Srinagar: Nestled between two mountain ranges – the Himalayas from the north-eastern side and the Pir Panjal range from the south-western side – the Kashmir valley receives an abundant supply of freshwater from the glaciers of these ranges.
Residents of the Indian-administered region use the water from the streams and rivers for their daily needs, irrigation and for generating electricity.
However, there has been a significant rise in the production of plastic waste in these water bodies, owing to development in the region and neglect of the administration due to its focus on the region’s security.
But the issue of municipal waste management appears to be the least of the worries for the administration.
Despite having a municipal corporation, the state of waste treatment management in Srinagar is dismal.
Additionally, Kashmir’s rural areas don’t have any waste collection or management facilities. So people find it easier to dump waste into the streams and rivers. The lack of any municipal vehicles for garbage collection has also worsened the situation.
But there is hope.
Awareness, cleanup drives
Some volunteers, students, concerned citizens and environmentalists have taken it upon themselves to rid Kashmir of its plastic problem. They were motivated by the alarming waste pile-up in the water bodies, and the apathy of the government and the local population towards the situation.
For instance, volunteers and environmentalists have contributed to making a wetland in South Kashmir’s Pampore town “solid waste-free”.
Environment lawyer and activist Nadeem Qadri, who hails from Pampore, told The Wire that he, along with his team, contributed to making the Chatlam reserve solid waste-free.
There are several other wetlands in Pampore such as Fashkoori, Manibugh and Krenchoo. These wetlands support tens of thousands of birds, making the region a major attraction for tourists and birdwatchers.
When asked how he did it, Qadri said that he, with the help of his team of local volunteers, educated the people of Chatlam about the harmful effects of plastic pollution in water bodies. They also educated the locals about the benefits of waste segregation and disposal.
He told The Wire that the youngsters living close to the wetlands also actively participated in clearing the water bodies of solid waste and safely disposing of the trash.
“It’s great to see the local youth take ownership of the environmental conservation efforts,” he added.
Nadeem Ahmad Dar, who leads a team of volunteers under such campaigns, said the cleanliness efforts have brought more birds and tourists to the wetland.
According to him, his village, which lies on the banks of the Chatlam wetland, was selected as a model for conservation and preservation initiatives.
Earlier, people in his village would dump waste directly into the wetland, believing that the water body would somehow dissolve it. “They weren’t aware that plastic takes thousands of years to destroy itself. Our campaign started educating people about the health and environmental hazards of such practices,” he said.
A people-led movement
Meanwhile, several residents of Kashmir have taken the matter into their own hands.
Kashmir’s most popular water body is the Dal Lake, situated at the heart of Srinagar. This lake has been the centre of attention for dumping of waste by the local population.
Fifty-year-old Tariq A. Patloo, a boatman, takes out his shikara (boat) every day to clear waste from the Dal Lake. He expressed his frustration at the lack of a proper drainage system and a waste management mechanism in the city.
There are several other citizen-led movements such as Jammu and Kashmir Eco Watch, conceived by Qadri, which are bringing people together in various districts to hold weekly cleanliness drives in different water bodies of Kashmir.
The teams would create social media campaigns like “Sundays4DalLake,” “Saturdays4HazratBal,” and “Fridays4Walur”, to clean these areas.
They also have a dedicated social media presence where people are educated about such cleanliness initiatives happening in their regions.
Gowhar Dar, a local volunteer based in Pampore, said such initiatives “have tremendously inspired the local youth”.
Apathy of the administration
The Wire spoke to several experts in Kashmir, who unanimously agree that it’s not enough to collect all plastic waste in one place and have safe dumping sites. They stressed the need for a scientific way to dispose of waste permanently.
The Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) had planned to set up a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant in 2017. But Kumail Ansari, chairman of Srinagar’s WTE project, who got the contract for setting up the plant, has claimed that the concerned officials are not serious about completing the project.
“They brought out a tender for 25 years – after re-tendering it nine times – for the WTE project. We applied for it and qualified. The cabinet made the decision [for going ahead with the process] and all formalities were completed. It’s four years now and they haven’t even signed my agreement,” he said.
He also claimed that the administration had allotted him a landfill on the banks of the Dal Lake, showing no regard for the beauty of the place and the fact that the leachate would seep into the lake and destroy the ecological balance.
The local administration did not respond to The Wire’s request for information till the time of going to press.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Break Free from Plastic, however, call waste management solutions like WTE “false solutions”, saying they are not environment friendly and end up producing more toxins into the environment.
They say such methods cannot cope with the ‘meteoric rise’ in the production of plastic and that end-of-pipe technology solutions do not address the root cause: finding an alternative to plastic.
Those who have contributed to cleaning Kashmir’s water bodies through waste management solutions say that these efforts should start in homes through segregation at source.
Since Kashmir lacks any plastic waste processing facilities, it is better for people to use less plastic and adopt biodegradable material so that long-term damage to the environment can be avoided, they say.
Qadri said he intends to replicate the success achieved with the Chatlam wetland reserve in solid waste management across Jammu and Kashmir.
“We expect Chatlam to become a model in community conservation in wildlife, and particularly, in water body restoration,” he said.
“It’s (ecologically) restored now but challenges exist in solid waste management, which is a continuous process, and we have to keep an eye all the time on its management and its scientific treatment and handling,” he added.
Younis Dar is a Kashmir-based journalist, who writes on the environment, climate, renewable energy, and related issues. This story was supported by Climate Tracker Asia’s Solutions Journalism Grant.