Bandipora, Indian-administered Kashmir – Surrounded by the majestic Himalayas, Lake Wullar in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Bandipora district is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes.
The lake that produces varieties of fish, water chestnuts and fodder besides serving as a habitat for migratory waterbirds, provides livelihood to nearly 32,000 households in the 40 villages surrounding it for generations.
Shortly after midnight, Kashmiri fisherwomen, dependent on the lake for survival, leave in rows of boats to fish and collect chestnuts.
But they have reasons to worry now as the lake’s condition deteriorates steadily due to growing pollution in the area, causing many varieties of fish to disappear.
Hajra Begum, 45, a fisherwoman in Lankeshpora village, leaves home when most of her family members are asleep and rows for hours in the lake.
Until a few years ago, her hard work would fetch her a boat full of chestnuts and kilograms of fish, helping her livelihood. But she says the quantity of both has drastically dwindled, causing her distress.
“Our future is uncertain because the lake is helpless. If it dies, we will die with it,” she told Al Jazeera. “We are in grief because the source of our livelihood is in a terrible condition. We are affected both physically and mentally.”
The job of the fisherwomen is not easy. Many complain of various ailments, including mouth ulcers, blistering, fungal infections and body ache due to long hours of fishing in the lake. They also suffer harsh sunburn and melasma.
“My hands swell and I often get skin rashes and fungal infection,” Hajra said.
Her three daughters are school dropouts and help her in her work and selling the produce in the market.
“We will not have food on the table if we don’t go out. We just want this lake to be protected so that our livelihood is saved,” she said.
Large parts of the lake are covered with silt, polyethene and other solid waste.
A 2018 study by Agro Economist, an international science journal, said in the last 100 years, the lake has shrunk by 45 percent from 157.74 square kilometres (60.9 square miles) in 1911 to 86.71 square kilometres (33.48 square miles) in 2007.
While some varieties of fish have disappeared over the years, many others, experts say, are endangered.
“Earlier, we earned well. A day would mean a good quantity of fish and chestnuts. But we are in 70 percent loss now as fish and chestnuts have declined with all the waste like polythene and drainage waste being thrown into it. We feel sad and devastated,” fisherwoman Ayesha Begum told Al Jazeera.
The dwindling catch has led the fisherwomen to look for another job. But many say their old age makes it hard to find work.
Fisherfolk say the lake, being the largest flood basin in the region. also saves them from flooding. Studies show the future of the freshwater body is at stake as large parts of it have been converted into agricultural land.
There have been illegal constructions and plantation of trees inside the lake, causing massive siltation and reduction in its water-holding capacity.