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From Bangalore to Srinagar, India’s lakes are dead in the water


From Hindustan Times: The NGT has repeatedly criticised Bengaluru’s civic authorities this year for letting the city’s water bodies become toxic waste dumps. The central body could find similarly mistreated lakes in countless Indian cities, where wetlands are being lost due to urbanisation, changes in land use and pollution. What lakes have survived are shrinking.

Vikram Gopal, Hindustan Times

Thimappa, a lean 80-year-old pulling on a bidi, remembers the days when he used to swim in Bengaluru’s Subramanyapura lake. He has lived for 40 years in a two-bedroom house located on its shore.

“Back then, we used to think this was a huge lake,” said Thimappa, who uses only one name. “It was certainly very big for this area when it was still a village.” These days, however, weeds have taken root. They cover almost entire surface of the lake.

In May, Thimappa’s beloved Subramanyapura was in the news: the agitation of chemicals and sewage in the water by pre-monsoon showers and wind caused the lake to start frothing.

Bengaluru’s lakes are making headlines regularly. The Bellandur has been the site not just of frothing episodes but also of outbursts of fire. Since Independence, 19 of the city’s lakes have disappeared entirely. The National Green Tribunal has repeatedly criticised Bengaluru’s civic authorities this year for letting the city’s water bodies become, in effect, toxic waste dumps.

The central body could find similarly mistreated lakes in countless other cities in India. Multiple sorts of wetlands are being lost due to urbanisation, changes in land use and pollution. What lakes have survived are shrinking.

Rapid urbanisation in Delhi NCR, for instance, is taking its toll. The expansion of impermeable surfaces like concrete roads and pavements is preventing the recharge of groundwater aquifers and blocking the flow from water channels to lakes.

In Srinagar, a recent study conducted by the University of Kashmir found that Dal lake has lost 24.49% of its area during the last 157 years due to unregulated changes in land use and land cover.

And in Chandigarh’s Sukhna lake, silt build-up in a nearby village is choking the lake by blocking water flow. Rainfall deficits are likely to persist this year in north-west India. That would make the condition of the lake even worse.

While dying lakes are one problem, the bigger worry is the polluted water in lakes that survive.

According to a report by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, of the 67 lakes surveyed in Bengaluru, none had water that was fit for drinking. Local water conservation expert S Vishwanath said that some industrial effluents are harmful, “but it is domestic waste that we need to worry about because it forms 90 to 95 per cent of the waste that is dumped in lakes.”

Untreated sewage is also one of the worst enemies of Dal lake, experts say. Around 20 million litres of untreated sewage are drained into it daily. The lake’s popularity as a tourist destination has cost it dearly. In the absence of proper waste disposal facilities, high tourist footfall translates into high waste dumping.

Another popular tourist spot, the Naini lake in Nainital, Uttarakhand, is also under tremendous pressure. Despite the mounds of debris, roaming dogs, and smell of dead fish that hang around the lake, it is still the only local source of drinking water. The rapidly growing population of residents and tourists is depleting its supply. Earlier this month, the water level was 18.3 feet lower than normal.

“If so much water is lifted and with less or no water to recharge the lake, we lose almost 3 to 4 centimetres of water level every day,” said Ajay Rawat, an environmentalist based in Nainital.

Tourists may arrive, complain, and leave, but residents have to live with the effects of pollution and mismanagement on their local water bodies. “The stench that emanates from this lake affects all of us every minute we are in this area,” said BS Basavaraj, a longtime resident of Subramanyapura in Bengaluru.

Thimappa says every time he thinks about the lake or even looks at it, he seethes in anger. “I can see the culprits right across the lake, living happy lives, unable to imagine the impact they have had on this area and how they have destroyed our lake.”

Apartment complexes that have come up in the past decade are lined up across the bund of the lake. Between 2001 and 2011, the city’s population increased from 6.5 million to 9.6 million, the highest rate of growth of any city in India.

According to Vishwanath, no place could deal with such a surge in population. But he also said that this did not absolve the Bengaluru real estate developers who flouted rules. “One of the ways that was done, we now know, was by directing the untreated domestic waste from these apartment complexes directly into lakes,” he said.

Vishwanath emphasized that the focus of reform efforts should not be on the appearance of the city’s lakes so much as on building up wetlands and improving the health of the whole surrounding environment.

“Unlike in Switzerland, we will not have crystal clear water in these lakes, and it is not desirable either,” he said. “We cannot keep looking at the water in lakes in isolation. If we do concentrate on wetlands, we will be able to ensure recharge of groundwater, which will then help with the ecosystem.”

(With inputs from Abhishek Saha in Srinagar, Anupam Trivedi in Nainital, Manon Verchot in Chandigarh and Prabhu Razdan in Faridabad)

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