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Photo: People in long boats on the water

Kashmiri vendors sell flowers and vegetables at an early morning market on Dal Lake. The livelihoods of people that live on the lake are at risk from pollution and declining water levels.

Photograph by Ami Vitale, Getty Images

Rebecca Byerly in Srinagar, Kashmir

for National Geographic News

Published June 9, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more visit National Geographic's Freshwater website.

"You take a look at my flowers," said a middle-aged Kashmiri man, pointing to the bright bouquets of gladiolas, carnations, and lilacs bursting from their clay pots on his shikara, a type of small boat. "My name is Marvelous."

He  was called Mr. Marvelous by his father, who was also a flower seller on Nigeen Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir (see map). Known for its many waterways, the region is often called the "Venice of Asia" and is home to a vibrant tourism-oriented community that lives on the lakes, many of them in houseboats.

In 1958, two National Geographic magazine journalists, Brian Brake and Nigel Cameron, visited the fabled houseboats moored along the lake, where they met Mr. Marvelous—then a four-year-old clutching a marigold—and his father.

At the time, the rugged disputed territory between India and Pakistan was just over a decade into its independence from Britain. "Business was good in those days," Mr. Marvelous recalls. But between 1989 and 2002, bloody conflict over Kashmir’s status brought the steady stream of lake tourists to a standstill.

Now, just as some tourists are trickling back to the region's lakes, there's a new enemy to contend with: Water pollution. Poor sanitation systems, shortsighted city planning, and the encroachment of thousands of people like Mr. Marvelous—who have literally turned the lake into land for their gardens and homes—are destroying the region's waters, according to scientist Majeed Kak, of Srinagar's Islamic University of Science and Technology.

Dal Lake, for instance, has shrunk to less than half its original size in just 30 years, Kak said.

(Related: "'Goddess' Glacier Melting in War-Torn Kashmir.")

Kak has been studying the water chemistry of the two major lakes, Dal and Nigeen, over the past three decades. He says that if steps are not taken to curb the pollution, the lakes will literally shrivel up and disappear.

Houseboat Tourism Struggling

If Srinagar's lakes vanish, so would the livelihoods of the Kashmiri people, called Hanjis, who live on the region's 1,200 houseboats.

Around the turn of the last century, many of these Hanji families moved from their small boats to luxurious houseboats. Barred from buying land in Kashmir, the British colonialists had commissioned the deluxe houseboats to be built as summer vacation homes on Dal Lake in the late 1800s. Since then, the houseboats have become an iconic stop for visitors from across the globe—including George Harrison, the late former Beatle, who once spent a night moored along these waters.

But now Azim Tuman—whose family has been in the business since 1894—wonders how much longer the houseboat tourism industry will survive.

"I remember when the British ladies use to swim in these waters," Tuman said with a mischievous wink as he sat on his delicately carved houseboat on Nigeen Lake.

Raw sewage from Srinagar's million-plus inhabitants now spews into the lakes, and many of the canals have become a graveyard of polyethylene bags, soda cans, and dead animals. Srinagar is ranked the fourth dirtiest city in India by the country's Urban Development Ministry. (Related pictures: "Giant Ocean-Trash Vortex Documented—A First.")

The Indian government’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authority is responsible for cleaning the lakes, and has pumped $200 million (U.S.) into the project, according to Reuters. But to Kak and other locals, it appears as though little has been done.

"The money allocated for de-weeding machines to remove the excess weeds from the lake and water-sewage treatment plants has been squandered or is totally ineffective," said Kak, whose long white beard lent him a wizard-like appearance.

Meanwhile, the head of the Lake and Waterways Development Authority, Irfan Yaseen Shah, claims it's the people living on the lakes who are destroying the water. His agency plans to resettle 10,000 people who are currently residing on the water bodies, he said.

Last of the Fishers

But Tuman says that houseboats contribute only a small amount of pollution.

Like the houses and hotels in the city, most of the houseboats are not connected to sewage lines—so every flush of the toilet dumps human waste directly into the lake.

Instead of installing a septic system, Tuman and his family—along with most of the other houseboat owners—are waiting on the government to install a new sewage-treatment system. (Learn how drinking water and sanitation impacts our health and environment.)

"We could build the septic system," said Yaseen Tuman, Azim's youngest son. "But many of our neighbors do not have the money to build such facilities."

As the Tumans vacillate over what to do, the fate of other lake dwellers, such as the fishers, seems sealed.

Surrounded by empty fishing nets on his boat on Dal Lake, Ali Mohd Dar said he used to sell as much as about 88 pounds (40 kilograms) of fish a day.

Now, the seventh-generation fisher catches just 7 to 11 pounds (about 3 to 5 kilograms) of fish daily, a result of pollution and overfishing. (See a picture of fishers in Dal Lake.)

"This way of life is finished," Dar said as he crouched on the boat and smoked hookah. "I'll be the last fisherman in my family."

A Road Runs Through It

As Cameron wrote in the 1958 National Geographic magazine article, "there are probably more miles of water than roads in Srinagar." (Read about water woes related to the Tibetan Plateau in National Geographic magazine.)

Now, it's fast becoming the opposite—as fishers find other work, the government is filling the canals with cement to make way for roads.

According to Azim Tuman, one of the worst things that happened to Dal Lake was the poor planning of the road systems.

"If the government had built the roads around the perimeter of the lake rather than straight through it, then it would have been much harder for people to encroach on the lake," he said.

For the Tumans, Mr. Marvelous, and other fishers and merchants of this vanishing Venice of Asia, their "floating economy" may soon be a memory of the past.

Rebecca Byerly reported from Kashmir with funding from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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