Kashmir's Houseboats In Decline

31 December 2009
David Lyon

Srinagar: The houseboat industry in Indian-administered Kashmir, one of the jewels in India's tourist crown, is threatened with closure. If it does not clean up its act the courts have threatened to close down the houseboats, which have entertained visitors since British times. The boats are intricately carved and often very spacious, but 20 years of low investment during the insurgency against Indian control of the Kashmir Valley have taken their toll. Tourists are returning to the Kashmir Valley, but there are not yet enough to fund renovation on the scale that is needed. Honeymoon paradise New government action includes a promise to build a repair yard, assist with loans on easy terms and provide treatment for sewage from the houseboats, which up to now has gone straight into the lake. But pollution from the houseboats is only a very small part of the environmental crisis threatening the Dal Lake - the largest of a system of lakes covering 24 sq km. Rubbish thrown in from a city where the population is growing fast has turned parts of the former honeymoon paradise into stinking stagnant pools choked by mud. Channels that should bring fresh water down from lakes higher up are clogged by refuse. I saw dead animals and birds among the piles of polythene bags. My guide was Manzoor Wangnoo, the head of the Houseboat Owners' Association, who has succeeded in cleaning up the smaller Nageen Lake by a combination of government action and community support. Now he wants action in the Dal Lake. 'Hard task' 'Dal lake without houseboats is nothing, and the houseboats without Dal are nothing. So we have to retrieve both of them,' he says. The government action comes after years of neglect. Lakes and Waterways Development Authority head Irfan Yasin denied the press reports that the Dal Lake was becoming far smaller. He said it can be rescued and promised that the channels linking the lakes would be opened up 'within a few months from now', using new lightweight dredgers to navigate the narrow waterways. He is also trying to educate people living on the banks of the Dal to stop throwing rubbish into the lake, but admits it is a hard task. Now that the countryside of Indian-administered Kashmir is more secure, he is engaged in some ambitious programmes to improve the flow of water by planting trees higher up in the valley, and building steps into tributaries flowing down to the Jhelum river, to stop silt flowing straight into Srinagar's lakes. The Kashmir Valley is a geological oddity, a long narrow low area surrounded on all sides by snow-covered peaks. And the survival of an ecological system that can support life there is by no means guaranteed. Mr Irfan said that his biggest challenge was global warming. The retreat of Himalayan glaciers is making a fundamental change to the flow of water and threatening the long term future of the lakes. Government action is too late for many of the houseboats that were once majestic holiday destinations. They have rotted and sunk into the mud. More than 30 owners are now applying to give up their licenses, as they have been living on board their boats in extreme poverty, without the money to do them up.