WULLAR: “What the Nile is to Egypt, Wullar is to Kashmir.”
That’s how a famous Kashmiri poet once described the exquisite emerald green Wullar, a freshwater lake surrounded by giant pine and willow trees in north Kashmir.
Local officials, ignoring the more obvious claims of Siberia’s Lake Baikal and other contenders, fondly refer to Wular as Asia’s largest freshwater lake.
But decades of neglect and years a bloody insurgency that has converted the idyllic mountain state into a paradise lost have reduced the once sprawling lake to a shadow of its original self.
The waters of the lake located at a height of 1,580 metres (yards) – once a popular tourist attraction in the state of lush green fields and vast apple orchards – are muddy, weed-infested and ringed by a huge expanse of marshy land.
And while migratory birds from Central Asia such as pintails, shovellers and mallards still visit the shrinking wetlands around Wular every winter, the cackle and honking call of whooper swans, curlews and sandhill cranes has been silenced by the booming of guns.
Instead, navy commandos in motor boats patrol the lake to keep rebels out of the waters of Wullar that are a source of livelihood for about 80,000 fishermen.
“Siltation, agricultural activities, erratic plantation and human settlements on the lake shore over the past decades have reduced the lake from its original size of 202 sq km (78 sq miles) to 24 sq km (nine sq mile),” says a senior official of the Jammu and Kashmir Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LWDA).
In 1990, Wular was designated a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, a global treaty that provides the framework for international cooperation for the conservation of wetland habitats.
But the 21-year-old militancy in the scenic region that has killed tens and thousands of people prevented the government from taking any measures to conserve Wullar which also acts as a huge absorption basin for flood waters in the Himalayan region.
“It is painful to see Wullar shrinking and more painful is the situation in Kashmir which does not permit us to help the dying waterbody,” said 75-year-old Manzoor Bhat, 75, a retired teacher who lives near Wullar.
Local residents say it is important to take immediate steps to resue Wullar because about 12,000 families depend on the lake’s resources such as water chestnuts and fish for a living.
“Wular contributes about 60 percent of fish in the Kashmir valley,” an official spokesman said.
“Thousands of poor people of the area are directly dependent on the lake. Its survival is important. It’s high time to start working,” he added.
The spokesman said the government planned to launch a programme to revive the lake, which included recovery of land that had been encroached and continuous monitoring of water quality.
“Besides construction of silt traps around the lake, dredging, afforestation, deweeding, biotechnology will be used for rejuvenating and preserving Wular lake,” a senior minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said.
The people of Kashmir say they cannot wait to see the shimmering waters of Wullar again.
“I have seen its crystal clear waters touching the foothills during my childhood days,” said Sharief Ahmad, a 70-year-old fisherman.
“But now it hurts when you see bullet-riddled bodies floating in Wular.”
Central government has promised that it will spend more than $290 million cleaning up Dal and Wullar, two iconic lakes in Kashmir
Thousands of tonnes of sewage spew into Wullar Lake, feeding weeds and choking the lake and its aquatic life of oxygen.
The government plans to clean and remove the weeds, build new sewage treatment plants, and pay at least 10,000 families living on the waterfront to relocate.
Authorities and many environmentalists blame these families, some of whom have lived there for generations, for dumping rubbish, sewage and waste into the lake whose trademark wooden houseboats have been a tourist magnet for decades.
Some residents have in the past been slow to accept cash to relocate, saying the move would rob them of their livelihoods.
The state government has neglected the region’s environment while battling militancy, environmentalists say.
The government has made previous pledges to clean up Kashmir’s waters, saying cleanup operations have only been made possible because the insurgency is at its lowest level in years.
The government’s announcements leave some environmentalists unconvinced.
“The past experience suggests that these are all hollow promises. I am sure nothing is going to come out and unfortunately this rich water body will be extinct in the near future,” an environmental campaigner, said.