by Goutham Krishna
Vembanad lake is a backwater lake situated in central Kerala Coast, covering an area of 2033 Km square and a maximum length of 96.5 Km, which makes it the longest lake in India. The lake is fed by source water from four rivers – Meenachil, Achan kovil, Pampa, and Manimala and has an outlet to the Arabian Sea in the west. The lake is separated from the Arabian sea by a narrow reef of islands, hence making it a popular backwater stretch in the country. It is also known as Punnamada Lake in the Kuttanad area and as Kochi Lake. The lake is directly or indirectly linked to the livelihood and economy of about 1.6 million people who are living on the banks of Vembanad lake. The scenic beauty of Vembanadu lake and its backwaters are major tourist spot in the country and hence is of high economic importance.
A mix of historical and mythical records suggests that the name Vembanad is derived from the ancient kingdom of Vempoli Nadu, through which the holy river Pampa was flowing. In the 12th century AD, Vempoli Nadu, along with a part of Pampa was sunk into Earth’s interior. It is believed that Vembanad lake is formed as a result of these geomorphological changes. There is a portion beneath the lake, called “Kappal Chal” which is believed as a continuation of Pampa by many of the local residents.
The lake and associated Vembanad wetlands host a rich biodiverse ecosystem having birds, fishes, aquatic vegetation, and various other life forms. A recent study conducted by experts identified 90 different fish species in the lake and surrounding ecosystem. But comparing it with the figures of the 1980s, the disappearance of 40% of species from the ecosystem was reported. Due to their high ecological importance, the Vembanad wetlands were included in the list of wetlands of international importance, defined by the Ramsar convention. It is the second-largest Ramsar site in the country and is also recognized by the Government of India under its National Wetlands Conservation Program. The people living on the shores of Vembanad are highly dependent on the lake and its ecosystem for their lives and livelihoods. The Kumarakom bird sanctuary, situated on the east coast of Vembanad lake hosts many migratory birds on a seasonal basis and is a favorite spot for birding enthusiasts.
Kuttanad, the lowest-lying geographical region of India is situated on the banks of Vembanad lake. The geographical region is well known for its paddy production and geographical peculiarities. A major part of Kuttanad is situated below sea level and is one of the rare places in the world where farming is carried on below sea level. The large paddy fields in the Kuttanad area are reclaimed from the shallow parts of Vembanad lake and the agriculture in the area is highly dependent on the water availability from Vembanad lake. Water transport through Vembanad lake is a common site in Kuttanad villages and different types of boat structures ranging from snake boats to houseboats are tourist attractions. Kochi- the biggest city and economic hub of Kerala is situated on the banks of Vembanad lake. The Willington Island in the city is an artificial construction carved out in Vembanad lake during the British regime.
The famous Nehru trophy boat race is held in Vembanad lake attracts national and international sports enthusiasts to the lake every second Saturday of the month of August. This fiercely fought boat race is named after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who inaugurated the first edition of the annual event in 1952. The Chundan vallam (Snake boat) race is the major attraction of the event and the winners of the same is awarded a trophy named after Jawaharlal Nehru. The cultural and social significance of the Nehru trophy race for the people residing near the banks of Vembanad lake is paramount, and it is considered as a festival for the lake. Apart from the Nehru trophy, various other small and large boat races are common in the lake and their importance in the cultural context of the region is unparallel.
Thanneermukkom bund and Thottapalli spillway are some other distinct features of Vembanad lake. The former is a 1252-meter-long barrier constructed across the Vembanad lake in 1974 to prevent the entry of saltwater and tidal action into the low-lying Kuttanad areas. The bund divides the lake into two parts where one is brackish due to the presence of the sea and the other is of fresh water draining from the nearby rivers. Thanneermukkom bund is key in ensuring agricultural activities in Kuttanad but on the other side, it has created ecological disturbances in the lake and its surroundings including the increasing presence of water hyacinths and the disappearance of several fishes from the freshwater part of the lake. Thottapalli spillway is another artificial construction for enhancing agricultural activities in the Kuttanad region. The spillway drains excess fresh water in the lake into the Arabian sea and thereby helps to maintain the water levels and prevent flooding in the low-lying agricultural areas. The spillway started functioning in 1955 and has a capacity to spell out 600 cubic meters of water per second.
Even though the Vembanad lake has this much ecological and social importance, unregulated human actions have resulted in posing various threats towards the lake and its surrounding ecosystem. Land encroachments for agricultural and infrastructural processes are the primary issue present in the region and it has shrunk the area of the lake into manifolds. Various resorts that were constructed in the lakeside illegally were demolished recently but still, the practice of encroachment for human greed is still ongoing. Apart from that the entry of industrial pollutants into the water, the presence of water hyacinths and weeds in the lake, etc. have resulted in a huge decline in the water quality of the lake. A recent study constituted by Cochin University of Science and Technology found that the level of contamination in lake water in premises of Kochi area is alarming due to the disposal of pollutants and garbage. Being a Ramsar site with this much socio-ecological and economic significance, Vembanad lake deserves better. Hence sustainable conservation of Vembanad lake needs to be considered as an urgent priority and long-term actions for the same need to be taken immediately at an individual, social and institutional levels.