The muck stops here

Indian lakes are no longer serene waterbodies. Instead, they have become stinking cesspools, a result of continuous inflow of sewage and massive siltation. As the lakes die a premature death, the question that arises is who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs and who is answerable for the health of the populace. Udaipur's five lakes, Bhopal's upper lake, Dal lake of Kashmir and the Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad; all tell a story of human greed and indifference. The avarice continues

Published: Wednesday 30 April 1997

The muck stops here

Open municipal drains full of< (Credit: T Razdan)UDAIPUR
Udaipur's five lakes depict the saga of degradation and the apathy of the state government and citizens


udaipur is a beautiful city surrounded by the Aravalli hills and five lakes - Pichola, Fatehsagar, Rangsagar, Swaroopsagar and the smaller Dudh Talai. Though outwardly Udaipur looks serene with its lakes and gardens, environmentally it is heading towards disaster and its residents face the threat of an epidemic from water-borne diseases. The environmental threat to Udaipur's lakes arises largely because of two inter-related sources: siltation and pollution. The siltation of the lakes has mainly occurred due to mindless deforestation, while their heavy pollution has been the result of continuing disposal of sewage.

Indiscriminate deforestation in the hills surrounding Udaipur and in the adjoining forests of Mewar region has meant that every year's monsoon washes down tonnes of silt into the lakes. It has been estimated that the capacity of Pichola is getting reduced every year by 0.93 per cent and that of Fatehsagar by 1.16 per cent. The life in terms of dead storage of the lake is hardly 28 years and in terms of gross storage, the life of Pichola is estimated at 97 years and of Fatehsagar at 72 years, by which time these lakes will be completely filled.
Ultimate dumpyard There are approximately 60,000 people living around the lakes and nearly 60 hotels dot their peripheries. The domestic sewage and waste water from the hotels is conveniently let into the lakes of Pichola, Rangsagar and Swaroopsagar. Defecation on the banks of Swaroopsagar is a common practice. The sewage system constructed around the lakes does not work and raw sewage is directly emptied into them. Solid domestic waste amounting to 20-25 tonnes per day is also dumped close to the lakes. This finds its way into the lakes during the monsoons. Besides, people living around the lakes continuously attempt to extend their personal property by encroaching upon the lakes. In addition, the 73 ghats on lake Pichola are mostly used by the public for bathing and washing which includes infected linen from hospitals. A large amount of detergent goes into the water, increasing its phosphate content.

Between 1978-82 a partial sewage system was constructed (without a sewage treatment plant) to cover 30-35 per cent of the population around the lakes. However, due to certain design limitations and improper maintenance, the system does not function and raw sewage flows directly into Pichola and Rangsagar (See table: Sewer lines now).

Besides, water treatment plants, which have a capacity of 24.1 million litres per day (mld), generally treat 31.8 mld - an overload of 32 per cent. There are a number of cracks in the filter beds and as a result suspended solids generally escape into the drinking water. A large amount of faecal coliforms, which is indicative of the presence of faecal matter, has been detected in drinking water during studies conducted by scientists from the m l Sukhadia University and the Rajasthan Agriculture University over the last 20-25 years . Besides, during treatment water is super-chlorinated to remove impurities . This is known to produce trihalomethanes, which are highly carcinogenic chemicals. It is believed that Udaipur has an abnormally high incidence of cancer and the super-chlorination of drinking water may be partly responsible for this. The poor quality of drinking water in Udaipur is resulting in the high incidence of water borne diseases such as typhoid, para-typhoid, amoebic dysentery, colitis, diarrhoea and viral hepatitis.

The pollution of the lakes has not only affected the health of the people of Udaipur. It has also practically wiped out several species of fish. The bigger carps are fast disappearing, leaving only minor carps, minnows and puntius.

The situation is indicative of the slow poisoning of the people of Udaipur. Unless there is a mass movement that makes the issue the focus of debate at the national level, and unless the government is made answerable for the utter neglect of the environment and the health of the people, the beauty of Udaipur's lakes will become a mere memory.

P L Agarwal is the ex-chairperson of the Steel Authority of India Limited

Sewer lines now
The total quantity of effluents flowing into the lakes from 38 drains has been estimated at 6,000 m3/day
Lake No of drains Effluents volums
Pichola 25 3580
Rangsagar 8 1250
Kalalia talab
(part of Pichola)
1 830
Swaroopsagar 4 340

One lake, multiple demands
The upper lake, the 11th century lake of Bhopal, is dying gradually because of indiscriminate usage, indifference of the authorities and human pressure


upper lake, which is locally known as Bada Talab was built by king Bhoj of Dhar (1000-1055) by constructing a massive earthern bund across the Kolans river in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The lake which has a catchment area of 36.1 sq km, has become highly polluted primarily due to eutrophication. Its water spread too has either been replaced with silted land mass or covered with aquatic weeds which takes a turn for the worse during summer.

The continuing pollution has posed a serious threat to the quality and the effectively usable quantity of water from the lake for the city's public water supply scheme, which is already handicapped by the absence of an alternative cost-effective water source.

More agricultural crops are found in the area rather than thick forests. As such, the catchment area, which is covered with black soil, is subject to severe erosion. Consequently, a large volume of silt and humus material has been carried into the lake by Kolans river and other rivulets entering it. In addition, agriculture residues from village areas and solid waste, including construction debris from residential and commercial areas, also find their way into the lake through the drains and streams, particularly during the rainy season.

Besides, it is estimated that 7,500 cu m per day of sewage joins the lake.The silting rate of the lake is estimated to be about 1 cm to 2.5 cm per year and the estimated sedimentation rate from the catchment area is to the tune of 3.6 ha m (hectare metre) per 100 sq km per year.

On the southern side of the lake, near Shamla Hills, an area of 14 sq km encloses the Van Vihar national park. As the park is separated from the lake and protected from human activities by a nine km-long stretch - Lake View Road - normal vegetation grows in the area, thereby preventing soil erosion from the hills. However, there is a lot of inflow of sewage into the lake in Koh-e-Fiza, the area around the Medical College hostels.

Bacterial overload
According to a report prepared by Pradeep Shrivastav, reader in the department of liminology, Barkatullah University in Bhopal, the bacterial load in the lakes has shot up by 20 times between 1985 and 1993, pointing towards the degradation of water quality due to organic waste. Also, the total suspended solids has gone up from 39 miligram per litre (mgl) in 1965 to 90 mgl in 1992. Shrivastav, who has been monitoring the upper lake for more than a decade, said that the maximum depth of the lake was reducing at an alarming rate. The maximum depth was recorded at 7.31 m in 1947. In 1968, the depth was recorded at 9.14 m and it rose to 10.93 m in 1971. However, the catchment area of the lake has increased from 2.7 sq km in 1876 to 36.1 sq km in 1988.

Another noticeable finding was recorded in the report prepared by the state council of science and technology. The council conducted a study to analyse the impact of methyl isocyanate after the Bhopal gas tragedy on December 3, 1984. The study established that the lethal gas dissolved in the water of the upper lake. It noted that the visibility of lake water was reduced from 133 cm in 1977 to 100 cm in 1989 . Similarly, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water reduced from 8.8 mgl to 6.17 mgl in 1989.

Whose lake?
The absence of any guidelines from the state government on who actually owns the lake has resulted in a situation where various departments are busy in exploiting the lake and thus putting tremendous pressure on this beautiful water body. A proposal is pending with the government to bring the lake under the Ramsar Convention, which means that the multiple use of the lake for recreation, fisheries, drinking and for wildlife will be encouraged. But this is contrary to the objectives of the Bhoj Wetland Project ( See box : Rebirth ). Further, the Bhopal municipal corporation, which is also a part of the project, is planning to use the lake as the site for a multi-crore water sports club.

At a time when the state government is already working on a conservation project, the proposed activities could prove to be disastrous for the lake. Moreover, a four-storeyed hotel that has been constructed barely 10 m away from the lake is ready to start functioning. The liquid waste generated by the hotel, which is situated right in front of the water treatment plant, is bound to be released directly into the lake, and probably very close to the point from where the water is taken out for treatment. Also, tourist activities promoted by the state tourism development corporation is disrupting the otherwise peaceful environment of Lake View Road leading to Van Vihar. "The lake is slowly converting into a Chaupati-like area (in Mumbai) due to the increase in tourist promotion activities," said an activist of Sadprayas, a voluntary organisation crusading for the protection of the lake.

Besides the need for creating a nodal agency that has absolute control over the lake, there is an urgent need of strong political will to prevent further pollution of the upper lake in the name of religion, tourism and sports. Only time can tell whether the objectives of the Bhoj wetland project will be achieved.

Bobby Naqvi is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal the Dal lake is dying. The lake has shrunk more than 15 km over the last 60 years. Siltation, direct inflow of sewage, encroachment and stagnant water have led to the gradual degradation of the once-serene Dal lake, situated more than 1,500 m above mean sea level in Srinagar. A feasibility study for a Rs 410-crore restoration lake project will initially focus on partial treatment of sewage from 1,400 odd houseboats and houses on the periphery of the lake. But environmentalists feel that the project, undertaken by the Urban Environmental Engineering Department (ueed), which manages the lake, would touch only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Says M A Kawosa, Jammu and Kashmir director of environment and remote sensing: "When we look back over the past 15-20 years, we find that with all the effort and money, we have not been able to solve the problem."

According to Jammu and Kashmir forest secretary A R Parrey, "The lake which covered an area of 25 sq km (in the early '30s) has now shrunk to 10 sq km as recent mapping shows." Since 1992 the lake has shown a 'red bloom' of organisms, denoting eutrophication or lake death. Similar problems haunt Kashmir's other lakes. Wular, an absorption basin for the flood waters of the Jhelum river, and an internationally significant wetland that is home to more than 20,000 waterfowl, has reached a critical level with regard to its hydrological and ecological conditions. The lake area has dwindled from the original 202 sq km to the present 24 km.

Unsavoury consequences
One of the serious impacts of the degradation of the lake(s) has been the gradual loss of a flood control system (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 15). Said ueed chief engineer G M Zargar, "Dal has a role in controlling the Jhelum waters." Zargar says that there are frequent floods in the lake every year and the water level remains high due to inflow from feeder drains, local drainage, and springs from the lake-bed. Restoration plans are on for the Dal and Wular lakes. But the results are yet to be seen. One of the plans envisage the fitting of floating septic tanks to houseboats, by the New Delhi-based Centre for Research Planning and Action (cerpa). According to a cerpa official, "Sewage will be chemically and biologically treated in the tanks and partially treated sludge could be collected and removed."

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