“This is the sixth day I will be going home without a single fish,” says Abdul Raheem Kawa, standing on the banks of Wular Lake. The 65-year-old fisherman lives here with his wife and son in their single-storey home.

Located in the Kani Bathi area of Bandipore district, and fed by river Jhelum and the Madhumati stream, Wular is the only source of livelihood for the people who live around it – roughly 18 villages each with at least 100 households who live on its banks.

“Fishing is the only source of livelihood,” Abdul says. But “there is no water in the lake. We can wade through the water now because, in the corners, it has come down to only four or five feet,” he says, pointing to the edges.

He would know – a third-generation fisherman, Abdul has been fishing in this lake in north Kashmir for 40 years. “My father would take me along with him when I was a child. By watching him, I learnt how to fish,” he says. Abdul’s son has also followed the family occupation.

Every morning, Abdul and his fellow fishermen make their way to Wular and row out into the lake with their zaal – a net they have woven with nylon thread. Throwing the net into the waters, they sometimes play a handmade drum to attract their catch.

Wular is the largest fresh water lake in India, but in the last four years, pollution in the waters of Wular has made it almost impossible to fish all year round. “Earlier, we would catch fish for at least six months in a year. But now we only fish in March and April,” says Abdul.

Watch: In Kashmir, a lake no more

The main source of pollution here is the waste carried by Jhelum, the river that flows through Srinagar, accumulating the city’s waste along the way. The lake, which was designated as a “wetland of international importance” in the 1990 Ramsar Convention has now become a cesspool of sewage, industrial runoff and horticultural waste. “I remember the water level at the center of the lake used to be 40-60 feet which has now reduced to just 8-10 feet,” the fisherman says.

His memory serves him right. A 2022 study by  the Indian Space Research Organization revealed that the lake has shrunk by a quarter between 2008 and 2019.

Even seven or eight years ago, Abdul says, he caught two kinds of gaad (fish) – kashmiri and panjeab , the local word for all things non-Kashmiri. He would sell his catch to contractors in the Wular Market. The fish from Wular fed people across Kashmir, including Srinagar.

“When there was water in the lake, I would earn up to 1,000 [rupees] catching and selling fish,” Abdul says, “now, on a good day, I earn three hundred [rupees].” If the catch is small, he doesn’t bother to sell and instead takes it home for their own consumption.

Pollution and low levels of water has led to a decline in the population of fish in the lake and fishermen are turning to other livelihood options such as collecting and selling water chestnuts between November and February. These are also sold to local contractors for around 30-40 rupees a kilo.

This film tells the story of pollution in the Wular Lake and the fishermen who are losing out on their livelihoods because of it.
Muzamil Bhat

Muzamil Bhat is a Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist and filmmaker, and was a PARI Fellow in 2022.

Other stories by Muzamil Bhat
Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

Other stories by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya