SRINAGAR, India (REUTERS) - More than two million willow trees - once a key source of wood for cricket bats, fruit boxes and fires - will be cut down around Indian-administered Kashmir's Wular Lake, as part of efforts to revive the region's largest flood basin.
Overlooked by the Himalayas, Wular, one of Asia's biggest freshwater lakes, sits 34km north-west of Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar. Known for its deep, pristine waters, the lake has suffered extensive degradation in recent decades.
In a 2007 study, conservation group Wetlands International said the lake originally covered an area of nearly 218 sq km, including 58 sq km of marshland.
It shrank in size by 45 per cent over a century - from about 158 sq km in 1911 to 87 sq km in 2007 - as it was drained for agriculture and willow plantations, the report said.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir state now plans to remove some 2.1 million willows and 20 million cubic metres of silt from the lake in a conservation programme starting next month, which it says will also boost eco-tourism.
Willow planting began in Wular in 1924, mainly to provide firewood, and the plantation area was brought under Kashmir's forest department in the 1980s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the region's agriculture arm planted vast areas with willow as demand soared for wood to make cricket bats and fruit boxes.
But in recent years, experts have traced problems linked to heavy siltation - including less water in the lake and declining fish stocks - to the presence of the willow trees.
"These plantations act as a barrier to the silt-laden waters of the River Jhelum, forcing it to discharge its sediment load into the lake, thereby reducing its water-holding capacity," said Mr Samiullah Bhat of the University of Kashmir's Department of Environmental Science, who participated in an environmental impact assessment of willow tree removal at Wular.
Mr Irfan Rasool Wani, coordinator of the Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA), said remote sensing imagery showed willow plantations extend across an area of about 27 sq km.
The trees, combined with severe siltation where they grow, have reduced the lake's capacity by one fifth, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Taking away more than 20 million cubic metres of silt would increase the depth of lake by 3.5m, he noted.
Experts have identified some potential "short-term losses" from the planned conservation measures - which are due to cost 4.24 billion rupees (S$88 million) - such as algae blooms caused by the release of soil nutrients into the water after the trees are felled.
But the benefits should outweigh any potential negative impacts, they say.
"The overall implication would be positive, as there would be recovery of wetland resources, such as fish and aquatic vegetation in the medium to long term, and generation of labour (for willow removal) in the shorter run," said Mr Shakil Romshoo, head of the University of Kashmir's Department of Earth Sciences.
He and botanist Akhtar Malik at the same university said the operation would not affect cricket bat manufacturers, as nowadays they source wood from other parts of Kashmir.
Fruit growers, meanwhile, mostly prefer cardboard packaging, which has eased demand for willow wood in Kashmir, where apple and other fruit are grown on a large scale, Mr Malik added.
Mr Romshoo said the Wular tree removal should be done in line with scientific recommendations - when water levels are lowest, and in a way that causes minimal disturbance to soil sediment and nutrients.
The carbon stored in the cut trees should not be released by burning but kept in the wood by using it to make bats, artificial limbs and other products, he added.
Mr Romshoo said cutting down older willow trees would not make much difference to the area's ability to absorb carbon.
"Several recent research studies indicate that the net carbon sequestration rates in trees decline with maturity," he said. Most of Wular's willows are "very mature", he added.
Mr Bhat said a decrease in shade once the trees have gone could lead to increased summer water temperatures and may affect disease resistance in adult fish.
Deforested areas will need to be monitored as invasive plant species are likely to take advantage of the nutrient flushes and disturbances created by willow removal, he added.
Local people are happy about the plan to revitalise the lake, which provides their livelihoods. The Wetlands International study found that 32,000 families, including 2,300 fishing households, depended on the lake for their income.
Mr Mohammad Subhan Dar, 65, a fisherman who lives in Saderkote Payeen village on Wular's eastern shore, said people earn a living by fishing and collecting water chestnuts and fodder.
But Wular's shrinking size has become a concern for fishermen, he said. It now looks like a lake only in spring when it is filled by rain and water from the snow melt, he added.
"For the rest of the year, most of its areas stay dry. We literally have to haul our boats up because of lack of water," he said. He hopes that removing willows and silt will help restore the lake "which is now far different than it used to be in my childhood".
He and other locals have heard that tourists will be attracted to the area after higher embankments are created and the lake shores made prettier.
WUCMA coordinator Mr Wani said a 34km-long embankment will be developed into the "Wular Boulevard" to support eco-tourism activities such as bird-watching, boating on the lake and cruises.
Mr Romshoo said this would open up new income opportunities for communities around the lake.
"Tourism can change our lives for the better," said Mr Jabbar Dar, who fishes and collects water chestnuts in Wular.