Chaudhary Lal Singh, the Minister for Forests, Environment and Ecology, State of Jammu and Kashmir, was quoted saying that the “Conservation of Wular and other lakes in the state is the top priority of the Government and all necessary measures will be taken in this regard.”  How can this be the Government’s view about Wular Lake and other water bodies in Kashmir, if at the same time the dumping of garbage into the lake by the same authorities – as highlighted in Farooqi’s article – continues to persist. The Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUMCA) was also established in 2012, but again it did not help in halting these practices (Farooqi, 2017).

An example of garbage dumping and landfilling at the edges of Wular Lake (Owais Farooqi, 2017).

My own observations throughout the whole valley of Kashmir are that just about everywhere the water systems are at high risk. Water bodies are frequently used as dumping sites for all types of construction or household waste. It is in stark contrast with the historical image of Kashmir as a “Heaven on Earth”. All too often you can see in Kashmir that at the same location people are dumping their garbage bags into the streams, while others will wash their laundry in the same waterways, and other people will use those same water bodies for bathing. Some positive initiatives can be seen in the valley, such as at Nigeen Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, where locals have established the Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation to start address some of the problems (Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation, 2017). Overall, I would say that garbage dumping remains a troubling matter in Kashmir, and wider India.

The dumping practises at Wular Lake that Farooqi refers to are coordinated by the authorities. Many of the large-scale dumping practices by the government and the public also relate to some degree to landfilling. For instance in Baramulla, also in northern Kashmir, I observed such dumping along the Jhelum River, as illustrated in the photograph below, where in the middle of the day trailers full of garbage were emptied on the banks of the river.

Similar dumping practices occur throughout the Valley of Kashmir, as here along the banks of the Jhelum River in the town of Baramulla (Jan Haenraets, 2011).

Farooqi wrote that the official figure for the estimated amount of garbage dumped into Wular Lake is “630 tonnes each month, an average of 21 tonnes of garbage every day” (Farooqi, 2017). The authorities give as a reason that they do not find appropriate alternative dumping sites. They argue that this “land-filling technique” using garbage dumping is appropriate for the time being, given that a “treatment plant is not available” (Farooqi, 2017).

Farooqi concludes that instead of protecting the lake’s biodiversity significance, as required under the Ramsar Convention, the “…Wular conservation and management authority’s contribution has instead been to ferry still more garbage for dumping on the lake banks by providing sophisticated vehicles to the municipal committee….” (Farooqi, 2017). Ironically, it is government vehicles that are marked with “Save Wular” images that dump the garbage into Wular Lake (Farooqi, 2017).

The Ramsar Sites Information Service published in 2016 that the size of Wular Lake had over the years decreased since 1911 from 217.58 sqkm to about 130 sqkm (Ramsar Sites Information Service, 2016). At the edges of the lake still some marshlands exist, and around the lake rice paddies continue to be cultured in diverse locations. Local fishermen still make a living from the lake, but their livelihoods are also put at risk. The Ramsar Sites Information Service states that in 1911 the lake included about 58.37sqkm (Ramsar Sites Information Service, 2016), but this number must also have gone dramatically down as a result of such dumping and landfills.

The garbage dumping practices and land filling threaten the biodiversity of Wular Lake, and contaminate the water systems and aquifers. It also puts traditional farming, such a the rice paddies around the lake, at risk (Jan Haenraets, 2011).

Most worrisome is the contamination of the water systems as a result of the garbage dumping. The direct and indirect discharged of harmful compounds into the water cause high levels of environmental degradation. This is further aggravated by the increase of the lake’s water level during the rain season (Farooqi, 2017), as the pollution from the garbage disposals, and garbage itself, easily enters the lake, water systems, and groundwater. It seems incomprehensible that such garbage dumping practices persist at Wular Lake, and receive – given the lake’s designation as a Ramsar Site – to my knowing no strong international response.

Apparently the local authorities have assigned a new site for garbage dumping in the Sumbal district, but as Farooqi wrote, it is taking forever for the authorities to stop the dumping into Wular Lake. I remain concerned that the new location only partly resolves the issues – namely slowing down the direct filling in of the lake – and that even at that location pollution will seep into the water systems and groundwater.

It is hoped that very soon solutions can be found for Wular Lake, and that the Kashmir Government makes this a much larger priority for the whole valley. I would say that Kashmir should aim to be a leading example that sets the trend on how to return to ecological sustainability in the region. With the spirit of Kashmir as a “Heaven on Earth” in mind, it should set an example in how to change views and practices, and how to stop this disease of garbage dumping throughout the subcontinent.

Farooqi mentioned that visitors to the lake often leave with bad impressions of “..the grotesque surroundings of the lake…” and waters “…covered with floating garbage….” (Farooqi, 2017). Is there a chance that in the future visitors will again leave Kashmir with an impression of a valley in ecological and social harmony? Can Kashmir again become an example that inspires practices throughout the subcontinent? People from the younger generations, such as Owais Farooqi, seem desperate that the answer is yes. They are inheriting a valley dramatically damaged by 20th century malpractices, and clearly are fed up. They appear to want accountability and responsibility and they dream of a return to harmony. In my opinion everything is connected, and I believe that the ignorance for cultural and natural diversity go hand in hand. Addressing the dumping practices “…is a long process…”, writes Farooqi. Indeed, it will be a long process of raising awareness for a return to harmony with nature, and respect for biodiversity and cultural diversity in Kashmir.

Text and photography by Jan Haenraets. With credit to Owais Farooqi for his original article.

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University

 

Sources and information:

“Wullar lake is biggest dumping site, Conservation Authority clueless on remedies”, published in the Kashmir Reader, May 26, 2017.

Ramsar Sites Information Service, 1990. “Wular Lake“.

Ramsar Sites Information Service, 2016. “Wular Lake Ramsar Site set as an eco-tourism destination“.

Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation, 2017, on Facebook.

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