Kashmir’s green shoots of ecotourism

Kashmir is struggling to develop a more sustainable form of tourism after the booming industry has turned the region’s lakes and rivers into sewers.

Over the past few decades, Kashmir has sacrificed its lakes and rivers to its booming tourism industry. The absence of proper governance owing to simmering conflict in the region has facilitated the destruction of water bodies and threatens the alpine charm of Kashmir’s scenic spots. Today, these environmentally fragile areas have become concrete jungles without proper sewerage systems.

Recently there have been some isolated attempts to develop more environment-friendly tourism projects.

Ecotourism offers a solution

In September 2012, the state government’s wildlife department established an eco-friendly campsite in the Hirpora wildlife sanctuary near Shopian, south of Srinagar. The campsite is along a stream, overlooking the recently-built Mughal road which cuts through the Pir Panjal mountain range and provides an alternative route to the over-crowded and landslide prone Srinagar-Jammu highway. The view is soothing, stretching across natural woods, grass and all-weather tents.

The spot offers tourists a chance to catch sight of wild goat (Markhor), brown bear, musk deer, Tibetan wolf, leopard and more than 100 bird species. “We built the site with the help of the Bangalore-based Jungle Lodges and Resorts and we are planning to develop similar sites in future,” chief wildlife warden Vinod Ranjan said.

“The idea is to focus on quality tourism which will transfer benefits to the local communities as we aim to attract the class of tourists from India and abroad who are nature lovers.” Developing these sites, Ranjan said, doesn’t mean laying concrete roads, but creating basic facilities by repairing foot-tracks and setting up campsites.

According to Mohammad Hussain Mir, co-director of Kashmir’s tourism department, local people should come forward and stop travel agencies dictating terms. “We have now started focusing on adventure, heritage and cultural tourism wherein we see a role for communities in tourism development,” he said. “We believe that tourism benefits should reach villages without the destruction of landscape and water resources.” His department has already identified 60 villages for this.

“This is what we need to focus on,” said Muttahira Aabida Waheed Deva, who works at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing in Srinagar. “We can’t afford to ruin our environment and ecology in the name of tourism. It is high time we stick to ecotourism and do away with raising concrete structures in ecological and environmentally sensitive zones of Kashmir.”

Aditi Chandani of the Bangalore-based NGO Equations said India’s state governments need to go beyond playing the role of tourism promoters and focus on research and policy. “We envision tourism which is people-centred, accountable and sustainable,” she said. “Tourism should not expropriate land, water and natural resources.”

Serious damage already

But that is exactly what has happened in Kashmir, and a more concerted effort is needed to mitigate the damage caused over the years. An environmental consultant to the state government recently refused to stay in a houseboat in Srinagar’s renowned Dal Lake when he learnt liquid waste from houseboats was going straight into the lake without any treatment. “He asked us to change his accommodation without any delay saying his conscience wouldn’t allow him to stay there,” an official from the environment department said.

Listening to one’s conscience might not instantly clean Dal Lake, but it sends a message.  Today the lake is choked by pollutants as about 600 houseboats with 1,600-odd guest rooms drain their untreated sewage into the water.

All the guest rooms are crammed full of tourists in the summer months, according to the president of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association Azim Tuman. He demands that the government announce a special package to help houseboat owners install sewage treatment plants.

In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court told houseboat owners to install sewage treatment plants or face closure, following a public interest suit filed by a voluntary organization. But the houseboat owners failed to implement the court order, complaining of the ‘huge’ costs of installing the systems – over 300,000 rupees (US$ 5,000) for each houseboat.

“Rather than devising a solution for preserving the great heritage of Kashmir’s houseboats, the government is hell-bent on forcing their closure,” Tuman said. “It is not only the matter of securing the livelihoods of thousands of families, but a question of protecting our heritage as well.”  Houseboats were first built by the British in the nineteenth century on the then pristine waters of the Dal Lake to provide their officials with refugee from the scorching summer of the Indian plains.

Since then, houseboats have been the preferred accommodation for tourists in Srinagar. “We don’t want them to die because of the government’s failure to provide a solution,” Tuman said.

Other major water bodies in the state’s summer capital Srinagar – Nageen Lake, Chuntikul and Jhelum River – face similar threats from houseboat sewage. However, as Tuman stresses, houseboats alone are not responsible for the environmental destruction of the city’s water resources. The city’s 370-odd hotels have no sewage treatment facilities either.

Waheed Deva of the Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing said hoteliers in Kashmir should be encouraged to pool resources to set up sewage treatment plants.

For the past three years, Srinagar has struggled to accommodate the droves of tourists over the summer. More than 3.5 million tourists have visited Kashmir during the past two and a half years, according to official figures. This has forced the tourism department to allow residents to convert their houses into guesthouses as well. “This is a dangerous trend as these guest houses will add to the amount of untreated sewage which goes into our water bodies,” said an official of Srinagar Municipal Corporation who preferred to remain anonymous.

Tuman also mentioned one of the largest lakes in south Asia, Wullar lake, which lies 50 kilometres north of Srinagar. The lake has shrunk from its original 200 square km to 24 square km, largely because of buildings encroaching on its banks and because it is being choked by pollutants, according to a recent report of the National Wetlands Atlas.

The annual flood of pilgrims visiting the environmentally sensitive region around the holy Amarnath cave in southern Kashmir also poses a big problem. The sacred Hindu site is situated high up near the Kolahai glacier, which is said to be melting rapidly, partly due to the large number of people visiting the area.

Take people into confidence

Experts say ecotourism can work and can start to restore the ecology of the region only if people – both residents and tourists – are taken into confidence and told of the effects of unplanned tourism on Kashmir. A tour operator who organises treks to various parts of the Himalayas said, “Tourists don’t want to pollute these beautiful places, if they know what’s happening, and if they are given viable alternatives. Local residents are looking for these alternatives too, because their livelihoods depend on these places remaining clean. The authorities have to make it easy for people to follow the (anti-pollution) laws.”