Houseboat tourism struggling in India

Published online: Jun 10, 2010 News Rebecca Byerly - National Geographic News
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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'sIslamic 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.

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