A dazzling spectacle gone for ever

April 21, 2024

Uchhali Lake, which once attracted loads of migratory birds, is decaying, dying and drying up

Photos by Syed Hasnain Raza
Photos by Syed Hasnain Raza


chhali Lake looks nothing like the description one might find on Google. The water has receded dramatically. Only dim light reflects off its surface at night, a far cry from the once dazzling reflections of the moon and stars that drew many visitors to its shores.

A fee is now charged even to access the water, purportedly to promote tourism. Moreover, the birds that once flocked here have vanished.

Muhammad Nauman Awan, a public relations officer at the International Islamic University Islamabad, has brought me to the rooftop of a mosque in his village, Chitta, which overlooks the lake. The village is situated at the base of Mount Sakesar, facing the shrinking lake.

A dazzling spectacle gone for ever

The most popular approach to this place is Khushab Road from Chakwal. However, due to the ongoing deterioration of the roads in the area, it’s best to avoid this route these days. Still, the sheer beauty of the Salt Range might tempt one to endure the poor roads time and again.

After Bhone, Kallar Kahar is the main attraction on this route, but the lake at Kallar Kahar is also showing signs of neglect.

To fully grasp the situation, it’s important to understand the region’s network of lakes and view the issues from a broad perspective.

Chakwal and Khushab are two districts situated between the River Indus at Attock and the River Jhelum in Jhelum district. This region constitutes a major part of Pothwar. Due to water shortages, large tracts of land on both sides of the roads lie barren.

A dazzling spectacle gone for ever

When it rains, water flows through rough terrain to the lakes. Drinking tea by these lakes on winter nights is a special experience. In the morning, you might even see some of the water frozen.

A former deputy commissioner of Chakwal, Abdussattar Esani, worked hard to protect this feature of the area. After dealing with a lot of red tape, he managed to get Chakwal officially recognised as the only Lake district in the Punjab.

The lakes in Khushab attract attention from around the world, but no official has taken any steps to preserve these lakes.

The birds that were drawn to it no longer come here. Wild animals in the area have migrated to safer places. It seems that they cannot coexist with its new inhabitants.

This lack of interest has led to climate change and wildlife disasters. Due to the recent floods, Pakistan has gained attention at international forums seeking climate action.

Despite all the talk about climate change at these forums, the country has not managed to get its affairs in order. This year’s report from Transparency International has clearly stated that the government still needs to take necessary actions to deserve climate-related investment.

A dazzling spectacle gone for ever

Preserving lakes and wetlands is one of the necessary steps the country has not taken. This neglect contributes to wildlife disasters. It’s odd that although our universities produce quality PhDs in wildlife with a strong background in problem-solving, unqualified people often lead the wildlife management boards.

Due to the absence of professionals in decision-making positions, this internationally recognised lake has become a deathbed for white-headed ducks that travel thousands of miles from Siberia to Uchhali Lake in Khushab.

Awan tells me that the lake used to be covered with these ducks. Data shows that their numbers plummeted from 100,000 in the 1980s to about 20,000 in 2019.

Not only the migratory birds but also the wild animals of the area are gone. “Deer, wild boars, jackals, foxes and other animals used to abound in our village. Now, we do not see them,” says Awan.

Much of the land has been divided among retired and serving officials from various departments. Many of the settlers have arrived in the guise of farming.

The nearby deserts of Thal and Cholistan have also been parcelled out to people from other parts of the country. Blinded by the desire to cultivate crops, few acknowledge that vital water resources like Uchhali Lake are being depleted.

Lush green farms have sprung up from Khushab to Joharabad, a city once considered for the capital before Islamabad was chosen. From Joharabad, a roads lead to Mianwali and Jhang in different directions. Unlike Uchhali, there are no lakes in these areas.

A dazzling spectacle gone for ever

The main road in Khushab is lined with Dhodha shops. Dhodha is a traditional sweet made here. Every shop has a sign claiming to sell the authentic version. Alongside the road, there is a large car bazaar where people from distant areas come to buy used cars.

The city is full of historic buildings and was home to a vibrant Sikh population until Partition. The writer Khushwant Singh was born here.

When visa restrictions were not as strict as they are now, large numbers of Sikhs from India would visit. Some locals still remember their Sikh neighbours. Syed Wajeeh Kazmi, a correspondent for the state-run TV in Chakwal, recalls that an elderly shopkeeper in Delhi wept and hugged him warmly when he mentioned that he was from Chakwal. The shopkeeper was also originally from Chakwal.

The former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Chakwal to see his house when he came to Pakistan. However, like Uchhali Lake, all these historic places are in a state of neglect.

Bureaucrats drive in and out of the area in their SUVs, using sirens as part of their movement protocol. Influential politicians invite friends for hunting. People with appropriate connections distribute land among themselves for farming. But the lake, which once attracted all of them, is decaying, dying and drying up.

The birds that were drawn to it no longer come here. The wild animals of this area have migrated to safer places. It seems that they cannot coexist with its new inhabitants.

The writer teaches data journalism and public diplomacy at the IIUI

A dazzling spectacle gone for ever