“Drinking tap water is as good as drinking from your toilet”

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Sheba Hafiz, an Environmental Engineer from Srinagar’s Brein Nishat, works as Program Management Consultant for Sewer System Improvement Program of AECOM Company, USA.

Interview-Sheeba-Hafeez

In 1989, when militancy broke out in Kashmir Sheba went to Delhi after completing her class 10th exams. For next six years, Sheba was in Jamia Milia Islamia pursuing bachelors in Civil Engineering. Next stop was the USA where she enrolled in a master programme in Environmental Engineering. 

In her childhood mountains surrounding Nishat used to be covered with snow. But things started to look different after every summer visit. There used to be less snow. Even the Dal was shrinking, she recalls.

After completing her master’s programme she worked briefly in the US. In 1998 she came back and joined Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) as a daily wager. Two years later she got a formal job in Pollution Control Board, Srinagar as assistant Executive Engineer. Disturbed by the work culture prevalent in Kashmir, Sheba after getting married in 2001, went back to the US. After spending 13 years in the US she was back in Kashmir for holidays. But the events during September 2014 floods changed her plans and Sheba decided to stay back a little longer.

In an interview, Sheba Hafiz tells Saima Bhat that a long term plan is need of the hour to get ourselves ready for disasters like September 2014 floods

Kashmir Life (KL): How different is Dal Lake since your 1998 visit as a researcher and now?

Sheba Hafiz (SH): I think it was slightly in a better condition than the present. All projects related to Dal Lake are aimed to save it from extinction. There have been efforts like plantation of trees in the catchment areas to keep soil from eroding into the lake. The more soil erodes into the lake the less carrying capacity it will have. So timely dredging is a must. But these are just the symptoms, not the problem.

It is not rocket science. In order to save Dal Lake from dying we just need to stop silt, solid waste and waste water from getting into it. But the only improvement I see in the last 35 years was the construction of the Sewage Treatment Plant (STP).

I hope it (STP) is capable of removing elements like nitrogen nutrients and phosphorous from getting into the Dal Lake. These elements help weeds to grow.

Ironically the depth of Dal Lake has decreased alarmingly despite 15 years of dredging. Unless people living around the lake are not educated, nothing much is going to change. You cannot expect anything good from a corrupt system that is entrusted to save it.

So we need a Master Plan of sorts to save Dal Lake from its imminent extinction. And please make it public so that people get aware and can give feedback.

Same should apply to Wullar Lake, Jhelum River and all other water bodies. But again I say unless people are not ready to do their bit nothing can save our water bodies.

KL: How serious is LAWDA in preserving water bodies?

SH: I am told that its work is limited to demolitions. Enforcement is just one part of LAWDA but surprisingly they are only focussed on the demolition of illegal constructions as it involves money.

KL: Why nobody is talking about Brari Nambal and Anchaar Lake. They are almost extinct?

SH: These water bodies were part of the waterways system. Dal Lake is connected to Jhelum and to Anchaar, and all of these are connected to Wullar which was a big flood basin at one point of time.

But I see the government’s argument that Dal Lake is a tourist destination and it deserves attention is sham. Not so long ago Anchaar and Brari Nambal too were tourist attractions. It was amazing to have Anchaar and Brari Nambal in the middle of the city. Unfortunately, we have turned them into gutters.

Since the chance of another major flood is quite clear, we must think of all these water bodies together, as they are all connected. Dredging all these water bodies simultaneously is the need of the hour.

 KL: You mean if taken care of beforehand these water bodies would have minimized damage caused by 2014 floods?

SH: Last year’s rainfall was unprecedented. We couldn’t have stopped floods but of course, the magnitude of destruction could have been less. But if all our water bodies including Wullar had their original carrying capacity, then the water level in Srinagar would have been much less.

It is criminal that we have allowed people to build houses in flood basins. Earlier there was an option to divert water at Kandizal but now we have a huge population living there. Since the weather has become very unpredictable in the last few years we must ready ourselves for disasters. Ironically the government is in denial mode. They should start relocating people from river basins, flood channels and water bodies immediately.

I am amazed how the government has to build a railway line without any environmental impact studies. It needs to be realigned. There is no other way.

KL: You have spent more than two decades in the US. How do they respond to such natural disasters?

SH: 2005 Katrina Hurricane destroyed most of the New Orleans city; the destruction was similar to September 2014 floods of Kashmir. But they learn from such disasters and make changes accordingly. For example: before hurricane Katrina they planned for a 100-year flood, now the planning is for a 300-year flood event.

But Kashmir is a complete contrast. We have not even managed to fix the drainage system that gets chocked after every minor shower. Strangely the government is focused on macadamization of roads only.

KL: What exactly should have been done by the government?

SH: We are living in a place which is prone to natural calamities. Last time I heard Omar Abdullah saying we don’t have helicopters. But then I say we don’t have even boats which are the least things we can keep in our stock. We need to educate people beforehand rather than when they are caught in floods.

I live in Northern California which falls in a very high seismic zone. From a kindergarten student to an elderly person, everyone knows what an earthquake drill is. It is mandatory for a kid to have an earthquake kit, so when such events happen you are not left clueless.

KL: Tell us something more about how water bodies are protected in the US?

SH: These are two far ends of a spectrum. All the major rivers in the US are protected. These rivers flow through many states and a lot of population use this water for drinking. Even sewage water is treated in such a way that it is absolutely fit for drinking. People there understand that water is a precious resource so it must be used properly.

Not so long ago Kashmir used to be abundant with water resources, but now we have regular droughts etc. It means we are heading to a situation where we must find ways to preserve this precious resource. But the government is not serious.

In the US, you can drink water from a tap directly because sewage is treated to drinking water standards.

While in Kashmir we flush our bathroom/toilet water directly into Dal Lake, which is then supplied to homes through taps after treatment. But that treatment is not up to the standards. In Kashmir, drinking tap water is as good as drinking from your toilet.

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