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‘Wular was everything for us’: In bid to save lake, villagers’ livelihood drowned

As a teenager, Manzoor Ahmad Dar would join his father for fishing and collecting water chestnuts from the Wular Lake to improve his family’s income. Two decades later, 40-year-old Dar’s excitement for the lake has now faded as the income continues on a downfall.

“Wular was everything for us,” said Dar, a fisherman. “We would live a decent life before. [But] there is nothing left now.

Located between north Kashmir’s Bandipora and Baramulla districts, the Wular Lake, famous for its finest variety of fish and chestnuts, not only serves as a floodwater absorption basin in Kashmir but also supports the livelihood of a large population and serves as a habitat for migratory waterbirds.

Like Dar, thousands of families rely on the lake’s fish and chestnut production for a living. When the Wular Lake’s bank was encroached, used for agricultural land and willow plantations, the Lake shrank significantly over the last few decades. In May 2020, the Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) began a desilting project that was aimed to raise the water level near the villages of Saderkote Payin and Baniyari in order to conserve the lake.

But the project proved to be a double edged sword. While it was able to restore a large portion of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, which spans 130 square kilometers, it drastically impacted the livelihoods in these villages.

Dar, who belongs to Saderkote Payin village of Bandipora, said he lost “two lakhs this season”. And the blame, he said, is on the dredging of the lake. “[Dredging] has affected our source of income massively. The water level has increased and we are unable to collect chestnuts and do fishing like before,” he said.

‘Never imagined this’

Barely a few meters from his residence, Dar wearing torn pants and boggy shoes was walking with a dead bird in his hand. The moment he reached the bank of the Lake, he hurled the bird into the water. 

“[The] swan died on its own. It was also my source of income,” Dar said, adding that the bird had laid twelve eggs and “now those got wasted”.

The fisherman had started to sell swans to supplement his family’s income. “Now, I work as a laborer in the summer to save some money and help sustain my family,” he said.

As the depth of water in the Wular Lake around his village increased, his income decreased. “Before this, we would earn 1,000 rupees a day. Today, we hardly earn 100 rupees,” he said.

Wular Lake, fishermen kashmir
Manzoor Ahmad Dar at his home in Bandipora. The Kashmir Walla photograph.

Dar said the Payin village, housing nearly 800 families, had never faced such difficulties three years ago. “We hadn’t imagined that this would ever happen to the lake,” he said. 

Two years ago, Dar along with two other villagers would draw a quintal of chestnuts per day alongside ten kilograms of fish, he said. “But now we rarely get a kilo of fish and a kilo of chestnuts,” said Dar.

As per 2019’s research paper ‘Ecology and Ecological Sustainability of Wular Lake Fisheries’, the Wular contributes about 54 percent of total fish yield from lakes of Kashmir and supports about 2,914 families.

Mudasir Mehmood Malik, the coordinator of Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WCMA), told The Kashmir Walla that the lake has over twelve species of fish. “Around 5 metric of fish are produced every year and around 4 metric tonnes of water chestnut in Wular Lake,” he said.

‘Losing source of income’

Gulzar Ahmad Dar remembers the Wular Lake as a beautiful water body surrounded by mountains where hundreds of the villagers would gather in the morning for work. “I have seen it since I was a child but today, it’s nothing like before,” he said. “All of it has changed.”

Gulzar has also faced the “loss of two and a half lakhs this season”. “I barely earned 40,000 rupees last year,” he said. He said that when the water level in the Lake increases further, the water starts entering the village. “Our lawns get filled with water and sometimes, it enters the houses,” he said. 

So far, Malik, the co-ordinator, said, 4.35 square kilometers have been restored during the ongoing dredging project and 78.25 lakh cubic meters of silt has been dredged from the Wular Lake.  “The present contract is almost complete and we are now working on new funding and development options,” he said.

Shafeeqa Dar, a 38-year-old fisherwoman, sitting next to Gulzar said she misses working in the Lake. “Women would earn too but we don’t have our money now. Instead, we sit ideal at home,” she said. 

Shafeeqa said that it has gotten hard to buy basic things for her four children. “I’m unable to give them books or stationery when they need it,” she said.

According to a press release issued by Reach Dredging Limited in 2020, the reconditioning of Wular Lake will play a role in an improvement in the quality of life for people living near the lake’s boundaries after the dredging of the critically silted areas is completed. “The initiative will also provide a tangible solution to the future floods and benefit in terms of water availability in the time of extreme droughts, to the residents of the Kashmir Valley,” it read.

The target for the project completion was a period of 21 months. However, the work continues to date.

Shafeeqa believes that “on one hand where the government is spending hefty money to conserve and save Wular, the families dependent on this Lake for livelihood are being neglected”.

Malik, the coordinator of the WUCMA, said that the land surrounding the lake in the village used to be mostly waterlogged with low productivity “but now people produce multiple crops and also they are shifting to economically high-value farming which includes orchards and vegetables”. 

“We didn’t have money to go to school but we at least had a source of income,” Shafeeqa said. “It was not just a waterbody but there was life in Wular [Lake] before.”

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