In 1895 Sir Water Lawrence wrote about Srinagar and the Dal lake:
‘The willows change from green to silver grey and delicate russet, with a red tone on the stems and branches, casting colours on the clear water of the lake which contrast most beautifully with the rich olives and yellow greens of the floating masses of waterweed. The chenars are warm with crimson, and the poplars stand up like golden poles to the sky. On the mountain sides the trees are red and gold, and the scene is one of unequalled loveliness.’ [Sir Walter Lawrence, 1895]
His description of this setting as ‘a scene of unequalled loveliness‘ comes close to the old saying that Kashmir is like ‘heaven on earth.’ Kashmir continues to promote the region to potential tourists with charming photographs of its lakes, heritage and mountains with similar catch phrases and branding, as can be seen on the samples of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department (below).
However, once tourists arrive in the valley and in the city of Srinagar, they experience a very different reality. Due to urbanization and the destruction of the natural assets of the city, Srinagar is changing at a rapid pace, and appears now as a much polluted and unhealthy city, with its historic and natural charm in jeopardy. Some of the most significant issues that the city faces relate to air, water and noise pollution, destruction of archaeology, monuments, significant architecture and green spaces, loss of crafts and horticultural traditions. Selected samples of some of the challenges are illustrated below.
Loss of clean air
The valley of Kashmir is surrounded by mountain high ridges, giving it its distinctive oval shape. While Kashmir sits in the Himalayas that generally have cleaner air than the lower plains of India, smog accumulates in this bowl-shaped valley, as seen on a satellite image from NASA in 2014 (above). The levels of air pollution in the main cities, such as Srinagar, frequently reach very unhealthy levels. A common occurrence on the ground is that after rain showers, when the air has been cleared, the distant mountain ridges can be observed from the city, while these mountains disappear from the view when the smog has accumulated above the city.
Loss of a healthy and green environment
In 2014 the Jhelum river caused severe floods throughout the valley. Kashmir experienced throughout its history many floods, and man-made problems have caused the frequency and severity of such floods to increase. Dense housing has developed in many of the low-laying flood zones of the valley. The arial image of Srinagar (left above, Source: NY Times) shows part of the city during the 2014 floods. The taler trees on the image are in many cases chinar trees (Platanus orientalis). The valley and Srinagar has rapidly been loosing veteran chinars and few new trees are being planted in urban areas. Te floods showed how little tree cover remained in the city, while trees can make a major contribution towards the ecosystem of the city. The effects of climate change already result in increasing temperatures, especially in cities, and campaigns to plant new trees including large species such as the chinar, are urgently needed.
The absence of open space in the city also contributes to the issues of flooding after rain storms. Polo View Road in Srinagar (right above) flooded even after two hours of rain due to dysfunctional drainage. Often garbage, that is commonly thrown into the streets, contributes towards the clogging up of drains. The silting up of drains during floods also causes problems with drainage. Even when upgraded and better maintained, drains can not resolve all issues, and poor building planning is a major cause of floods after rains. For instance more areas of open land and green spaces are needed throughout the town.
Loss of clean water
Remaining water systems are being filled in and polluted, and construction in non-permitted zones along the fringes of the lakes and streams is rampant. Whole neighborhoods and roads are being built in protected zones, with the system of policing being corrupt.
Lakes and stream are heavily polluted with garbage daily dumped straight into the lakes and rivers. Wetlands are lost by land reclamation for new housing developments. The houseboat areas in Dal lake have expanded beyond the carrying capacities of the Dal lake, with the natural environments of the lake severely damaged.
Waterways, rivers and canals are being destroyed by inadequate engineering solutions, with nature being pushed out of the city. New flyovers are being build across streams and lakes, further reducing the water surfaces, and damaging historic settings significant green zones and parks. Concrete surfaces and steel railings become the new ‘aesthetical’ elements, while the spaces could be used for tree planting and nature corridors.
Loss of traditions of horticulture and cultivation
Significant green zones, such as former Mughal gardens (left above) are being demolished for housing developments. Important archaeology is being dismantled without recording of historic features. Buffer zones designated as green zones next to protected historic gardens, such as at the Mughal garden of Nishat Bagh, are illegally being used for new housing (right above). Corruption allows offenders to get away with such practices.
The chinar trees of the valley and city of Srinagar are protected and may not be cut down, unless death. Suffocating trees on purpose is a commonly used method to kill the trees, and still get rid of the chinars.
Loss of quietness and tranquility
Srinagar faces not only air pollution and water pollution, but noise pollution sgnificantly reduces the quality of life in the city. The area between Nishat garden and Dal lake (left above) was historically a green edge to the lake, and has been turned in a large asphalted zone, with traffic chaos on a day basis. Loudspeakers for religious practices are another cause of noise pollution during day and night.
Loss of traditional architecture, monuments, horticulture and crafts
Traditional building crafts and Kashmiri houses are rapidly being lost. With crafts disappearing and modern methods being favored, the houses that use the vernacular Taq method of construction slowly disappear from our view. This while the wooden frame has the benefit of being more elastic than reinforced concrete during earthquakes, and is better suited to the local climate. Road widening is a major cause of losing historic houses in Srinagar old town, with the houses on the above images ready to be demolished. The houses illustrated here will all soon be lost, as they remain as the last buildings on the trajectory of the widened roads (above), or already have seen their neighboring residences replaced by new buildings of debatable quality. The house below was for instance cut into two, with part on the left already replaced by a new building.
Sadly the wider roads will only be a temporarily solution, and often new flyovers are added to further increase traffic capacity. Gradually leading to the disappearance of the old city and unique character of Srinagar. Designated conservation areas should have been created to protect the old city, with limited access by cars, as in historic cities around the world, like Fez, Morocco (a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Historic monuments, archaeology, and landscapes are at high risk in and around Srinagar. Archaeological remains that may be of the Mughal period were observed at a yard (left below), indicating the destruction of a historic site, with the materials to be sold for profit.
Mughal era gardens also existed along Dal lake in areas where the karewa soils of the hillsides along the waterfront are now being excavated for personal gain (right above). This not only alters the topography, ecosystems and settings of the lake, but destroys any possible archaeology at these historical sites.
As seen in the sample of the ‘Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe’ (CHCFE) diagram for sustainable heritage, holistic approaches are essential to achieve balanced and sustainable development (below, Source: European Union, CHCFE Consortium, KULeuven).
In the case of Srinagar there is a clear imbalance with economic values and a striving for short-sighted personal gain being prioritized over cultural, environmental and social values. Due to human interventions, the city has lost its natural balance, taking away the source of its now lost reputation as ‘heaven on earth.’
Srinagar’s approaches towards urban development now reflect non-sustainable methods that in the long-term will lead to poor standards of livability in the city. Large open spaces such as Lal Chowk (below) easily could have trees integrated in its urban fabric but have evolved to grey polluted urban areas with its historic character much lost and large expenses of asphalt. The only shading and painted ‘green’ touches are now provided by a couple roofed pavilions.
Saving the green city
The question is were to go from here. Srinagar’s Master Plan appears not to tackle key challenges, and in addition the high level of corruption in the valley makes the implementation of any constructive efforts and policies unachievable. A major change in mentality seems required if Srinagar wishes to retain any of its historic and natural charm in the long-term. Educational programs and raising awareness amongst the wider public of the public realm is also essential. Campaigns seem urgently needed to inform the wider public about ways to treat the natural resources and urban environment. People must be made aware of ways to look after their environments, and professionals must get ongoing on-the-job training to understand sustainable planning approaches.
Major initiatives and campaigns are urgently needed in Srinagar. In random order, here a few suggestions for possible ideas for new initiatives. Plenty of other initiatives or ideas could be explored to help save and regain Srinagar’s reputation as a green heaven.
- Start a campaign to ‘Save the Trees’ and ‘Greening the City’ through new tree plantings. Some initiatives have been launched in recent years, but hardly any results towards greening the city can be observed. Large tree species such as the chinar are most valuable, with also the poplars, willows, fruit trees again needed within the city’s scenery. The empty banks of streams, or unshaded parks should be planted. Massive tree planting initiatives are needed to counter the loss of veteran trees and green zones. Trees provide cooling effects, psychological benefits, and help clean air.
- Historical archaeology must urgently be protected, with any damage to archaeology made illegal. Even in areas assigned for housing development, archeological watching briefs, documentation, and protection of key features should be established.
- Campaigns to educate the public in being ‘silent’ drivers of vehicles, that don’t use their horn as the gas pedal, would much improve the city. Similarly strict regulations are needed to avoid and minimize noise pollution from loudspeakers in the city. The city of Cuzco in Peru, a UNESCO World Heritage site, successfully banned the use of car horns in parts of the city centre.
- Karewa lands and hillsides in the city should be strictly protected, with their excavation becoming an illegal practice.
- A campaign for clean water is urgently needed. The wider public must be made aware that trowing garbage and other materials into any water systems is unacceptable and illegal.
- Action is needed to halt and revert illegal construction in protected green zones. Offenders now are rewarded, while heritage sites and green zones are the victims. The city’s population is robbed of their green spaces by corrupt and selfish individuals.
- All construction in wetlands and at protected lake fringes must be banned. For instance, a new housing settlement was started by a developer in the Brari Nambal lake and wetland, with no firm action to stop this practice. These are essential nature corridors and flooding zones.
- Filling in of land in any of the flood plains must be prohibited. This only increases the man-made problem and severity of floods. In addition soil from karewa plateaus is still being excavated to fill in the flood zones around the city and along bypasses, aggravating the flooding risks.
- Air pollution requires state-wide action. Planting in open spaces will assist with the mitigation of pollution, and reduce dust in the city.
- Engineering methods that have turned lakes and streams into concrete channels and reservoirs must be abandoned. Sewage treatment plants should not be constructed in green spaces and especially not at historic Mughal gardens sites, as now is the case. Streams and lakes should be kept as natural as possible in character, to be as beneficial as possible in capturing water during rains, as nature corridors and for their natural water filtering characteristics.
- Training should be developed to increase historical and vernacular building and horticultural methods and crafts. In rural areas such crafts often still exist and Srinagar should reconnect with these ancient traditions to find solutions for its unsustainable practices.
- A system of financial subsidies can be developed to assist locals to conserve and upgrade buildings and green spaces that were constructed using traditional and vernacular methods. Historical methods should be employed where feasible.
- Conservation districts must be established in the city to protect the historical character of the city. Damaging methods of road widening and fly-overs should be abandoned. Street surfaces in conservation districts can be sympathetically upgraded to enhance the character of neighborhoods. The city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, successfully achieved such urban improvements decades ago. Greening of the open spaces should be part of such initiatives.
- Use major projects such as the Jhelum and Tawi Flood Recovery Project (supported by the World Bank) to identify key issues and historically important assets and sites, and propose actions to repair past damage and develop new infrastructure in sustainable manners.
- Most importantly, if feels that the local public must start to take ownership of the stewardship of its public realm and urban environments. There seems to be a culture to blame others for the destruction of the ‘Green City’, while everyone carries responsibility in the process.
Text and photographs by Jan Haenraets.
Recent press articles in Kashmiri papers that relate to this topic:
‘Srinagar has lost greenery, needs plantation‘, Greater Kashmir, August 3, 2019.
‘Srinagar on path to lose everything‘, Kashmir Reader, August 2, 2019.