Lessons from Bellandur: Governments should allocate more resources to monitor, protect lakes

They should focus on judicial utilisation of the water census reports and identify plans to restore the encroached and lost water bodies

By Swati Bhatia
Published: Monday 12 June 2023
Photo: Indian Institute of Science / Chanakya HN.

Bengaluru’s Bellandur Lake has been in the news for the last few years owing to the mysterious foam formation in the lake. Attempts made over the years to solve the issue were unsuccessful, as the issue occurs almost every year, especially after heavy rains.

However, a recent study by the Indian Institute of Science unfurled the mystery. After monitoring the phenomenon for the last four years, they identified the reasons for the foaming. The study pitched surfactants in the sewage (residues of washing powders and shampoos) as the main culprit.

“Because the lake is large, the sewage takes 10-15 days to disperse through the lake; during this time, a part of the organic material gets degraded in the absence of oxygen and settles down as sludge,” the researchers noted.

Surfactants in the sewage do not disintegrate when more and more sewage runs through the lake; instead, they get loosely attached to the settled sludge and progressively increase in concentration, sometimes reaching up to 200 times the initial concentration, Chanakya HN, one of the authors of the study said in a press statement.

Heavy rains and certain foam-causing bacteria also worsen the situation, according to the study. Bellandur is one of the many lakes in India facing the impacts of improper wetland conservation as well as waste management. Every year, the lake reminds us about the impacts of urbanisation and anthropogenic activities on ecosystems.

Also read: Bellandur Lake: a story of toxic froth and fire

In addition to biodiversity loss, encroachments are among the major issues that add to our concerns about declining water ecosystems. 

Overall, 53 per cent of the world’s largest lakes have been losing water, and 24 per cent have seen an increase. Nearly 33 per cent of the global population resides in a basin with a large, drying lake, highlighted a recent study.

The increasing impacts of climate change on freshwater resources are not unknown anymore. Human interference remains one of the main reasons. Frequent floods, droughts, water-logged cities, contaminated drinking water and disease outbreaks are now an everyday scenario.

Global warming and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change has affected water security, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has pointed out.

The IPCC report has attributed the impacts on freshwater ecosystems to anthropogenic activities. Moreover, it highlighted the need to conserve, protect and restore freshwater sources to build on climate resilience and indirectly reduce effects on biodiversity loss and agricultural productivity.

Freshwater lakes are already under pressure of shrinking and extinction due to increasing pollution, land use change, or encroachments.

“We know that water conservation is critical for a climate-risked age where rainfall will be even more variable and erratic,” said Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment’s director general Sunita Narain during an annual international meet on water and wastewater management held in April 2023.

This requires investment in water conservation and flood mitigation measures so that habitations are more resilient, as well as in water bodies and green spaces so that rainwater can be harvested and stored for dry periods, and in addressing stormwater drainage management, Narain added.

Also read: Bengaluru lakes are frothing and a household item may be the cause

In March 2022, United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution on sustainable lake management — the first-ever resolution dedicated primarily to lakes.

It requested the member states to protect, conserve, restore and ensure sustainable use of lakes. The resolution intented to accelerate actions and set the agenda for future actions being pursued towards lake conservation along with Sustainable development goals on water and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 

UN General Assembly has also announced a decade of ecosystem restoration (from 2021 to 2030). The decadal mission was prompted by a proposal initiated by 70 countries across the globe, led by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization. It aims to ramp up political interventions and on-ground initiatives towards the restoration of billions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

“Water usage has increased 600 per cent over the past 100 years, and one-third of wetlands have been lost over the last 50 years,” according to a 2021 UNEP report.

Since 1900, 64 to 71 per cent of wetlands have been lost. Of these, Asia has a high rate of wetland loss due to large-scale coastal and inland natural wetland conversion, the report added.

In line with the same, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia have launched a freshwater challenge at the 2023 UN Water Conference held in New York.

The challenge intended to restore 300,000 km of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands — an area larger than India — by 2030, according to UNEP. The initiative is the largest step to tackling the water crisis and will contribute to the UN decadal mission.

This challenge calls on all governments to commit clear targets in their respective national plans and strategies towards restoring freshwater ecosystems. This challenge was taken up considering all the programmes at the country and global level and can be easily lined up by the countries under their national plans.

“Healthy freshwater ecosystems are central to water and food security while tackling the climate and nature crises and driving sustainable development,” said Martha Delgado Peralta, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Mexico, while committing the challenge.

Mexico recently updated its National Determined Contribution establishing more ambitious commitments, including aiming to conserve, protect and restore watersheds from an ecosystem approach, because we have to develop strategies comprehensively to ensure the availability of sufficient quality water, both for wetlands and for human use and consumption, Peralta added.

CSE has also conducted some studies on the management of groundwater resources in Uganda and Tanzania. The studies pointed out the lack of proper allocation and release of funds.

CSE studies have also identified non-standard sanitation practices leading to the pollution of water resources in these countries. This freshwater challenge will push other countries to look into such issues while taking up targets as and when required.

A lot of the lakes in India are also lost or have been altered owing to human interference. Shrinking of Chilika Lake in Odisha to 915 square kilometres (sqkm) from 2200 sqkm and Dal Lake in Jammu and Kashmir, which has now reduced to an area of 12 sqkm area which is less than half its usual size, are some examples cited by CSE.

India is gearing up towards such restoration initiatives by identifying its waterbodies through its recently released water census and restoration of its lakes through programmes like Amrit Sarovar, AMRUT, etc. But the government has to ensure its sustainability by timely release of the funds and also ensure proper monitoring mechanisms. It also has to look forward to judicial utilisation of the water census reports and identify plans to restore the encroached and lost water bodies.

During the international meet, Narain also said, “The problem lies in the fact that our land and water bureaucracies are fractured — some agency owns the pond, another the drain and yet another the catchment. Water security requires this to change. Giving the local community much greater control over the water structures — deepening democracy and devolution of powers — is the answer”.

The initiative aimed to bring fresh water solutions in partnership with communities, government and other stakeholders.

It also provided evidence at the country level, which shall help plan and implement better in terms of identifying priorities, updation plans and policies, financial allocation and mobilisation for better implementation and restoration initiatives. Taking learnings, the countries in the Global South should also focus on developing a database of waterbodies to plan better.

“Protecting and restoring wetlands is a critical global priority — for the water we need, to tackle climate change and buffer extreme events, and to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. The Freshwater Challenge will help catalyse broad-based action and give effect to our common global goals," said Musonda Mumba, secretary general of the Convention on Wetlands.

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