High and Dry

Wular’s troubled fisherfolk reckon with a dying lake

In the last few decades, Kashmir's Wular Lake has shrunk drastically and lost some of its wetland functions. Nawal Ali
31 October, 2021

“Wular chu laachaar gomut”—Wular has become helpless—Mohammad Ashraf told me. Wular Lake, in Kashmir’s Bandipora district, is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes. However, in the last few decades, it has shrunk drastically and lost some of its wetland functions. For fishermen like Ashraf, a flourishing Wular is now a distant memory.

The lake has suffered due to illegal mining and improper waste management. This has had an impact on the fishing community, spread over more than seventy neighbouring villages, that has relied on the lake for generations. The unfortunate state of the market, an unregulated system of credit and the militarisation of the region have made the fisherfolk even more tangled in a web of poverty.

As we started our journey through the lake, one evening in late June, several fishermen were in their boats under the shade of willow trees, waiting for the right time to cast their nets. “The fish mostly hide in springs underwater during the day and come out for a stroll at night,” Mohammad Akbar, a 60-year-old fisherman, told me. “During my childhood, we would catch around twenty kilograms of fish between 7 pm and 6 am, but now we get hardly four kilos in the summer and one to two kilos in the winter—and sometimes we return empty-handed.”

According to a 2007 study by Wetlands International, the total catch in Wular Lake declined from over ten thousand tonnes in 1950 to under fifteen hundred tonnes in 2000. “With a threefold increase in population of households dependent on fisheries, and decline in overall catch, the per capita catch has gone down by 20 times,” the study found. “The average annual household income from fisheries is therefore only Rs 22,528, which is hardly sufficient to sustain an average family of seven.”