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Harike Wetland

Harike Wetland is the largest wetland in Punjab state, northern India. Situated on the confluence of the river Beas and Sutlej, the wetland encompasses an area of approximately 86km2. Declared a Ramsar site in 1990 and a Wild Life Sanctuary in 1999, Harike Wetland offers a sanctuary a vast array of species.

A bird watchers paradise, Harike Wetland attracts thousands of migratory birds, offering a refuge, during the winter months – some even as far off as Siberia and the Arctic. During peak migratory season, almost 45,000 ducks are regularly been recorded, and the water body is particularly famous for diving ducks, such as the crested pochard and tufted ducks, which congregate at the water’s edge. Moreover, the wetland is inhibited by a number of rare and vulnerable fauna, such as the testudines turtle and smooth-coated otter. The smooth-coated otter, characterised by a very smooth coat, is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Smooth-coated otter. Source: WWF India

Additionally, the Indus dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor), which was supposed to have become extinct in India after 1930, was spotted in the Beas River in Harike wetland area. Indus river dolphins are believed to have originated in the ancient Tethys Sea. When the sea dried up approximately 50 million years ago, the dolphins were forced to adapt to its only remaining habitat—rivers. These endangered fresh-water dolphins are one of the World’s rarest aquatic mammal living in fresh waters. In 2016, there were estimated to be between 18 and 35 Indus dolphins in the Beas River above Harike Barrage. During periods of low flow, they have been observed to move downstream into the head pond above the barrage which includes the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary.

Indus river dolphins. Source: WWF

However, on 27th March 2017, the flow of the Beas River was virtually stopped in order to allow maintenance works to the barrage and canal gates; this caused the river flow to drastically drop. As a result, many aquatic animals perished. An extensive search was made for the resident river dolphins, but only 4 were located. This sad situation demonstrates the vulnerability of river dolphins that today live only in heavily managed rivers and that the needs of wildlife must be considered in the management of rivers and barrages.

Additionally, a 2015 study highlighted that Harike wetland receives large quantities of untreated industrial effluents from surrounding cities. Along the banks of the river Sutlej stand any number of industrial factories including cement factories, paint manufacturers, pesticide factories, and tanneries, all with their own pollutants, and discharging polluted water in the river and ultimately into the Harike wetland. The studies analysis of the wetland’s water quality revealed high concentrations of lead, chromium, copper, zinc, cadmium, and other heavy metals; levels which, by international standards, make the water unfit for drinking and irrigation, but also harmful for the residing aquatic animals.

For example, a gharial was found dead in the Harike wetland, with the suspected cause of death being polluted water. Gharials are a critically endangered species which have seen an over 80% drop in their population in the last decade.

Gharial. Source: Wikipedia

Harike Wetlands offers a sanctuary for many rare and incredible species. All of whom remains in peril if we remain unable to alter our relationship with the natural world.

Featured

The fascinating story of Nainital lake

Nainital lake, a prominent tourist destination in the hill station of Nainital is spread over a perimeter of 2 miles and is situated at an altitude of 6,358 feet. The lake is further divided into two parts- Mallital( Northern half) and Tallital(Southern half). As of the 2011 survey, the total population of Nainital is about 41,000 with the lake being the principal source of water for many households.

Source – Vedha P

When Nainital was first discovered by P. Barron in 1839 he was enchanted by its scenic beauty and soon settled there. Shortly it became an important administrative point and summer capital of the colonial government. The British developed this region very strategically building drains, locally known as ‘Nalas’ which brought water in and out the lake. The major catchment area for the water body is ‘Sukhatal‘, another lake located some kilometers away.

While interviewing Mrs Latika, a citizen of Nainital and a women scientist working with DST(Department of science and technology) along with the foundation ‘Jagrati’ she disclosed to me the possible reasons for the degradation of the lake over the years

Source- Vedha P

Since the early 1900’s , Nainital has been attracting many tourists because of its climate and scenic beauty. As tourism has increased, construction has also escalated immensely causing blockage in the Nalas, contamination of potable lake water and overall degradation of the ecosystem. Many houses direct their sewage water into the canals which eventually drain into the lake. Idols of god are immersed into the water after the annual festival thus discharging large amounts of mercury . Water is being pumped out from Sukhatal lake(the catchment area) to ease construction there. These issues have consequently led to harsh effects on the biodiversity and the quality of water in the lake.

Over-exploitation of water resources threatening Nainital's ecology -  dehradun - Hindustan Times
Source https://www.hindustantimes.com/

To tackle these challenges, some measures have been taken. Recently a machine was supplied by the UNDP(United Nations Development Program) which can automatically check the BOD and COD of the water and experts have verified that it can help monitor the condition of the lake. Huge funds have also been coming in to supplement the revival process.

Source- Vedha P

Even though these steps have been taken, locals have to be educated and awareness has to be spread among tourists to keep the lake alive. Only through spreading awareness will the lake be 100% effluent free .

Featured

A Tree

Guest Contribution by Nehchaldeep Kaur, 8th standard student


A tree provides us many things,
So that we can effortlessly live.
A tree is main part of life,
It preserve us from rain and sunlight,
It give us oxygen and takes away carbondioxide.
Deforestation is on large scale,
Please do some efforts to protect it,
Protection of trees means protection of life.
If you cut a tree, you kill a life.
Save more and more trees,
So that we can live pollution free.

Featured

Melting Water: Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve

Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve is located in one of the remotest regions of India, situated within the dramatic landscape of the Himalayan Mountains in the state of Uttarakhand. Encompassing the core areas of Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2005. Due to its inaccessibility, it does not face the traditional problems of pollution which are typically discussed in this blog – but that does not mean it is untroubled.

In September 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Forests announced that the glaciers in the Rishikesh catchment area of this World Heritage Site are depleting fast due to long-term increases in temperature stemming from climate change. In fact, satellite data reveals that in 1980, over 243km2 of the Rishikesh catchment area was covered in snow, but that in 2017 this had reduced to 217km2, revealing a 10% reduction over 37 years.

Reduction in glaciers 1980-2017. Source: ANI / Devdiscourse

The contribution of glacier meltwater to river flow cannot be sustained over long periods of glacier shrinkage which means the sustainability of river flow in south-east Asia will soon be at risk. There is a growing realisation that environmental changes that are occurring in the Himalayan mountains – the water tower of Asia – threaten to undermine the security and wellbeing of a South Asian population.  These melting glaciers are the source of mighty rivers such as the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, which hundreds of millions of people depend on for their daily needs and survival.

As always, humans are not the only species at adverse risk to a changing climate. The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve has an extraordinarily large altitudinal range (1,800 to 7,817m), resulting in a unique topography and biogeographical locations which give rise to a number of diverse and interesting habitats, including reserve forests, evam soyam (civil) forests, panchayat (community) forests, agricultural land, grassy slopes, alpine meadows and snow covered areas.

Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Source: UNESCO

As a result, there are many ecosystems, and many ecologically and economically important species. For example, approximately 1000 plant species including lichens, fungi, bryophytes and pteridophytes have been recorded. The inhabitants of the Pindari, Lata-Tolma-Malari, and the Valley of Flowers areas use over 220 of these species for various purposes including medicine and food.

 Moreover, the percentage of native and endemic species is particularly high. Over 55% of the species are native to Himalaya, over 10 are endemic and 225 are near endemic. Seven endangered mammal species also find refuge in the area such as the snow leopard (Panthera unica), Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger), brown bear (Ursus arctos), musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) and bharal/blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur).

As the planet warms, these beautiful and important species also find themselves in grave danger.

Snow leopard. Source: Wikipedia
Himalayan Black Bear. Source: The Mysterious World

This is not the usual story of the need to clean up water bodies, but of the need to alter our behaviours on a global scale, reducing emissions before the most incredible habitats and water sources are lost to climate change forever.

Featured

Air pollution: A harmful effect to environment

Guest Contribution by Nehchaldeep Kaur, 8th standard student

One of the greatest problems that the world is facing today is that environmental pollution. The action of making air, water etc. dirty and dangerous is known as pollution. Air pollution is one of the types of pollution. The contamination of air by harmful toxic gases, smoke and dust etc., is called air pollution. Air pollution causes damages to crops, animals, forests and water bodies. It also causes depletion of ozone layer which protects our Earth from Ultra-Violet rays.

Discoloring of the white marble of the Taj Mahal is due to air pollution. Burning of fossil fuels, transportation, open burning of garbage waste and deforestation are some of the causes of air pollution. There are respiratory problems and lung diseases due to air pollution. There are 4.2 million deaths linked due to air pollution globally. 318 animals became extinct due to air pollution.

Some ways to control air pollution are:
•by planting trees.
•by using better technology to control the level of pollutants in the emission.
•by replacing wood, coal and kerosene with LPG for domestic use.
• by improving the quality of fuels in automobiles and using catalytic converters  in them. The use of CNG in automobiles has reduced the air pollution in our metro cities considerably.

Volunteer for India and her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind

Featured

The silent serenity of Chilika lake

Source-Democratic Accent

Recognized as the largest estuarine lake in Asia, the Chilika lake never fails to infatuate tourists. It is located in the eminent district of Puri in Orissa and is approximately 37 kilometers from the Jagannath Temple. Along with housing the world’s only freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins it’s also a bird watcher’s paradise as migratory birds from Mongolia, Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and other parts of central Asia nest here during the winter. 

Source-trawell.in

Geography:

The lake is divided into various islands- Southern, Central, Northern, and Outer channel. The major river systems that drain into it are Daya and Bhargavi along with the Bay of Bengal that also contributes to its partial salinity and brackish character. The Bay of Bengal flows into the lake at high tide through a 35-km-long, narrow, zigzag channel, the Magarmukh which is situated in the northern zone.

Top view of Chilika lake

Source-Nasa earth observatory 

Fauna:

Chilika lake is a biodiversity hotspot with over 200+ species of fish the most common being- Milkfish, Indo-pacific Tarpon, and Wallago Attu. It is also the home to the freshwater blind dolphin which is listed endangered by IUCN(International Union for Conservation of Nature) .Aquatic Birds, Waddlers, and land birds are the major categories of birds under which – White-breasted kingfisher, painted stork, black-winged stilt, common sandpiper, and bed wattled lapwing are some of the prominent species.

White breasted kingfisher

Source:Naturescapes.net

Irrawaddy Dolphins

Source-Conservation India

Threats to wildlife and protection of species

Recently due to an increase in aquaculture, depletion of resources, overfishing, and poaching of migratory birds , the biodiversity of Chilika has been threatened. The large scale construction of ‘fish ponds’ and excavation work carried out in villages located on the shores of Chilika Lake has posed extreme challenges to the flora and fauna as well. The government of Orissa along with the State environment department and the Chilika Development authority are engaged in making sure the fauna of the lake is not exploited.

The panoramic view, uncommon wildlife, and silent serenity of Chilika lake will captivate you. If you are a nature lover this place should definitely be on your bucket list.

Beautiful sunset at the lake

Source-Telegraph India

 

Featured

Microplastic Pollution

By Lucy Gibson

We know that plastic is devastating wildlife and intoxicating our water bodies, but until recently we have known little about the impact the plastic system is having on people.

Microplastics are non-biodegradable pieces of plastic which measure less than 5mm. These tiny pieces of plastic are causing havoc in our environments and ecosystems. As of yet, their effects have not caused substantial harm to humans, disincentivising action; however, a 2017 study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that annually 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics enters ocean water. Microplastics have been identified in oceans across the world, as well as lakes in India, such as Vembanad Lake in Kerala, the subject of a previous article here at lakesofindia.com  

The unchecked disposal of plastic on such a large scale is causing an enormous negative impact on wildlife and even humans from marine environment pollution as we shall learn.

Microplastics. Source: India Today

There are two categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are tiny particles designed for commercial use, such as cosmetics.

Plastic microbeads are in fact used in a number of personal care products such as exfoliating shower gels, toothpaste and make-up. A study by the Dehli-based NGO Toxic Links in March 2018, found that microplastics were present in 50% of face wash products and over 30% of toothpaste products readily available on the Indian market. Due to their size, these microbeads are  too tiny to be filtered by water treatment plants, some research also suggests that some manufacturers even deliberately use microplastics to increase the volume and weight of a product. There is no law which prevents the use of microplastics in products. Health hazards posed by microplastics are further aggravated by the fact that items such as toothpaste, face wash or soap are used regularly and unavoidable.

Toothpaste. Source: India Today

Fleece and synthetic clothing also shed microplastics into the water with each wash and are a primary microplastic. In fact, a fleece jacket sheds about 2,000 pieces of plastic per wash. Wastewater treatment plants do not have the ability to screen these tiny pieces. The result is that they end up in the discharged water.

Secondary microplastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles.

Over 80% of the waste generated on land finds its way into oceans; plastic forms a major part of the waste. In India today more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste is produced daily, of which 10,000 tonnes goes to landfill.

Plastic pollution. Source: Swachh India

But plastic does not biodegrade, all it does is keeps breaking down into smaller pieces with the effects of water and sun making it harder and harder to spot. The tiny particles are then consumed by marine wildlife and indirectly, even by seafood eating humans. In fact, people could actually be ingesting approximately 5 grams of microplastic every week – this is the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic!

When microplastics enter the food chain and ecosystem, it can disbalance the entire structure. Chemical toxins such as DDT and BPA from factory effluents and other sources stick to the microplastics floating around in the ocean and enter the digestive system when they are consumed risking a number of health conditions.

Plastic is everywhere.

But in many ways, India is leading in the fight against plastic pollution. Here are a few examples:

  • The state of Maharashtra has banned almost all kinds of plastic pollution from plastic bags, to single use plastics like spoons, straws, and plates for packaging food;
  • The National Green Tribunal directed a ban on disposable plastics in Delhi.
  • As part of Kerala’s Haritha Keralam Green Protocol mission since 2014, various steps have been taken to ensure that neither plastic is used nor waste is generated during different festivals. In fact, Green Protocol has gone so big that a village in Kannur, India’s first plastic free district, decided to give marriage certificates only if green protocol is followed.

There are also a few things we can do to avoid microplastic pollution:

1. Don’t litter and pick up all the waste that you see on beach and on the banks of water bodies. Take part in clean-up programmes.

2. Avoid buying and using products with microbeads. Look for the words like ‘polythylene’ or ‘polysterene’ on the ingredient label.

3. Reduce use of plastic bags and opt for reusable bags made from biodegradable materials.

4. Wash fleece and other synthetic products less often to avoid the synthetic fibres polluting the water. Products such as Guppyfriend Washing Bags collect the microfibers released from washing clothes ensuring they can be disposed of safely.

We must find ways to adapt our behaviours for the sake of our waterbodies, wildlife, and our health

Featured

Neknampur Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Neknampur Lake, in Hyderabad, was previously a rubbish dump. Spread over 108 acres, this 450-year old water body had often made the headlines for its continued pollution. A weed-choked mixture of chemical pollutants and domestic sewage from the increasing numbers of housing that cropped up around the lake’s edge.

Now, although it may be mistaken that water hyacinth has consumed Neknampur Lake, this could not be further from the truth.

Neknampur Lake. Source: Telangana Today

A closer look reveals that floating gently on the water’s surface there are a number of artificial ‘structures’ each covered in a meticulous selection of plants and joined together to form an island.

The island is, in fact, a “floating treatment wetland” that was released into Neknampur Lake in 2016 by Madhulika Choudhary and the NGO Dhruvansh who incorporated phytoremediation techniques into their restoration plans. This was achieved with supervision and support from the State Irrigation Department, Rangareddy District Collector, Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority, Telangana State Pollution Control Board, Telangana Fisheries Department and the Telangana State Biodiversity Board.

Pre-released floating island. Source: Telangana Today

The island structure is simple, but effective. With thermocol on all four sides with plastic bottles attached to ensure that they remain afloat, a plastic mesh, a gunny bag placed on the top, and followed by a layer of gravel in which aquatic plants known to absorb pollutants are planted. For example, vetivers, canna, bulrush, lemon grass, fountain grass, lillies, khus, and other flowering plants. Mosquito repelling plants, such as citronella were also planted. Once floating, the plants grow and their roots reach into the water absorbing pollutants like phosphate and nitrates, cleaning the lake. Such hydroponics systems allow plants to grow only in sunlight and water.

Each 10ftx10ft raft, of which there are 27, are joined together to form an island which spreads across over 2,500ft2 of the lake. In total, the island is covered by approximately 3,500 saplings which break down and consume harmful nutrients and organic matter in the water through microbial decomposition.

Island made of 27 rafts on Neknampur Lake. Source: Madhulika Choudhary / The News Minute

An additional problem has also been that cement debris and rubbish were commonly found to be dumped alongside the water’s edge, threatening the homes of pythons and monitor lizards. In response, Dhruvansh, along with the Irrigation Department, established a barricade on the bund. Fencing, walking tails and cycle tracks have also been proposed, to transform the lake into a public recreation site.

Far cheaper than sewage treatment plants, these floating islands demonstrate that sometimes restoration efforts don’t need a big budget to be effective. In fact, recent analysis of water samples collected from the lake show that, thanks to the floating island, water quality has improved significantly. According to the latest data collected by the Telangana State Pollution Control Board, the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) at the outlet of the lake had decreased from 27mg/L to 3.8mg/L in only 5 months.

Biodiversity is also on the rise. Conservationists have found bird nests and eggs belonging to Whistling ducks, herons, and geese, as well as new turtles. Moreover, when the floating island was brought to shore for maintenance a young python was spotted on the island! The lake is now home to 132 species of flora, 178 species of birds, 12 species of mammals, 21 species of reptiles, and 20,000 fish.

Projects such as this highlight the potentials of such a replicable model of bio-remediation. That nature, when allowed, can take care of itself.

Featured

Water: A Natural Resource

Poem by Nehchaldeep Kaur, 8th standard student (Woodstock Public School, Punjab)

Water is our life,
If we will not save it,
then we will not be alive.
People throw too much garbage in lakes, ponds, rivers and oceans.
It creates so much pollution.
If there will be pollution in water recourses
How aquatic animals will live there?
All we need is to care,
If aquatic animals will not be there,
no balance in nature will be maintained.
Water is present in rivers, ponds, lakes and oceans,
In humans, there will be dehydration.
So conserve water, conserve life.
If water will be not there,
we will not be alive.


Got a story or a poem about India’s waterbodies? Send it to lakesofindia@gmail.com, and we’ll share it with the world!

Volunteer for India and her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind

Featured

Achieving Food Security by Reducing Food Loss and Waste

Food Loss and Waste refers to food not consumed by people and is either lost or wasted somewhere in the food supply chain between being ready for harvest and used-up as consumed food.

A few startling facts to begin with :
  • Around 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally per year amounting to $940 billion of economic losses ( approximately INR 70 Lakh Crores).
  • One in nine people remain undernourished.
  • Food that is harvested but ultimately lost or wasted consumes about 25% of all water used by agriculture every year.
  • Food Loss and Waste contributes to an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions(GHG) responsible for global warming.
Where does maximum Food Loss and Waste occur in India ?

The food supply chain has several stages such as agricultural production, handling and storage , processing and packaging , distribution and marketing and finally consumption.

Hard to believe but maximum food loss happens during harvest in several forms such as grain left behind by poor harvesting equipment , sieving, threshing remains , fruits and vegetables not harvested , discarded fish/meat or natural disasters damaging the yield.

During handling and storage, food gets spoilt by pests, fungus , moisture and/or disease . During processing and packaging spillage of milk, damaged fish , fruits and vegetables unsuitable for processing etc. , get wasted.

At the time of distribution, fruit and vegetables are discarded for looking ‘imperfect’ as supermarkets demand ‘fresh and attractive look’ for fresh products, food that has expired(not sold by sell-by date) and failure to meet food compliance and safety standards (example high pesticides or fertilizer content).

And finally, a lot of food that is purchased by us (consumers) , restaurants , caterers etc. are not eaten and wasted.

What foods are prone to more wastage ?

Cereals take the top spot with wheat, rice, millets being the dominant group contributing to loss .

In the roots and tubers category : potatoes , sweet potatoes , cassava (called Maravalli Kizhangu in Tamil, Kappa in Malayalam, Kavva pendalam in Telugu, Mara Genasu in Kannada and Simla Aloo in Hindi) suffer maximum loss.

Despite meat being a relatively low contributor to global food wastage in terms of volumes (less than 5% of total food wastage) it has a significant impact on climate change, contributing to over 20% of the carbon footprint of total food waste . Efforts to reduce food wastage should focus on major climate hotspot commodities, such as meat and cereals .

And why have countries not taken drastic steps to reduce food wastage ?

In India and other developing countries , costs to setup cold storage units for reducing food waste is so high that project becomes unviable or loss making. Entrepreneurs and Government agencies do not want to invest as initial costs are high and immediate short-term benefits are low.

We should also consider non-financial reasons of reducing Food Loss and Waste such as enhanced food security for our people, better waste regulations, sense of social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Governments must look at the benefit-cost ratio as a generational investment and not as a short-term return on investment.

An Interesting Example of Innovation :

The Apeel Science company has developed sprays of thin oils to coat fruits and vegetables from organic sources. These sprays originally extracted from plants such as banana leaves and peels have extended shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 30 days or more. It helps hold in water, which prevents vegetables and fruits from shriveling and controls the exchange of gases between the interior of the fruit or vegetable and the atmosphere, particularly oxygen and ethylene, to slow decay. Finally, it also blocks the ability of bacteria to spoil the food. Because this method works without refrigeration, it offers great potential benefits in countries like India with limited refrigeration.

Next Steps :

Improving food production and supply chains by having better infrastructure in cold storage , handling , efficient order forecasting and factory processes is the first big saving. Though there is no single answer to this problem, we can approach this from multiple angles such as government policies, targeted technology , consumer mindset and set realistic targets to reduce food loss and measure them continuously.

As a food consumer, how can we be socially responsible when it comes to food waste ?

Here are some thoughts :

  • Understand the massive food poverty that exists today and try move away from a careless attitude of those who can afford the food but waste them.
  • Public awareness. Spread the word, educate those around you and participate in consumer education initiatives at schools and government levels.
  • Try and reduce portion sizes of what you eat as well as what you cook. Consider starting to eat food on a clean plate and ending your food on an empty plate. Not only will this improve your cooking skills , it will also give you the satisfaction of helping create a brighter future for all.
  • Buy ‘imperfect’ looking foods . Fruits and vegetables with irregular shape, cleft or blemish may fall below high cosmetic standards , but having an aesthetic defect is not a reason for not buying or throwing away food.
  • Wasted food lands up as garbage in landfills and that is a staggering 17% contributor to methane/Green House Gas(GHG)emissions . Implement composting options at home and in the community around you.
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Chennai’s Water Struggles

By Lucy Gibson

Water is key to life. Cities and towns were formed because of access to it and we humans cannot live without it.

But India is running out of water.

As of June 2019, the Central Water Commission reported that 65% of India’s reservoirs were dry. About 40 percent of India’s population, including 21 cities will have no access to drinking water by 2030 according to a report by thinktank NITI Aayog. One of which is Chennai, home to over 10 million people.

Chennai has struggled with water for years. Either there’s not enough rain, or there’s way too much. But the problem is not just one of nature’s quirks. Rapid urbanisation has swallowed up lakes and fields. Land is too expensive, apparently, to be left alone.

Between 1980 and 2010, heavy construction in the city meant that area covered by buildings increased from 47 to 402km2 while wetland areas declined from 186 to 71.5km2. The IT Corridor (a road which houses a large number of IT companies in the city), for example, was built on  Pallikaranai marshlands and the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam (the city’s largest drinking water tank) converted into an automotive special economic zone (SEZ).

Satellite surveys reveal what has become of Chennai’s main rain-fed reservoir Lake Puzhal. What resembled a dark blue ink-stain in 2018, was, a year later a small grey shadow of its former self.

Puzhal reservoir in Chennai, India before the drought and in its current state. Source: Independent

In 2019, Chembarambakkam Lake also ran dry; it had never dried up fully in the last 25 years. During the droughts, Chembarambakkam Lake was a cracked, windswept mud flat. The massive pipe that was supposed to carry water into the city was empty. As mentioned, the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam converted into an automotive SEZ. The factories use rain and groundwater for cooling machinery, washing vehicles, and mixing with paint. Water that would otherwise flow into the reservoir.

With reservoirs parched, water must be found from somewhere. Chennai’s richer residents and businesses had water trucked in from nearby states. But anyone else, those who could not afford these deliveries were forced to find, and wait with buckets, for rationed amounts from state water trucks.

Women use a hand-pump to collect water at an apartment complex whose buildings are not connected to a central water supply in the OMR district of Chennai. Source: New York Times.

And climate change is coming into play.

11 of the warmest years on record, since record-keeping began in 1901, have all occurred since 2004. Maximum temperatures have on average gone up by 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1950. With this, the frequency of heatwaves is increasing, and monsoon rains delayed, leaving millions of people without water. Environment experts note that Chennai is an example of how a situation, exacerbated by climate change, can morph into a climate emergency. A crisis that is becoming more and more frequent in today’s megacities.

Climate change is happening, there is no doubt about that. But so is mismanagement; all across the world. We cannot hide from this.

Chennai was blessed with beautiful reservoirs, lakes, and ponds. But they have been encroached by urbanisation and clogged up by silt.  The city’s watershed areas have been neglected. Reservoirs need regular desilting and more storage areas (making use of existing ponds and tanks) need to be established. Unchecked urban growth, a lack of reservoir maintenance, and overextraction of groundwater by public authorities and private landowners through bore wells. 

Water catchment areas are vanishing, and regular maintenance is needed. 

With reservoirs running dry, and huge amount of money being spent of scooping water from the sea and processing it through desalination plants, could rainwater harvesting be part of the answer?

Chennai gets most of its water each year from the monsoon rains; an average of 54 days of rain per year. As a result, in 2003 it was made mandatory that every building captured rainwater by installing a water catchment system on its rooftop. This, in theory, could go a long way. Capture the water as it comes and save it. However, many rainwater harvesting structures were either not maintained or were badly designed. In fact, a survey of Chennai’s Gandhi Nagar neighbourhood revealed that only 40% of buildings were in compliance with the obligation. 

Moreover, Chennai’s lakes need desilting.

In stark contrast to the 2019 drought, in 2015, Chennai saw devastating floods. Floods that stole at least 422 lives and caused up to $14 billion in damages. However, as a result of poor storage capacity of the lakes, such as Velachery Lake, the lakes overtopped causing much of the damage and most of the rainwater flowed into the sea; lost forever. Organisations have been pushing for lakes to be desilted for years, but progress has been slow. In a public hearing, the Madras High Court criticised the state government for having mismanaged the looming water crisis by failing to desilt water bodies.

As a result, global mismanagement and land degradation are colliding with climate change.

Chennai’s water struggles, whether this be flooding or drought, cannot be addressed until water becomes central to the city’s urban planning. And as humans we must, on a worldwide scale, reconsider how we treat our relationship with land and water before it is too late.

Featured

Choking: Pallikaranai Wetland

By Lucy Gibson

South of Velachery, a residential area of Chennai, there used to be thousands of acres of marshland called Kazhuveli. The marshland was a sanctuary for resident birds, such as the median egret, and migratory birds, such as the brown shrike that flew from its far off breeding grounds in Siberia.

Median egret. Source: Arvind Balaraman/Shutterstock

However, over the past few decades, rapid development and encroachment have caused this marshland to disappear. All that remains of the Kazhuveli marshland is its southern portions. This makes up the Pallikaranai wetland.

Pallikaranai wetland is the only surviving wetland ecosystem of the city of Chennai.

It is also a site of strategic importance for biodiversity. Towards the end of their long migration, migratory birds have but few options for touchdown, before the miles of ocean beyond Tamil Nadu, except Pallikaranai wetland. Migratory birds, including greater flamingos, have been arriving at Pallikaranai in increasing numbers. In 2016, the rare and endangered Calidris tenuirostris(great knots) were spotted in the marsh – their last sighting had been in 1950-60.

Greater flamingos in the marsh. The urbanisation of the surroundings is clear. Source: Wikipedia

On average, solely considering avian life, Pallikaranai marsh hosts over 40,000 birds in the migratory season, and over 5,000 resident birds through the year. It also serves as a breeding ground for resident birds like the threatened black-headed ibis, and the near-threatened spot-billed pelican.

A near threatened species, the spot-billed pelican in Pallikaranai marshland. Source: Sundararajan / Shutterstock

Birds are just one element of Pallikaranai’s biodiversity. Plants, freshwater fish, mammals, reptiles that often go unnoticed, are also vulnerable to changes in wetlands and the interconnected water channels that feed them.

However, in amongst this wealth of biodiversity, is a darker and deeper problem.

An Anna University study in February 2019 noted that the marshland emitted a staggering 8.4 giga-tonnes of methane annually. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, trapping up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in a 5-year period. While a healthy marshland can act as a much needed carbon sink, the extremely high levels of emissions today are upsetting the ecological balance of the ecosystem, as well as emitting large quantities of greenhouse gas up into the atmosphere. The study highlighted the 50-year old Perungudi dumpyard as the culprit.

Perungudi dumpyard extends onto Pallikaranai marshland. Source: Ashwin Bhat Kemthuru

In the 1970s, Perungudi dumpyard covered 19 acres, and was based in Sevaram village in Perungudi. But this filled up quickly. By the mid-1980s, the area was completely full, and the Chennai Corporation shifted the dumpyard to its present location in Pallikaranai. As a result, the marsh which originally covered 12,000 acres, had, by 2002 shrunk to 1,470 acres. Conversely, the dumpyard at Pallikaranai, which covered 140 acres in 2002, has expanded to 340 acres in 2007. This expansion is continuous even today.

The Chennai Corporation dumps 2,000 tonnes of waste into the marsh daily. As Perungudi dumpyard extends out into the wetland, the water has become increasingly contaminated by toxins found in the rubbish.  This has resulted in leaching of heavy metals in the marsh, including chromium, lead, iron, manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc and cadmium.  Water quality analysis indicated the presence of mercury, lead, and cadmium in quantities four times over permissible levels.

Thankfully, the MOEFCC under the National Action Plan for Conservation of Migratory Birds in Central Asian Flyway, the Pallikaranai marshland was prioritised. The State government declared it would commence the eco-restoration of Pallikaranai during 2018-2023. But there has been no suggestion of moving the Perungudi dumpyard, nor has Pallikaranai been added to the Ramsar site list which would gain it international predominance

With limited progress the toxins are leaching in. Since wetlands are common property it is essential that this trend be quelled to prevent the further destruction of Pallikaranai’s ecosystem.

There is scope for recovery, but only if the degradation is stemmed now.

Featured

The Restoration of Arasankazhani Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Arasankazhani Lake lies about 26km from Chennai near Chemmancherry-Perumbakkam, at the base of the Sithalapakkam hills. It is just one of the lakes that the E.F.I. have successfully restored; this article will focus on how this was achieved and the benefits this restoration has brought.

Prior to restoration, Arasankazhani’s waters had been polluted by illegal sand-mining, heavy silting and was covered with weeds and water hyacinths which choked the lake and the life bodies it contained. Its densely populated surroundings, overlooked by schools, colleges, IT parks and tall apartments threatened Arasankazhani. Additionally, the roads which wrapped themselves around the area of the lake had also previously been used by local residents as sites from which rubbish could be thrown into the lake’s waters. As many examples can show, at this time, Arasankazhani’s 39 acres represented the negative impact humanity can have on nature.

Now, however, Arasankazhani also represents humanity’s impact in a different light; that with time and determination nature can be restored.

This is the story of how the E.F.I. restored Arasankazhani to its former glory.

Having first been approached by residents from the neighbourhood, and having received permission from the Government, Arasankazhani Lake was restored in two phases, first in 2012, and then in 2014. Volunteers of E.F.I., with the support of residents, removed the rubbish and weed growth from the Lake’s waters. The removal of weeds, means that sunlight is now able to reach native aquatic plants, and prevents the depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, which in turn allows fish stocks to thrive. Moreover, the removal of rubbish, prevents microplastic pollution, as well as the leaching of heavy metals and toxins into the water body.  

After removal of rubbish, focus was given to creating outer and inner bunds, wind barriers, and a large central G-shaped island.

The G-shaped islands on the lake with an outer and inner mud wall that is fenced by plants are an innovation, ensuring water circulation in the lake. Planted with ‘Vettiver’ grass, for example, as well as bamboo, Pongamia, pinnata, and neem, these islands recreate and establish habitats for birds, pond turtles, and other native living species, thus restoring biodiversity to Arasankazhani’s waters. The North-western part of the lake was also de-silted to increase the water holding area.

G-shaped islands on Arasankazhani Lake. Source: E.F.I.

Moreover, the creation of foreshore plantation bunds were designed to prevent lake encroachment and to restrict residents from dumping rubbish in the lake. On the bunds, around 500 palm seeds were planted, their roots stabilising the soil and strengthening the bunds alongside waterbodies; thus preventing breaches from waterbodies and soil erosion.

The planting of native saplings along the lake to create a small, forested area also brings great benefit, reducing flood risk potential through infiltration.

Today, the restoration efforts have yielded positive results and residents have stopped dumping rubbish into the lake. Additionally, species which originally considered the lake their home, can thrive again. More than 40 species of birds can be spotted enjoying its waters, including the Grey heron and three amphibian and four reptile species also all got their homes restored in a natural way.

The lake’s unique G-shaped island keeps waste away from nesting birds. Source: Navmi Krishna K.

Arasankazhani Lake was given a new life, and provides a fine example of collaborative conservation by local residents, the government, academics, and the E.F.I.

Featured

Adambakkam Lake and the (Beautiful) Blue Devil

By Lucy Gibson

In the city of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, lies a water body by the name of Adambakkam Lake, a lake which gives its name to the nearby locality of Adambakkam. However, due to a neglect which extends for nearly a decade, this once pristine lake which was a lifeline to thousands of agriculturalists, now resembles a swamp. Moreover, the much discussed revival plans, considering the fixing of the lake boundary to prevent further encroachments, and the laying of walk pathways to encourage recreational activities remain on paper.

The woes of Adambakkam stem largely from three sources: encroachment, sewage, and rubbish. As a victim of encroachment, both residential and commercial, Adambakkam Lake which only around 25 years extended over approximately 86 acres, has now shrunk to just 6 acres. Additionally sewage from the nearby St Thomas Mount is now let into the lake. Finally, Adambakkam Lake is choked by the dumping of rubbish in its waters at a pace at which nearby environmental organisations, such as the E.F.I. struggle to control.  

Water hyacinth and rubbish on and in Adambakkam Lake. Source: New Indian Express.

Together these three sources of trouble amount to an additional problem – water hyacinth.

Untreated sewage from stormwater drains and houses adjacent to Adambakkam Lake contaminate the water, leading to the formation of a thick cover of water hyacinth and invasive weeds on the lake surface. This only adds to the problems facing Adambakkam Lake.

Water hyacinth, with its beautiful flowers and shapes of leaves, is in fact, often referred to as the “(beautiful) blue devil”. This is because it is actually an incredibly harmful invasive weed which drains oxygen from the water body.

Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth). Source: Wikipedia.

When left uncontrolled, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely. This dramatically affects water flows, as well as blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants which often die. The decay processes deplete dissolved oxygen in the water; as a result of this, fish stocks become significantly depleted and the water body becomes a prime habitat for mosquitos.

Water hyacinth often invades bodies of water that have already been affected by human activities.

But Adambakkam Lake is significant for another reason: it represents one of Chennai’s remaining water bodies.

Since the beginning of the 20th century Chennai has witnessed a steady decline and deterioration in water bodies and open spaces; it is estimated that more than half of the wetlands have been converted for other uses. Chennai had about 150 small and big water bodies in and around the city, but today the number has been reduced to 27. Adambakkam Lake remains an important water body, but in its current state, offers little.

Due to its plain terrain, Chennai lacks a natural gradient for free run-off. This necessitates an effective storm water draining system. The sewage system in Chennai was originally designed for a population of 0.65 million – it is now much below the required capacity. In 2020, there were 10,971,108 people living in the city of Chennai, making Chennai by all accounts a megacity (a city with a population of more than 10 million residents).

In theory, Adambakkam Lake ought to offer a much needed place for flood water to drain into during the monsoon. However, due to the water hyacinth occupying the areas in and around the lake many people fear that there is now little space for flood water to drain and Adambakkam Lake can offer little protection.

The situation does not seem to be improving.

In 2020, the Water Resources Department planned to restore the original storage capacity of Adambakkam Lake, as well as strengthen the bund and improve the lake with recreational facilities – at a cost of ₹3.5 crore. However, progress has stalled. Historically, previous plans back in 2014 for example, have also been postponed; in 2014 this was due to a lack of funds.

Residents now are calling for the waterbody to be restored and desilted before the monsoon season to prevent flooding in the surrounding localities. There is a threat of flooding in areas such as Adambakkam, Thillai Ganga Nagar and Nanganallur during the northeast monsoon.

The longer projects are delayed, the further the encroachments. Desilting, however, would lead to an increase in groundwater level.

There is an urgent need to desilt, deepen and fence Adambakkam Lake.

Featured

Sampangi Lake: The Tale of how a Lake became a Stadium

By Lucy Gibson

In the heart of Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, lies the state-of-the-art Sri Kanteerava Stadium. However, just behind this stadium is a small, largely ignored for the majority of the year, water body. A water body which is now the only remnant of what, only a century ago, was one of the city’s largest and most prominent lake, Sampangi Lake – 35 acre lake boasting trees, open spaces, a source of water and a livelihood.

Bengaluru has been an urban settlement since the mid-16th century, although settlements have existed even prior to this. Due to lacking access to large rivers, the city’s water came from a networked system of storage reservoirs, primarily lakes. In fact, the importance of lakes for Bengaluru can be recognised from the city also being called ‘kalyananagara’ (city of lakes).

As well as critical drinking water sources, Bengaluru’s lakes were crucial to the livelihoods for several communities, including brick-makers, farmers, pastoralists to name a few. Oral histories indicate that the lake acted as an urban commons, supplying water for drinking and domestic uses, as well as supporting horticulture, fishing, brick-making, laundering, and pastoralism. Given the interconnection of the people with water-bodies, it is not particularly surprising that a lot of importance was attached to them and annual festivals celebrated them.

This is the story of how a beautiful lake, which supported several different communities, became a stadium.

In the late 19th century, the city was divided into two jurisdictional regions: the British Cantonment and the native city, or Pete, governed by the Mysore kings. Sampangi Lake offered an important water source for both zones due to its central location and it was protected as both Cantonment and Pete were dependent on it.

However, after 1898, the Hesarghatta reservoir began to supply water to the British cantonment. As they were no longer dependent on the lake for water, Sampangi became seen as valuable for a very different reason: aesthetics and recreation.

As a result, to maintain the ‘aesthetics’ of the lake, local livelihoods such as brick making were banned, under the claim that this created unsightly pits, and entry to the lake became guarded, restricting the access of local communities of fishers and washers. These communities migrated away from Sampangi Lake, and new communities (who practiced livelihoods which were not dependent on the ecosystem services from the lake) immigrated to fill the gap.  

Moreover, British polo players went further, asking the colonial government to drain the lake so that they could play polo on the lakebed. Although 49 horticulturists (Vanhikula Kshatriyas) petitioned the Mysore king to prevent this, and despite the king writing in favour of the horticulturists, the lake was drained and used to play polo. At the end of 1937, the 35 acre lake had become a small tank.

The remains of Sampangi Lake: A small, square, water body. Source: JRL Explore

Sampangi Lake no longer represented an essential water source for the city. Its reclamation and conversion into a built-up space was catalysed by urbanisation and a changing perception of the lake’s utility. As Bengaluru grew into a 20th century city, aspiring from modern identity, what was previously Sampagni Lakebed became the Sri Kanteerava indoor sports stadium.

Sri Kanteerava Indoor Stadium. Source: Urban Institute

In present day Bengaluru, the landscape around Sampangi Lake bears little resemblance to its former social and ecological importance. As mentioned, only a small rectangular tank remains due to its centrality to the Karaga festival, the city’s oldest festival which is celebrated by the Vanhikula Kshatriyas horticulturists. Only once a year, during Karaga does the water body become a focal point, a site of celebration, visited by thousands. 

The pattern observed in Sampangi Lake, where aesthetic and recreational perspectives are prioritised over utilitarian uses, continues today. Many other lakes with Bengaluru have also been impacted by urbanisation. They now form bus terminals (previously Dharmambudhi Lake), and hockey stadiums (previously Akkithimmanhalli Lake).

Yet, Bengaluru still needs water for its resilience. Now such large,  the piped water from distant rivers can no longer supply all of the city’s needs.

But all is not lost.

Citizen movements across Bengaluru have begun to focus on protecting and restoring their lakes. In some neighbourhoods, where sufficient water supply is a persistent challenge, community wells, once ignored, are now protected, and maintained. Moreover, mass citizen protests have gained significant victories for the city’s green cover, including reversing the decision to build a steel flyover, which would have destroyed thousands of trees.

In order to build socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable cities, we must consider stories such as that of Sampangi Lake, and understand that the sustainability of these resources depend largely on their accessibility as an urban commons, with utilitarian and recreational value for all to enjoy and protect.

Featured

Renew the Land with Regenerative Agriculture

Guest Contribution: Meena Iyer

By 2050 , our world population is likely to hit 10 billion people and creating a sustainable food future is one of our biggest challenges. Regenerative agriculture refers to safe, efficient techniques aimed at boosting yields and helping our agricultural lands survive the climate change onslaught with an end goal of building greater food security for our planet.

With regenerative agriculture , we can achieve several wins : increased profit for farmers , greater resilience to climate change and more importantly valuable environmental benefits by restoring our soil’s health and water needs . Here , we will be looking at some of the important factors that affect practices around regenerative agriculture :

  1. Regenerative versus Degenerative Agriculture
  2. What is Biochar and Recycling of Carbon in Soil

Land degeneration and its impact on agriculture

Over the years , clearing out forests for agriculture and over farming/overgrazing methods have resulted in the depletion of our soil quality as well as reduced agricultural capacity from our farmlands . Out of the 11% of earth’s surface devoted for agriculture , FAO estimates that 25% of all cropland suffers from high soil degradation mainly due to soil erosion . Endless rows of single crops(called as monocultures) are planted and harvested year after year and chemical fertilizers adopted to improve production to meet the exponential food demand. These degenerative methods have not only reduced Agri-productivity but has created an imbalance between nature and humans with far reaching consequences such as extreme poverty among farmers.

When humans tamper with nature , nature will not return easily to its original condition .

Regenerative farming aims to improve soil health by deploying techniques such as :

  • ‘no-till’ agriculture by minimizing soil disturbance and reducing amount of tillage. The advantage with minimal tilling is that organic matter remains in the soil creating room for beneficial micro-organisms and improve soil fertility.
  • Using cover crops which are plants grown to cover the soil after farmers harvest the main crop.
  • Crop rotation using perennial and native plants so that farmers can grow and adjust foods based on the local climate and conditions.

The famed Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka and author of notable book ‘The One-Straw Revolution’ is extremely relevant even today for his agricultural philosophy around ‘Do-nothing farming’. His principles on regenerative farming are that agriculture is just not the means of producing food but an aesthetic and spiritual approach to life . When humans tamper with nature , nature will not return easily to its original condition . Hence farming methods need to be approached holistically, by being a part of nature and understanding the relationship between soil , the micro- organisms(insects/bacteria/fungi) in the soil that promote the richness of the organic matter and minimizing changes to the natural landscape.

Clay ball seeding

Masanobu Fukuoka is also famed with pioneering the natural farming technique of scattering clay seed balls to revegetate barren lands . Seeds that are compatible with local weather and soil conditions are mixed into clay balls to protect from insects and other seed predators and moisture stored in clay balls due to fluctuations in day/night temperatures creates the necessary environment for clay-ball seeds to germinate. When the season comes, the seeds germinate, and the roots sink deep into the soil in search of underground water.

Did you know :

Guerilla gardening :

As the name suggests , guerilla gardening is a form of a protest gardening where gardeners provoke change by sowing and raising plants in abandoned sites, areas not been cared for , or even public property. Social networking groups and volunteers come together for a variety of purposes such as community improvement, better aesthetics by planting flowers with attractive appearance, physical and mental well-being benefits as well as land conservation.

Guerilla gardeners have used clay seed bombing as an interesting method to improve reforestation by using orthodox seeds ( that are native, viable seeds that survive drying and/or freezing) and use of modern technologies such as drones for spreading seed bombs. Read this interesting article on how IISc scientists in Karnataka used unmanned aerial vehicles covering nearly 10,000 acres of land with seed bombs.

Hydroponic gardening :

Hydroponic farming is a technique that uses no soil but grows plants in a mixture of water and nutrients and very popular in urban areas and regions with extreme climates. India has seen a dramatic increase in hydroponic farming using 95% less water than traditional farming methods.

See the source image

Carbon recycling and leveraging Biochar

How do we recover the loss of soil organic nutrients and enrich soil ? Replenishing carbon is the key as carbon holds moisture and provides for chemical bonding that allow nutrients to be stored within plants. An alternative approach involves various ways of converting agricultural residues or household wastes into Biochar.

What is Biochar ? Biochar not only reduces need for chemical fertilizers but enriches soil, reduces soil acidity and thus contributes to higher yields from the soil .The many benefits of biochar for both environment and agricultural systems make it a promising tool for regenerative agriculture.

Food for thought :

India has committed to the Paris agreement on climate change and keep global temperature rise ‘below 2 deg C’ , reduce emissions intensity by 33-35% of year 2005 levels by year 2030.The onus is on each one of us to think green, motivate ourselves and our youth to be involved in initiatives that help create ‘greener’ gardens , understand and monitor climate-induced changes in our natural landscapes, support green technologies that adapt to climate change and propagate a healthy and sustainable way of living. Do we want to turn up as a guerilla gardener or try some balcony gardening at home and improve our ‘green-thumb’ skills ?

Featured

Oh Deer! Threats to Loktak Lake and the World’s Only Floating National Park

By Lucy Gibson

Loktak lake is considered the lifeline of the State of Manipur. It is the largest natural freshwater lake in the north-eastern region of India and plays an important role in the ecological and economic security of the region. Large populations, both human and non-human, living in and around the lake depend on the lake’s resources for sustenance.

Loktak Lake is famous for phumdis (naturally-occurring masses of floating vegetation formed by the accumulation of organic debris and biomass with soil) which are a specialised habitat for many biota. Phumdis is the most important part of Loktak Lake’s habitat, and its thickness varies from just a few centimetres to two metres thick.

Phumdis rings of Loktak Lake. Source: Third Eye Traveller

These numerous floating lands cover a variety of habitats and therefore they can sustain rich biological diversity. In terms of flora, approximately 233 species of aquatic macrophytes belonging to emergent, submergent, free-floating and rooted floating leaf types have been reported in the lake. A total of 425 species of animals have been recorded including a number of rare animals such as Indian python, sambhar and barking deer. It is the breeding ground of several riverine migratory fishes and continues to be vital as a fish habitat. In addition, Loktak Lake provides refuge to thousands of birds, including migratory birds who have travelled far from different parts of the northern hemisphere beyond the Himalayas.

However, of most interest to this article is the largest of all the phumdis. One which covers an area of 40km2, is home to Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Keibul Lamjao National Park is the only floating national park in the world.

Keibul Lamjao National Park. Source: Indian Tourist-Spots

Located in the southern part of Loktak Lake, Keibul Lamjao National Park is a unique floating wildlife reserve and the only natural home of one of the world’s most endangered deer, the brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi), locally called Sangai, that was once thought to be extinct.

The Sangai, also called the dancing deer, is has uniquely distinctive antlers which can measure up to 100-110cm in length. The home range of Sangai in the park is confined to 15-20km2, in the south-western part of the lake where the phumdis is thick. The vegetation of phumdi is also critical source of food plants for the Sangai, such as Zizania latifolia and Saccharum munja.

Sangai – Brow-antlered Deer. Source: Our Breathing Planet

A census conducted in 2000 in the park showed that there were just 162 deer. With reports of unbridled poaching, and their home, Keibul Lamjao National Park, at risk, the Sangai population is feared to drop and they find themselves on the IUCN Red List with population numbers decreasing.

The Sangai’s home is at permanent risk of flooding, which can be attributed to the construction of the Ithai Barrage, and the resultant effect on the thickness of phumdis. The construction of Ithai barrage has led to changes in hydrological regimes, thereby affecting ecological processes and functions of the wetland. This has disturbed the natural cycle of floating and sinking of phumdis which is used to maintain the National Park and therefore the growth of vegetation on phumdis and their thickness are decreasing. The concern is that at some stage the phumdis may not be able to support the number of Sangai in Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Additionally, the construction of Ithai barrage has caused the inundation of agricultural lands and the displacement of people from flooded lands. Water quality of Loktak Lake is also decreasing as a result, as pollutants from towns and agrochemicals from farming drain into the water.

The rise of human settlements on the lake contributes to the depletion of phumdis and pollution. Source: Third Eye Traveller

Over time, public awareness, and local support for have evolved for conserving the Sangai and concerted actions have been initiated to stop encroachment of the park and security arrangements have been made to stop poaching. This fact was soberly presented in a children’s magazine called Chandamama, which gave a first-person narrative by the affected Sangai itself.

“‘Thanks to these youngsters who live nearby’, he said. I was happy and felt indebted to the youngsters for saving our lives.

My friend added that these people really loved and respected the Sangai deer. They believed that killing the Sangai was an unpardonable sin. According to a Meitei legend, the Sangai are the link between humans and nature. So, killing us would mean breaking a bond.

My friend informed me that people concerned about animals like us have formed a group. They teach others to protect animals, too.

The news that people are trying their best to save the phumdis, deer like me, and the Loktak Lake, infuses new hope in me. ‘How nice of them!’ I thought”.

Featured

Time to Act: Vembanad Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Vembanad Lake is India’s longest freshwater lake. With a lake area covering approximately 250 km2 and with a catchment area covering 14,000 km2, Vembanad Lake, located within the state of Kerala, is included in the list of wetlands of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

Home to more than 20,000 waterfowls, such as spot billed pelican and oriental darter, and Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, located on the eastern banks, Vembanad Lake is an ornithologist’s paradise. Set within lush woodland, this site is also a favourite to migratory birds (such as the Siberian stork, flycatchers, and larks) who flock in their thousands from miles away. Flying along the Central Asian Flyway, migratory birds travel from their northern breeding grounds, some as far away as Siberia, to their wintering grounds in the Indian subcontinent.

Indian Paradise-Flycatcher. Source: eBird
Great Egrets. Source: Kumarakom Houseboat Club

Additionally, over 1.6 million people live on the banks of the Vembanad Lake and are directly or indirectly dependent on it for their livelihoods. Major livelihood activities of the people living on the shores include agriculture, fishing, tourism, inland navigation, and coir retting.

Fishing in Vembanad Lake. Source: Kumarakom

However, as Vembanad Lake is fed by seven major rivers plus many streams and canals, all of which flow through densely populated urban areas (for example, the major city of Kochi, 12 municipal towns, and approximately 100 villages) the possibility of occurrence of pollutants and microplastics in the lake sediment is high.

Plastics wastes are of significant environmental concern due to their longevity and worldwide distribution. India is one of the major plastic consumers in the world, generating approximately 5.6million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Vembanad Lake is one of the most polluted water bodies in India with microplastics (<5mm in size) ubiquitous and abundant in sediment samples from across this water body in a recent study.

Microplastic contamination poses a grave risk to aquatic fauna. LITTERBASE, a database which presents the distribution of litter across the world, and its interaction with wildlife, notes that ingestion is the most frequently observed interaction, followed by entanglement.  When microplastics are ingested by the benthic fauna and zooplankton, this can trigger the contamination of the whole food web. 

Additionally, a study revealed by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board highlighted the concerning  presence of heavy metals and pesticides in Vembanad Lake, such as zinc, nickel, and copper, as well as benzyl benzoate and benzene propanoic acid which have application in the pharmaceutical industry. This also poses a major health hazard to ecosystems and to humans via trophic transfer.

Vembanad Lake holds a rich population of black clam and other clam species. Annually, 31,650 tonnes of clam are fished from the lake for local consumption, as well as prawns, crabs, and fish which are staples proteins for local residents. Potential microplastic and heavy metal contamination, therefore, becomes critically important, posing threat to the local fauna and the health of local residents through ingesting plastics and toxins.

As a result of houseboat tourism and sewage discharge, the water quality has declined with low dissolved oxygen levels and high biochemical oxygen levels. This has affected aquatic life: as per the latest fish survey report, Vembanad Lake only has 98 fish varieties, when just a decade ago, there were 150 species.

Sewage pipes from houses drain out into the water body. Source: A. Sanesh

Polluted by plastic, various organic and household waste, industrial activities and anthropogenic activities like land reclamation, Vembanad Lake’s incredible environment is at risk.

Concerted efforts in improving and monitoring waste management programs, emphasising the three ‘R’ principle of reduce, reuse, and recycle for plastic management, may reduce the abundance of plastics and microplastics in the lake. Additionally, the findings of Yunus et al.’s study (2020) on the effects of COVID-19 lockdown on surface water quality showed that the pollutant level of Vembanad Lake decreased considerably when industries and boating were suspended. They argue that now is the time to act, based on the Ramsar Convention framework, to reduce the environmental damage to the Vembanad Lake ecosystem.

Featured

This Solution is Less Pollution – How Smart Shopping Can Sustain Our Waters

Guest Contribution: Meena Iyer

The impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown it triggered has deeply changed our lives with an increased focus not only on our health and safety but also on the planet and the people around us. This blog highlights how making sustainable choices when we buy products makes us more responsible consumers with a positive impact on the environment around us. 

Cattle are reared to provide meat and dairy with cattle hide(skin) processed in tanneries and used in leather goods production. This blog focuses on the impact of pollution on our water bodies, mainly from tannery waste, and what interesting and bio-friendly alternative leather choices we as consumers have. Our shopping experiences can be enhanced when we know our choices are safe for the earth. The considerations mentioned here are :

  • Leather Traceability 
  • Sustainable Sourcing 
  • Impact of Tannery Waste on Waterbodies 
  • Bio-friendly Alternative Leather 

Traceability of Leather:

Knowing the materials that make our leather products, such as apparel/footwear/handbags or belts, and the ability to trace the raw materials from the slaughterhouse to the finished product is called traceability. This process is fundamental to assess the sustainability of the leather supply chain. Tanning is a process where the hide is treated primarily with chemicals and convert to finished leather. Safe and effective treatment of tannery waste is critical as the effluents are commonly discharged into water bodies, and the potential effects on native water communities can damage the environment.

Sourcing of leather from certified tanneries would ensure environmental best practices in all leather production areas, such as usage of chemicals in the tannery process, wastewater management, related greenhouse gas emissions, and leather traceability. 

Think about this …

India’s lakes, rivers, and water bodies are stretched to breaking point due to multiple factors around the effects of climate change, population surge, and pollution, to name a few. Several positive steps have been taken, and one of the notable ones is the cleaning up of our Ganges river basin. Industrial waste discharged from the nearby cities into the Ganga river constitutes around 20% to its pollution. Due to industrial waste’s toxic and non-biodegradable nature, the negative impact on water is very high.

Analyze from the picture below the threat of pollution to the Ganges from industrial waste(including waste from tanneries), municipal sewage, among others that are hurting India’s lifeline.

Bio-friendly Alternative Leather: 

Did you know that several leather-intensive Fashion, Automotive, and Furniture companies embrace the ‘away from the cow’ approach and look at environmentally friendly options? 

Retail/Fashion/Apparel Industry:

  • Currently, the most widely used leather alternatives are plastic materials. PVC is the most commonly used alternative due to its low prices, but it is an environmentally damaging as plastic releases toxins throughout its lifecycle. Mushroom Leather is made from edible mushrooms cultivated on recycled sawdust and, at the end-of-life can be fully compostable. Pineapple Leather made from wasted pineapple leaves are not only an extra source of income for the farmer, but the residue left behind from the waste is used as fertilizer back into the pineapple fields. Bio-Fabricated Leather is an alternative, and so is metal-free tanning, as the conventional tanning process has potential carcinogenic effects due to the usage of chemicals like chrome.

Automotive Industry:

  • Leather car interiors are gradually losing momentum in the global automotive and transportation industry. More vehicle manufacturers are opting for synthetic fabrics as alternatives for leather materials, both due to a decrease in leather supply and lower costs. Car manufacturers are looking into sustainable leather operations and supply chains, mirroring the apparel industry’s major trend.

Furniture Industry:

  • For the most part, Furniture companies are still embracing the traditional leather business, again focusing on sustainable leather supply chains and operations. Some innovations in the space, such as Enspire Leather, which makes leather from scraps and can recycle unused leather it sells, has partnered with La-Z-Boy and Timberland to create more environmentally friendly products.

Food for thought:

Though one may argue cattle hide is just a by-product of the meat industry and has excellent durability, provides maximum comfort as finished leather, and is cost-effective than the bio-friendly leather options, it is imperative for us to think about the social, health, and environmental impact due to usage of leather. Is this a sustainable solution for our waters? So, as informed consumers, we should be smart, look at eco-friendly options, and think before we buy. Our future generations will thank us for our sustainable choices that we make today.

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TEMPLES FOR WATER

Stepped Wells

By Sushmitta Renganathan

In India, water and waterbodies were always seen as life-giving and healing forces of nature. Water’s place of honor and reverence is visible in many architectural marvels. Tracing the idea of sanctity in water might take us as far as the documented beginning of civilization in India, or even further. While the social significance of water and waterbodies seems to have led ancient Indian settlements to perfect the art of water harvesting, conservation, and conveyance through the creation of several typologies of structures, specific to the ecological diversities and culture of the regions; the spiritual significance of it, seems to have led to its enshrinement through mastery in subterranean architecture and engineering. One of the most prominent examples of structures under this built form are the stepped wells. 

Descending into Rani-Ki-Vav, “The Queen’s Well” – A UNESCO World Heritage Monument in Gujarat

“…A descent deep into the earth, which can easily evoke the terror of an otherworldly abyss, instead serves to intensify awareness of the ordinariness of life.” Says art historian Milo C. Beach on the experience of descent into the stepped wells. 

The history of this typology, dates back to as early as 3rd century BC when the concept – of what is now a unique symbol of ancient India’s architectural genius emerged as simple excavated pits in sandy soil, reaching for the water tables. By 11th century AD, the architecture of the stepped wells had evolved to such an extent, that the typology was largely represented by multi-storied, lavishly carved structures, with surface decorations and ornamentation as elaborate as those of temples. 

A significant example of this subterranean structure is “Rani-ki-Vav” also known as “The Queen’s Well”, built in the 11th century, on the banks of Saraswathi River in the historical town of Patan, once the capital city of Gujarat. It is said that geotectonic changes along the Saraswathi River bed in 13th century, led to flooding — according to some accounts, and drought according to others — and the eventual abandonment of the Vav till the mid 20th century. In 1958, excavation and restoration works of the Vav began by the efforts of Archaeological Survey of India, and in 2014 it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Constructed at the peak of craftsmanship in our subcontinent, Rani-ki-Vav is a seven-story deep testament to the complex Maru-Gurjara style of Architecture. However, when one enters the site today, the nature of the structure reveals nothing, but a wide flight of steps in the midst of landscaped bunds in a bare field. As one follows the steps, surfaces adorned with sculptures of Gods, Goddesses, and other heavenly creatures, lead the way to the cavernous well: An inverted temple marking the sanctity of the water harvested, 23 meters deep into the ground.

A stepped well in decline from the Kakatiyan Era in Warangal, Telangana.

Although a small percentage of stepped wells continue to be in use in India, the majority have been lost to time, squalor, and neglect. Cultural journalist Victoria Lautman in the documentary “Subterranean Ghosts: India’s Disappearing Stepwells”, explains the Indian subcontinent’s journey away from stepped wells:

“Industrialization, unregulated pumping, and drought has depleted the water table in many places. But step wells began to lose their prominence and have been in precipitous decline for a century. While a handful have been protected and restored by the Indian Government, many more have been demolished, left to deteriorate. During the British Raj, they were deemed unhygienic and were often filled in. Centralized village water taps, plumbing, and storage tanks replaced the physical need for step wells, leaving the social and spiritual aspects unmoored.”

India is home to many more ancient tributes designed to emphasize on the sacrosanctity of water and waterbodies. Some remain, while the others are lost to time. 

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Caring for the Heart of the World: Hussain Sagar Lake

By Lucy Gibson

As one of the most popular landmarks in the city of Hyderabad, Hussain Sagar is the official “Heart of the World” having been named as such by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation for being the World’s Largest Heart-Shaped Mark.

Hussain Sagar Lake – The Heart of the World. Source: Hyderabad Ranker

Built by Hussain Shah Wali in 1562AD, Hussain Sagar Lake stands on the tributary of the River Musi and was constructed to meet the water and irrigation requirement of Hyderabad. Ever since, it has been of significance for connecting the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. In its centre stands a statue of Buddha over 16 metres tall which was erected in 1992.

Buddha statue in the the centre of Hussain Sagar Lake. Source: Siasat

However, heavy anthropogenic pressures have changed the entire ecosystem.

The industrial expansion that began in the early 1970’s in the catchment area of the Hussain Sagar Lake and continuous encroachment in terms of both industrialisation and urbanisation has, in the past, polluted the Lake to levels way above international permissible limits. Additionally, its waters have become shallow due to siltation.

One cause of this siltation is that, during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, Hussain Sagar usually witnesses thousands of idol immersions. As a part of this religious ritual, idols, along with flowers and other materials, are immersed into water bodies. In fact, according to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), over 80,000 Ganesh idols of various sizes were immersed in the Lake in 2019 which resulted in approximately 1500 tonnes of waste being collected from the Lake post festivities.

Studies indicate that such rituals reduce the depth of the water body. Over the last decade, the depth of Hussain Sagar has reduced from 60ft to 40ft, thus reducing the Lake’s capacity to hold water.

Ganesh idol immersion in Hussain Sagar Lake. Source: Telangana Today

Besides adding silt, studies have also indicated that these immersions have increased the pollution levels of lakes. One 2009 studies shows that the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the water body increased dramatically after the event. Some idols are made up of clay, plaster of paris, cloth, paper, wood, thermocol, jute, adhesive materials, and synthetic paints. Thermocol is non-biodegradable and some paints contain heavy metals such as chromium, lead, cadmium and mercury. When immersed, these chemicals dissolve slowly leading to significant alterations in water quality. The presence of heavy metals significantly increases in concentration after immersions. Such concentrations magnify at different trophic levels within food chains.

However, to say idol immersions are the main cause of this decline is unfair.

Equally significant, in terms of causation, are the sewage and pollutants being dumped into the lake from across the city.  While originally constructed to meet the water requirements of the city, the Lake became the main sewage collection zone of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. According to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board data of 2012-13, every day 78 million litres of sewage and 15 million litres of industrial effluents flow into the lake. The two sewage treatment plants near the lake are insufficient to handle the wastewater load.

The resultant effect has been the loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity of the Lake and its catchment area.

In light of this, in more recent years, an increased awareness of such problem has encouraged people to immerse more environmentally friendly idols that are smaller (so they dissolve faster) and are made of traditional clay and water soluble paints.

In fact, in 2020, there was little waste in the Lake as the Telangana Government banned Ganesh pandals, mass gathering, processions, and immersions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As bad as the pandemic has been, environmentalists note that this will have a positive impact on the water and greenery around the Lake and Tank Bund as well. In fact, recent monitoring by the Telangana Pollution Control Board has shown that there is an increase of dissolved oxygen levels and biological oxygen demand levels have decreased.

In addition, on the 11 September 2020, it was announced that Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board will construct 17 new Sewage Treatment Plants in the catchment area of Hussain Sagar Lake. This plan, in increasing the sewage treatment capacity in the city will reduce an additional source of water pollution and contamination.  

While COVID-19 has brought serious consequences for so many around the world, it has also shown us that, if allowed, our environments can recover.

We must allow them to continue to do so.

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Biodiversity Under Threat: Deepor Beel

By Lucy Gibson

For Assam, the Bharalu, a small tributary of the Brahmaputra, is a big concern. The Bharalu flows through the heart of Guwahati city, through densely populated residential, industrial, and commercial areas. As a result, Bharalu carries a large proportion of the city’s municipal wastes, including sewage and wastage from markets, commercial establishments, hotels and restaurants.

The State Pollution Control Board has marked Bharalu as one of the most polluted river stretching the country with a BOD level of 52.0 mg/l making it completely unfit for drinking and bathing purposes.

Additionally, this polluted river leads into the state’s biggest wetland wildlife sanctuary, Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is located about 10km Southwest of Guwahati city. It is considered one of the largest and important riverine wetlands in the Brahmaputra Valley. Yet, as a result of unchecked urbanisation, it is fed by contaminated water and waste carried by Bharalu river, posing a significant threat to the biodiversity of the wetland, home to many aquatic species and migratory birds.

Deepor Beel has significant biological and environmental importance.

It is the only major storm-water storage basin for Guwahati city which regularly faces prolonged water-logging during every monsoon. It is also home to a rich variety of flora and fauna: with 50 indigenous fish species recorded and 212 species of bird, including kingfishers, fishing eagles, adjutant storks, and numerous varieties of ducks. Surveys have also revealed 20 amphibians, 18 snakes, 12 lizards, and 6 turtle and tortoise species make the beel their home.

Additionally, the Asian Elephant regularly visits the beel and the nearby forested areas are home to Assamese Macaque, Slow Loris, Leopards, and even Chinese Pangolin have been recorded according to BirdLife International.

In fact, due to its significant biodiversity, Deepor Beel is a designated Ramsar Site, and a designated Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.

An elephant heard at Deepor Beel. Source: Down to Earth

This water body is also of great importance to its human residents, who located in the periphery and catchment use the Beel for: fishing, as a waterway, and to raise boro paddy. It also offers prospects for tourism if harnessed carefully without impacting its fragile ecology. With the dense Garbhanga hills proving a stunning backdrop, and the wetland being widely known for being home to many species of flora and fauna and is a popular attraction for photographers.

However, Deepor Beel is bearing the brunt of unplanned development.

The proliferation of human settlements, roads, and industries around the periphery are adding to pollution problems. Hunting, trapping, and intensive fishing practices are resulted in the death of wild birds and mammals.

A railway track also runs through the water body, near its south bank. Plans for a second railway track pass directly through a part of the Beel which is used by elephants as a major corridor.

The Guwahati oil refinery waste is directed through the Bharalu and Kalmoni rivers to the beel. The channels also carry other industrial and hospital waste. Continued discharge of the city’s untreated sewerage through the Bahini and Bharalu rivers and the dumping of municipal solid wastes in its close proximity by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) have pushed the wetland’s pollution to alarming levels and caused a fall in oxygen levels resulting in the death of fish and aquatic life. Previously fishing was enough to sustain some local communities, but now the situation has changed.

Invasive weeds such as water hyacinth, too, are expanding to more and more areas. These problems worsen during the monsoons, with rainwater sweeping large amounts of rubbish from the dumping site to the Beel.

Guwahati generates about 450 tonnes of waste every day, rubbish that finds its way to the periphery of the beel. This rubbish dump is home to one of the largest concentrations of greater adjutant stork.

Rubbish dump is home to the globally endangered Greater Adjutant Stork. Source: Current Conservation.

On January 22, 2017, 22 Greater Adjutant storks were found dead in Deepor Beel. Many suspect that it was because the birds eat the rubbish at the site. Greater Adjutant storks find themselves ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and population numbers are decreasing,

Wetlands act as some of the best indicators for a city’s environmental status.

Quite simply, fewer birds visiting the wetland would testify to the increasing pollution of the city and the effects of this on the environment.

While the management authority for Deepor Beel is the Forest Department of the Government of Assam, several public and private institutions and universities are involved in creating awareness of the ecological importance of the beel and the need to restore it to its original status.

Deepor Beel plays a significant hydrological, biological, and ecological role, as well as holds substantial socio-economic and cultural value. Put simply, there is a lot to lose.

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Recreational Waters : The confluence of kinship and coherence

An ode to the community of care-givers.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

A representation -based on material by Tamil Nadu Tourism- of the coracle rides in the Hogenakkal Falls, an important recreational waterbody in India.

For time-immemorial, natural waterbodies and the landscapes around them have been mankind’s reliable sources of recreation. But for most of us born during the information age in India, large parts of the concept of recreational waterbodies were brought to life by theme parks and water park rides. The realization that these are replicas of the nature and principles of our immense natural resources in controlled environments, seems to have been bogged down by the excitement of purchasing tickets, hopping onto the large orange buoys, and swooping into the “Raft Slides”, “Lazy Rivers”, and “Wave Pools”.

Regardless, India has always boasted a long list of recreational waterbodies, immensely precious to more than the geological fabric of our subcontinent. 

Although a majority of the written tourist-guide materials on water-rides come with adjectives like “crazy”, “fast”, “adventurous” etc., they are rarely accompanied by a definite safety and wellbeing guideline tag. We believe that our wellbeing is somehow guaranteed, either by the efforts of the organization in-charge, or by our own prudence. On the contrary, the plethora of information on “precaution” and “safety measures” that cap any research on recreational waters, is an extension of our doubts about if and who holds the responsibility for our wellbeing there; especially when the simple brochures and hand-painted “caution” signs don’t say much to alleviate the fear instilled by some incident, somewhere, told by someone:

The answer to this is in realizing the significance of the communities of care-givers.

“Shopping Road” near the Hogenakkal Falls and the “Dharmapuri-Hogenakkal Road” are brought to life by the services provided by the local communities.

True to their principle, natural waterbodies cannot be controlled by the flip of a switch. But on the other hand, recreational waterbodies in India and the experiences they promise, rely on the deeply rooted sense of community and hospitality of our country. The declared recreational waterbodies in India, through the scope for spontaneous growth around them, have always belonged to the people – especially to the native population, some of who establish their businesses on the shores of these waterbodies, while the others dive right into the waters for their livelihood. Thus, these waterbodies and their surroundings, that become the founding elements governing the sustenance of the communities around them, naturally entrust this vigilante with the task of ensuring the wellbeing of the visitors; which in turn is effortlessly taken up by them as part of their day-to-day lives –  even if not printed so on a glossy brochure.

Second to none, the extraordinary beauty of the recreational waterbodies in India falters not in binding with awe the resident and foreign guests alike, and in etching its way into their fond memories. Yet, for those who care enough to ponder: the experiences around these magnificent expanses, and the ensuing memories, are often born out of the subtle guidance and care of the native communities. To begin with, the relevance of the recreational waterbodies that is maintained by catering to the wide range of interests of the visiting population, is supported primarily by the efforts of the local communities who we meet as our tour guides, lifeguards, vendors, and small-scale business owners. These efforts not only guarantee an inclusive spirit, but also create life, excitement, and vigor on the shores – a welcome gift, wrapped and handed to every visitor.

The Hogenakkal Falls from the Kaveri River, that forms the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in South India, is one such recreational waterbody. On the rocky banks, the floating population of visitors merge with the natives. Their symbiotic relationship is founded on the bounties offered by the river which is merchandised by the natives and purchased by the visitors.

“Adding to the charm of the waterfalls itself were the hawkers, their local products, and the artifacts from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The wafting smell of the fish fry, the relaxing massages, the coracle rides are iconic, almost synonymous to the Hogenakkal Falls.” recalls Mrs Jayanthi Ranganathan, of her childhood visits to the falls in the 1980s. The banks continue to thrive with these activities.

Mrs Jayanthi Renganathan’s childhood memories of the Hogenakkal Falls

While our efforts over time, in curtailing pollution and encroachment to conserve our waterbodies are certainly benchmarks of progress; it seems that realizing the significance of the native communities, the role they play in conservation, and supporting them in their efforts to empower themselves, are the next potential direction-markers in this journey forward. 

Our respect to the all-embracing communities of care-givers!

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A Tale of Fire and Water: Bellandur Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Bellandur Lake, is located in the densely populated city of Bangalore. Once a healthy lifeline for its surrounding residents, both human and non-human, on the evening of 16th February 2017, Bellandur Lake caught fire.

But, how can that be? Water extinguishes not fuels fire, right?

Previously, Bellandur Lake was one of the oldest and largest lakes in Bangalore, enabling its neighbouring human residents to cultivate paddy, grow vegetables, and fish (over 400 fishing families used to live in this neighbourhood), and offering its non-human residents a home.

Rapid urbanisation has propelled Bangalore into India’s outsourcing and IT hub of 10 million people. About 40% of the city’s untreated sewage flows into Bellandur Lake every day; that is approximately 400-500 million litres. Residential and commercial activities in the region have resulted in increasing the silt deposition in the lake and have caused loss of underground water recharge. Urbanisation has changed the characteristics of the Lake from being a natural ecologically healthy Lake to an artificial reservoir of domestic sewage and industrial effluents. Now, this once bountiful lake finds its waters littered with a mixture of domestic and industrial waste.

With the banks of the lake becoming a convenient site for rubbish dumping and cooking oil entering the lake from untreated domestic sewage, the combined effect has been a lake that catches fire.

Four main locations where sewage enters Bellandur Lake. Source: Citizen Matters.
Fire on Bellandur Lake. Source: India Times.

Additionally, detergents present in the domestic sewage result in the formation of a foamy froth which has become a matter of concern for people residing in the Bellandur area. During the monsoon season, when large volumes of rainwater mixed with the sewage enter the lake, this foam forms at a greater rate. This froth, which may appear a sight to behold, has a pungent smell and causes irritation on contact with skin.

Snowy froth which floats up from Bellandur Lake into the surrounding area. Photo: Debasish Ghosh.

Bellandur Lake burns to be seen.

Evidentially, 30 years on unplanned urbanisation have taken their toll. Bellandur Lake exists as just one example of humanity’s struggle to protect its environment. A struggle faced on a global scale.

This once clean lake which offered both sources of income and recreation, is now toxic. Pollution has led to disappearance of native fish species in the lake. Wildlife which used to inhabit the area, kingfishers, kites, cobras, parakeets, and monitor lizards are now gone. With more and more residential areas springing up along the shores, more species will sadly disappear. The original habitat is in the process of being destroyed.

Kingfishers now found on the outskirts of Bangalore. Source: The Hindu.

But solutions are difficult to find.

Bellandur Lake does not completely come under one civic body. As a result, the Lake falls under the authority of multiple agencies and civic bodies, this has resulted in a lack of accountability.

Protests against the destruction of Bellandur Lake and its surroundings have been held for over 20 years. A group of people including lake and environment activists and residents are trying to preserve the Lake. Citizen Groups have been created to discuss and create awareness about the plight of Bellandur Lake. Bellandur Lake Citizen Group, for example, would like more lake oversight handed to private citizens.

The rejuvenation of Bellandur-Varthur lake involves, de-silting, treatment of wastewater through constructed wetlands and algae ponds, re-establishing inter-connectivity among lakes, banning alterations in the topography, and maintaining 30 m buffer zone around the lake etc. Yet efforts to desilting the south side are undone by there being no prevention of raw sewage water flowing into the lake on the north side.

If we do not make a conscious effort to protect our water bodies, we will lose them.

Water is a prime natural resource, a basic need for entire living systems on this planet. A precious natural asset.  

We must try our best to save these waters.

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Velachery Lake: The centrality of water to sustainable urban development

By Lucy Gibson

“It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster…is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith, 2006:1)

While Neil Smith wrote these lines in respect to Hurricane Katrina, a similar perspective can be taken for the increasing occurrences of flooding in Chennai. Reflecting on the 2015 flood events, Sud (2015) noted that “climate change is not the only guilty party”. Certainly, climate change is one factor, but the scale of the disaster in Chennai was magnified by rapid urbanisation and a disregard for the importance of water bodies in town planning. For example, over 273 hectares of the Pallikarni marshland are now covered in buildings, the floodplain of the Adyar river is now Chennai’s international airport, and Chennai’s famous Information Technology and Knowledge Corridors sit atop wetlands and marshlands. Areas which would normally act as sinks for flood water are rapidly decreasing.

Velachery Lake is another example which shows that urban planning must consider the importance of water bodies for a more sustainable future.

Velachery is a growing residential area in southern Chennai. The growth of the neighbourhood can largely be attributed to the growth of the IT sector. However, this dramatic increase in the size of the urban population and consequent spatial expansion of residential areas have fundamentally changed the physical landscape for Velachery.

Historically, Velachery Lake was spread over 250 acres. Today, its water spread area has been reduced drastically by 80.5% with residential and industrial complexes now occupying the area. Due to its low-lying location, rainwater from neighbouring areas drain into Velachery Lake; however, every November, Velachery is flooded by monsoon rains. The reduced water storage capacity of Velachery Lake is a significant contributor to this flooding.

The encroachment of Velachery Lake (original size shown in yellow). Graphic: M. Iqbal Shaikh

The decline in the geographical size, physical, chemical, and biotic properties of water bodies have affected urban ecosystems, biodiversity, and the aesthetics of the landscape. Additionally, the occurrence of flood disaster during the monsoon seasons in Chennai must be correlated with the spatial allocation of water bodies. Approximately 650 water bodies have been destroyed in Chennai; compared to the city’s 2,847km of urban roads, there are only 855 km of storm drains.

Flooding in the Velachery area. Photo: ANI

Moreover, the master plans created by Chennai Metropolitan Area’s urban planners reveals the perceived insignificance of water bodies to the area’s urban development.

In fact, the area allocated for water bodies is negligible; while the area allocated for residential and institutional spaces increased by 23.27% from 1971 to 2009, the proposed Master Plan of 2026 makes no mention of the spaces covered by water bodies.

Additionally, Velachery Lake has suffered from the dumping of garbage and untreated sewage water into its waters, further reducing the storage capacity of the lake and polluting its waters. In 2018 the Chennai Corporation put a hold on the proposal for boat rides and other tourist facilities due to the high level of contamination of the water. With about 2,000 families living in the southern bund, and pipelines directed to the lake, the waste, high in organic matter, directly increased the chemical and biological oxygen demand in the receiving waters. The higher the chemical and biological oxygen demand, the greater the potential for damage to biological life living in the water.

Yet, there is great potential and urgent need to protect Velachery Lake from further encroachment and pollution, improve its the current conditions and safeguard the water body, and other water bodies, for future use. As of August 2020, to prevent the outbreak of any vector-borne disease the Chennai Corporation has started cleaning water hyacinth from the lake using an aquatic weed-cutting boat that helps cut underwater weeds, clear silt, and remove garbage. This work is currently being carried out on Velachery Chinna Eri, one of the two areas making up Velachery Lake

Weeds being removed from Velachery Lake. Photo: The Hindu

Urban water bodies are important natural resources. They act as flood moderators, serves as drinking water sources and recreation centres, but only if preserved properly. Water sector planning needs to be an integral component of metropolitan planning for the benefit of the future.

Without this, sustainable urban development will remain a distant thought.

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Memories of a “thodu”

Of a childhood around a stream from the Manimala River in Kottayam, Kerala.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Conceptual representation based on data from Google Earth, of a small segment of the Manimala River flowing through Kottayam.

What must it be like to live in a place where our lives don’t seem too far removed from the beauty of nature? Where visiting a lake or a stream, and playing on its shores are not restricted to an occasional weekend trip, but is an after-school routine?

Years ago, I had found a friend in Haritha Balakrishnan, a singer and software engineer, during a visit to Kochi from my hometown, Chennai. On her laptop, I had come across a video of herself and her childhood friends playing on the banks of a stream, near her home in the outskirts of Kottayam; strutting along the shallow banks, pretending that it was a ramp. It seemed that all they had to do was, step out of their houses, and walk a small distance, to make this pure and serene pocket of nature theirs for a few hours daily. But these few hours, I was told, defined large parts of their memories of home. 

While she casually scrolled past it, the image of this evidently sustainable symbiosis of nature and life, never left my mind.

So, what must it really feel like to have nature commemorate moments of life and make even the ordinary parts seem extraordinary? It shouldn’t take much to respect it, and in return experience its kindness in severalfold, should it?

Haritha Balakrishnan’s narration of her memories around the stream near her home in Kottayam, inspires more such questions:

The beautiful village Haritha talks about is Vizhikkathodu, located in the outskirts of Kottayam, in Kerala. The thodu that is so precious to her, branches from the 91 Km long Manimala River; an important water way of Central Travancore.The river originates in the Muthavara Hills in the district of Idukki, and flows through Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, before it empties itself into the Vembanad Lake in the village of Kainakary in Alappuzha. In Kottayam, the Manimala river extends from Vaipur to Mundakayam. 

Course of the Manimala River in Kerala

Modern-day India continues to be home to hundreds of such rivers, lakes, and innumerable ponds and other smaller waterbodies; and yet, only some like Haritha, might have had memorable experiences around waterbodies on a daily basis, and may even continue to have them; while some others might have to watch these waterbodies being taken over by encroachment, draught, etc., and be faced with the choice of either fighting to protect them or simply hoping for a miracle. For the rest, these stories on life around waterbodies might seem as distant as a fairytale. Irrespective, we all yearn for a piece of it.

We welcome you to share your experiences around waterbodies and your aspirations for the forgotten waterbodies near you! Please write to lakesofindia@gmail.com.

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Traces of the lost waterbodies

City of Chennai and the legend of the vanishing waterbodies

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Historically, waterbodies have marked the beginnings of many important civilizations. From the mentions of Mylapore as a great Pallava port, our pre colonial history as a fishing village, to the recently proposed archeological excavations on the Eastern banks of the Kosasthalaiyar; all confirm that Chennai and its outskirts were once such a bed, rich in culture, natural resources, and biodiversity. In modern urban environments, water bodies continue to play a primary role in helping the society sustain, by maintaining the ground water recharge, balancing the ecosystem, controlling temperature, and preventing floods. Thus, they continue to hold prominence amongst the factors that guarantee a healthy society.

However, in a bid to increase the urban area since 2000, an unbelievable degree of sprawl and encroachment have drastically modified the serene blue and green landscape of waterbodies and greenery in Chennai. This style of urbanization, that seems like an impulsive course of a real-time “Mine Sweeper” game, sweeps through the landscape radially from the coast to the inland; diminishing, and deteriorating waterbodies along the way through burgeoning blocks of buildings. Unlike the game, the consequences are experienced long after.

These severe modifications are reflected today in the impaired absorption capacity of waterbodies, the deteriorated quality of water, disturbed aquatic biodiversity, and the devastations caused by floods and droughts. It has also resulted in a majority of water bodies permanently disappearing from the landscape of the city; some leaving traces of their long-lost existence right under our feet. We experience them as residential, institutional, commercial, and recreational establishments, or even as roads and empty plots, that are annually under the threat of flooding. 

When waterbodies disappear due to encroachment, many at times, these encroachments or their surroundings face issues arising from poor drainage. One such encroachment can be observed in the video above, focusing on a location close to the Eastern limit of Chennai. Today, the consequences of the encroachment are reflected in a small way on stretch of land used as make-shift playground in this location; that annually transforms into a marsh between the months of September and December.

These anomalies in our urban landscapes, are the traces that remain of some of Chennai’s lost waterbodies, and they serve today, as reminders of the prominence that these waterbodies might have had in ensuring the sustainability of the city and the wellbeing of the users, had they been saved. 

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Lost, but hopeful.

Buckingham Canal, Chennai.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

 The story of Chennai’s resilience and survival, has time and again, proved to be a reflection of mankind’s role in the existing natural and man-made physiographic features. Be it the monsoon flooding of areas built on lakes and marsh lands, or the weakening of the intensity of natural disasters by the strategic positions of natural and man-made waterbodies; our efforts in conserving, as well as in modifying the city’s landscape, has always played an important role. 

When it comes to surface drainage, the Greater Madras Area’s coastal physiography consisting of beaches, dunes, backwaters and lagoons, plays an important role through the aid of four main rivers:  the Araniar in the North, followed by Kosasthalaiyar River, Cooum River, and Adyar River in the South; all, largely flowing West-East. Meeting the Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, and Adyar Rivers is the Buckingham Canal, that runs parallel to the coast. Within the city, the Canal meets the Cooum River near the Central Jail, and continues South, before it intersects the Adyar River near the Greenways Railway Bridge.

This man-made Buckingham Canal, and the promises resting on its potential have existed for about two-hundred-years now. After the Canal was built in 1897, it served as an important water route and improved the connectivity of Madras to the other nearby trade centers. During the World War II, it is said that the boat traffic in the Canal, was at its peak. Today, although far from this narrative and largely seen as a lost space in the urban fabric of the city, the Buckingham Canal is still relevant through the role it plays in acting as a buffer against several natural disasters. It has been acknowledged that the intensity of devastations in the city, during the Tsunami of 2004 and the floods of 2015, were reduced by the Canal’s course, running parallel and within 5 Km of the coast throughout its entire length. 

Two of the four-parts, that make the Buckingham Canal one of the longest canals in the country, are steeped in rich history. The Northern part known as the Cochrane Canal, was originally a river called the “North River”, that was seen as a noteworthy geographical feature by the British. In the early 18thcentury, the stretch between this shallow river and the beach, was marked by six block houses which were said to have been built to delineate the northern boundary of the city. The same can be seen in the Wheeler map of 1733.

In talking about the course of this now-forgotten-river, historian and author S Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered says “…In fact, the course of the river was, almost throughout its passage, parallel to the sea – that is to the West of the Fort and about two kilometers from the coast. But in its last stage it changed course; at the south west corner of the present General Hospital grounds it bent back sharply on itself, then travelled northeast for about 800 yards to join the silted mouth of the Triplicane river.” Maps of the city, before the early 19thcentury, document this course of the North River.

A boundary map published in May 1794 by Laurie and Whittle shows the North River flowing parallel to the East coast,
before meeting the Triplicane River.

Source: http://www.davidrumsey.com

In this River, as detailed by author W Francis in Gazetteer of South India Volume 1, the first portion of the Buckingham Canal was built beginning in 1806, by Cochrane and his private enterprise. By 1837, the construction was taken over by the government. But, up until the great famine of 1876, only a small progress, costing about 5 lakh Indian Rupees had taken place. In 1876-78, the Great Famine of Madras, which is often seen as one of the darkest periods in the city’s history, became a driving factor that encouraged the completion of the second-part of the undertaking as famine relief work by the Duke of Buckingham. This today, is the 8 Km long stretch of the Canal linking the Cooum and Adyar Rivers. This stretch was later connected to the Cochrane Canal in the North and the South Coast Canal in the South. At the end of the construction, around 90 lakh Indian Rupees was spent on the Canal.

The Buckingham Canal in 1961.
Source: The Hindu archive.

The finished Canal, as envisioned, was a navigable water system interlinking other streams. It spanned over an expanse of 420 Km, with a 163 Km long stretch in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Andhra Pradesh. In its intact state, the Canal is said to have had a capacity of up to 5,600 cubic feet per second. However, after about a hundred years, a rapid decline in the purpose and maintenance of the Canal, transformed what could have been a solution to the extreme and alternating conditions of drought and heavy rainfalls in the city; into a squalid, incidental buffer reserved for natural calamities. 

Yet, as long as one can look at the Buckingham Canal, and can’t help but believe in all that it can be, not all hope is lost: On one hand, its indispensable positioning on the city’s map and its undeniable potential, have constantly placed it as a key feature in many urban development projects, since the beginning of this century. On the other hand, a common man’s hopes for the Canal, gives us, the people, the right and the responsibility of reviving it, one small step at a time. 

Let’s all do our best!

Featured

Gift of a Big Blue Heart

The Badrakali Lake, Warangal.

By 
Sushmitta Renganathan

Representation of the natural form taken by Badrakali Lake.

If one looks up the city of “Warangal” today, Google Maps might show a stereo-typical green-grey landscape of a developing Indian city, cut through by roadways and national highways. But unlike the rest, at the center of Warangal is a clear blue heart that seems to be persisting amidst the bustle and growth of the city. Rightly guarded by three geologically significant granite hillocks, centuries-old temples, and a few small water bodies in its vicinity, is this heart shaped historic treasure called the “Badrakali Lake”.

View from the Badrakali Temple shows the North and North West bounds of the Badrakali Lake being defined by the Hanamkonda, Padmakshi, and, Shyampet Hillocks.

Said to have been constructed over a thousand years ago, the Badrakali Lake is a testimony to the Kakatiyan Dynasty’s time tested ‘Temple-Tank-Town’ system of urban development. While for a modern-day visitor, this Lake and its surroundings may seem like an unexpected reveal by the city, or even a surreal vision contrasting with those of the urban vicissitudes; For the people of Warangal, however, the Badrakali Lake continues to be a life-sustaining source of pride, identity, culture, livelihood, biodiversity, and so much more.

As the water levels lower, the uniqueness of the granite rock boulders along the shores come into view. The Badrakali Temple is a distant audience in this picture.

 This might even be attributed to what seems like an unwritten agreement dictated by the terrain, that leaves the shallow shores along the South, and South West of the lake to a growing marsh and its many nesting birds and mammals; While marking the North, North East, and West bounds of the Lake as centers of historical and cultural heritage. The chief elements include the Badrakali Temple, Padmakshi Temple, Rudra Temple, and Hanumadgiri Temple.

The Padmakshi Temple Pond as seen a day after a temple festival.

The nature of this set up turns the Badrakali Lake and its surrounding water bodies into indispensable sites of social significance. During festivals like the Bathukama Pooja, and Shakambari festival, the serenity of the Lake shifts to accommodate the festive spirit of the people. It watches on as an honorary spectator, passively voicing out its concerns through the discarded decorations and colorful pots, spilling from the mud roads to the shores the next day. This perennial cycle of activities, does not disrupt the purpose of the lake which continues to be the most important source of drinking water to the city. However, in the summer of 2018, a record low in the water levels of the lake was reported.

The Badrakali Lake and the role it plays in bolstering the historical, social, cultural, biological, and geological significance of the city, makes it a valuable gem not only in Warangal’s urban fabric, but also in that of our nation’s. For over a thousand years, the Badrakali Lake has stood true to its purpose of creation by mankind. The responsibility of sustaining this gift, however, has always rested on more than just nature’s shoulders. Exactly as this historic marvel was conserved and passed on to us, it is now our responsibility to preserve its glory and carry it forward for at least another thousand years.

Lessons from Israel on its water triumph

A little bit about Israel :

Israel is a small country in the Middle East (about 150 times smaller than India , approx. the size of Indian state of Manipur) with a population of 8.3 Million people . Sixty percent of Israel is a desert and the rest is semi-arid . In the last few decades Israel’s rainfall has reduced by over 25% and yet the country has surplus water, and even exports water to Gaza, Palestine and its neighboring kingdom of Jordan.

Israel today is a waterpower-house and exports water technologies worth $2.2 Billion and assists around 150 countries around the world in areas of water management . How did such a small country do it ?

The religious culture of the Jewish people is 2000 years old and the Hebrew Bible has an interesting mention of how God instructs Moses(most important Jewish prophet) to strike a rock with a rod and water gushes out and provides ample water to its people. Jewish prayers are filled with prayer for rain and has several water-focused scriptures that have inculcated a tradition of awareness and gratitude for water .

What solutions have Israelis pioneered for a water-starved world ?

Revolutions on the farm :

Around the world today, flood irrigation is a widely used technique consuming large amounts of water that feed and irrigate large tracts of land. Also, this water evaporates and drains uselessly before being absorbed by the roots and more than 50% of flood-irrigation water is wasted .

Drip irrigation techniques not only saves around 70% of water but also produces higher quality and larger harvest when compared to traditional methods. Another pioneering method is ‘Fertigation’ in which fertilizer is dissolved and distributed along the water in the drip irrigation system providing precise nutrients to the crop.

Drip Irrigation set-up

Desalination methods :

Israeli Desalination Engineering perfected the scientific method that when seawater is frozen, salt gets pushed out of the water. If this salt can be rinsed off the frozen water crystals, what remains is salt-free frozen water(ice). And if this ice is melted, freshwater remains. This desalting technique has undergone innovations and today Israel has designed and built many of the world’s largest desalination plants . The largest desalination facilities in the world today are in Saudi Arabia but India is not too far behind with its own largest desalination plant producing 106 million gallons/day in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

Turning waste into water :

Israel is the only country that re-uses over 95% of its sewage, treats sewage as a treasured national resource and is the essential source of water for agriculture and other uses.

Unlike rainwater/freshwater , sewage is consistent, reliable and predictable and farmers have uninterrupted allocation of treated safe water . With cutting edge metering and leak detection systems and fair pricing of water, Israel’s agriculture regions have increased (unlike  the rest of the world where desert regions are increasing due to increased salt in the waters making it unfit for cultivation and creating social displacement and poverty). In comparison, in India , 80% of fresh water is used in agriculture with minimal treated sewage water.

How are India and Israel working together today ?

  • India and Israel are working closely together under the Agriculture project agreement and implementing drip irrigation systems . India today leads the world with 5 million acres utilizing drip irrigation techniques and the largest adopter of this technology in the world.
  • Reduce food waste : Working with the Horticulture Government of India, Israel is helping establish a value chain for packing and transporting harvest and fresh produce that extends shelf-life by more than 3 months. This has been implemented in 12 states of India having 28 centers to reduce wastage and optimize income of farmers.
  • Precision Agriculture : In precision agriculture, satellite images can help determine which parts of the field need more water, which plants have pest infections, etc. With this information available on mobile phones, farmers can apply fertilizers selectively and understand how much to irrigate and moderate water usage.
  • Bombus bee : To fight pests that destroy crops , a natural method is to introduce insects that control pest population rather than spraying insecticides. In Israel, the bombus bee which is like a bumble bee has been ‘domesticated’ by putting up special hives for it in greenhouses. It pollinates all kinds of flowers and does not bite, so farmers can work peacefully. In Himachal Pradesh, farmers are working on identifying a local bee species that can replicate the bombus bee’s success in pollinating flowers.
  • Seeds for salty water : Israeli plant geneticists have created tomatoes, brinjals, melons, peppers and other fruits and vegetables that thrive on salty water and are sweeter with better texture and have revolutionized the way farmers focus on seeds during drought and limited rain. Jain Irrigation is the largest Indian agriculture company that acquired Israeli company NaanDan and specializes in irrigation solutions and water sensitive products that increase crop yield.

What can we learn from Israel ?

India is facing multiple challenges such as population growth, rising middle class consuming more water, climate change, pollution of our water sources, leaky infrastructure among others. Taking water issues seriously , planning far ahead, educating our children on the value of water and how to save water are essential . We need vocal and respected water advocates, entrepreneurs working closely with the government on incentives to get water related technologies implemented. Learning from Israel’s sophisticated approach to water and the national pride they have in water conservation can serve as an inspiration to our leaders and citizens in the days to come.