The 73-km-long Lidder river runs through south Kashmir’s Pahalgam town and is a lifeline for 2,659 households. A population of over18,000 have stopped using the river water for consumption because of high-level pollution ever since yatra started last month.
Every morning, a row of pilgrims can be seen on the banks of the river near the Nunwan base camp to ease themselves. Mostly unregistered pilgrims, not allowed to put up at the base camps, halt vehicles on the river banks and defecate and urinate in the river. Pilgrims also stop at Sheshnag, 28 km from Nunwan, for a night before proceeding for the cave.
Of the six lakh pilgrims who visited the shrine so far, around 1.5 lakh were unregistered. The health department confirmed to the Hindustan Times that one pilgrim died of gastroenteritis, caused by contaminated water.
“For several years now, people started falling sick during the yatra period. After an awareness campaign, most people in the town and villages around stopped using the water for consumption or cooking,” said Reyaz Ahmad, a hotel owner and a social worker. Locals said the water is used a month after the yatra ends "to allow pollution to go with gushing water".
The main source of pollution is open toilets near water tributaries contributing to the river water. Unawareness among the pilgrims not to use river Lidder for urination and defecation is further polluting river water. Besides, there are
also heaps of polythene, a banned item, and bottles at several places on the trek.
Horses that die while trekking pilgrims to the cave are another source of pollution. The Amarnath cave is 13,000 feet high and pilgrims trek 30 km from Chandanwari camp, where motorable road ends, either by horses or palanquin.
“Several horses near Sheshnag (a pilgrim stopover with glacier around) slipped into several hundred feet deep gorge into water sources. It’s difficult to bring them back,” said Jabar Malik, who too lost his mule during the yatra.
More than 15,000-feet high Kolohai glaciers and smaller glaciers like one at Sheshnag are sources of water for Lidder river.
The shrine board, which has set up hundreds of lavatories at base camp and on the trekking route, denies any unhygienic conditions.
“Every night tonnes of disinfectants are sprayed at base camps. We do not compromise with hygiene,” said Chandanwari base-camp director Tilak Raj Thapa.
Thapa said a trench has been made available for dead horses. “Corpses are sprayed with chemicals and then dumped immediately,” said Thapa.
The Supreme Court earlier this month described Pahalgam as “a very sensitive place from the environmental point of view” and its committee has secretaries of Environment and Forest as members to look into the environmental issued. The SC committee will visit Pahalgam in second week of August to review the entire pilgrimage exercise.
Meanwhile, shrine board chairman N.N. Vohra has asked Centre for Science and Environment director Sunita Narain to visit the cave next week and advice on fragile environmental issues.