INDIA’S DYING LAKES

Unchecked dumping of effluents and decades of neglect have led to the tragic demise of countless lakes in India

By Revati Rajwade

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WATER has played a major role in the growth of human civilisation. Ancient civilisations grew only along or around a source of water, which was required for fulfilling the basic necessity of food.

Without water, life would cease to exist. Centuries later, we are at a juncture where we will soon be grappling for our existence owing to the collateral damage done to our water bodies. Lakes have been neglected in urban and rural areas alike.

The demand for land surged in urban areas and was met not only by taking over peri-urban areas but also encroaching upon the city’s breathing spaces like green covers, ponds and lakes. The vanishing of lakes has caused loss of irrigated lands, drinking water sources as well as threatened agricultural activities, greenery and recreation activities.

Many lakes in India do not possess potable water due to the presence of water hyacinth and pollutants. Encroachments have led to a loss of flood absorbing capacity leading to the frequent phenomenon of urban floods. In rural areas, lack of knowledge led to people washing their clothes, utensils and even vehicles, and defecating in the lake.

India once boasted of hundreds of scenic lakes. However, the grim face of India’s celebrated lakes portrays human negligence and apathy. The reasons for the demise of the purity of several lakes all over the country are vast but the root cause remains the same.

For several years, a million gallons of liquid waste would slither into the Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad. Also, the damage caused by silting of solid pollutants such as zinc, lead, copper, manganese and mercury was disastrous.The lakefront has been developed, water has been treated and tourism has been boosted due to the statue of Buddha in the centre the lake, but regardless of these labours the water is heavily degraded.

The Nacharam lake of Hyderabad did not receive much and disease-carrying mosquitoes began thriving in the polluted waters. Contamination due to direct sewage outlets into the lake has led to sludge, weeds and parasite plants like hyacinth which deprive the water of oxygen, affecting marine life.

In Maharashtra, several lakes have died a slow death, one of the reasons being the ritual of immersion of Ganapati idols. The Powai in Mumbai has been taken over by hyacinths and weeds and there is hardly any water in it.

Fishermen search for offerings thrown in by worshippers in the polluted waters of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad

The mystic Dal Lake in Jammu and Kashmir has been ruined owing to houseboats and doongas (service boats) which discharge sewage and other waste into the lake. Effluents from the paper, carpet and wool industries were being let out into the lake.

The Loktak lake in Manipur is a natural treasure since it is the only one in the world with phumdis – a series of floating islands. The barrage on the Manipur river at Ethai has affected Loktak because the river is it’s only natural outflow.

The waters from the hills that enter the Loktak no longer flow out at their former rate, causing siltation. Thousands of hectares of cultivable land have also been submerged. However, the same amount of fertilisers and pesticides are used on reduced land holdings to try and maintain output.

The run-off from these fields has been polluting the lake. In addition, fishermen pour toxins to kill fish and increase catches.

The Chilika in Orissa faces a similar situation since it has shrunk to half its size owing to the heavy siltation that has choked the northern mouth of the brackish lake. There has been rampant growth of weeds since the past 13 years.

Excessive fishing and dumping of the fishing nets in the lake has drastically threatened marine life and dwindled it exponentially. The other lake in Orissa, the Ansupa, has a similar story to tell. It has suffered due to severe erosion of the catchment area and heavy exploitation of vegetation, accompanied by increased growth of hyacinth and algae.

These have been turning this large freshwater lake into a swamp. The direct impact on the ecosystem is alarming since migratory birds no longer visit the area. It can be seen how the repercussions of natural damage spreads its tentacles far and wide affecting the entire spectrum of flora and fauna.

The threat because of pollution was evident in Bengaluru last May when the Bellandur caught fire twice in three days. The lake had been polluted by effluents from detergent factories and sewage and the flames could be attributed to the oil and phosphorus on its surface. The huge amount of foam slithering onto the road and the ferocious fire proved to be a daunting sight. The city once had about 2,000 lakes, but only 60 of them remain.

Water hyacinth due to pollution

Chetan Pandit who has worked for almost four decades in the Central Water Engineering Service and retired as the member (water planning and projects) of the Central Water Commission says that it is essential to classify lakes into large and small ones since their natures are different and so are the causes of pollution.

“The Pushkar lake is land locked and has only one small opening for outflow of water,” he says. “Over the years, immersion of ashes has grossly polluted the lake. Since the water has no path to flow out the stagnant water quality is declining by the day.”

The foremost reason why small lakes in the city dry up is because the water is in no way replenished. The channelised storm water drainage in cities is not let out into the lake and the paved surfaces act as an impervious one. Hence, water sources are diverted elsewhere resulting in the lakes drying up.

It is common knowledge that the damage needs to be reversed but Pandit notes that treatment of waste water has to be managed from the general tax paid by citizens and since it incurs great expenditure, the entire process becomes unaffordable. Hence, purification of the lakes remains a dream in most cases.

However, in spite of such odds there are examples of exemplary persistence and vision coupled with a strong body of work which has resulted in changing the face of some of India’s lakes.

One such example is the transformation of the Kankaria lake in Ahmedabad. Similarly, efforts are being made in Bhopal’s Upper lake to boost the oxygen content of the water by installing aerators. The task at hand is one that will require decades of work but as they say ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’

It is the need of the hour to make sincere efforts to minimise the damage caused to lakes and try to maintain a fine balance between development and the environment.

Revati is an Architect and Interior Designer by profession and a writer by passion. She can be reached at: revati@urbanvaastu.com

FACT FILE ON INDIAN LAKES

Largest lake – Wular in Kashmir
Longest lake- Vembanand in Kerala
Highest lake – Tso Lhamo in north Sikkim at an altitude of 17,490 ft.
Largest salt water lagoon – Chilika in Orissa