The Naini Lake, sitting in the lap of mountains in Nainital, Uttarakhand, is visibly struggling. The water level of the lake has dropped drastically, exposing the lake bed in many areas.
“An indication of the lake’s health can be gauged by the fact that while it reached zero level only twice before 2000 (1923 and 1980), since 2000 the zero level has been reached 15 times,” says Vishal Singh, research coordinator, Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR). Along with the University of Cambridge, CEDAR, studied the lake from 2014 to 2016.
“Usually, the zero level is reached in May-June, however, this year, the lake dropped to zero level in January itself,” Singh adds. In March this year, the water level reached a new record low at 13.2 feet below the zero level.
There are two reasons that the experts believe are making the lake shrink: obstruction in the subsurface recharge and increased abstraction of water to quench Nainital’s thirst.
Current state of Sukhatal Lake
In 1995, a research by the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH), Roorkee showed that the main recharge zone of the Naini lake is Sukhatal, a seasonal lake situated 50 metres above Naini lake. Covering an area of two hectares, the Sukhatal lake absorbs water during the monsoons and then this water recharges the Naini lake during the dry seasons. In fact, another study carried out jointly by NIH and the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2008 found that 53 per cent of Nainital lake’s water recharge happens through the water absorbed by Sukhatal.
However, Sukhatal recharge zone of the Nainital lake has fallen prey to encroachment. The CEDAR study observes that once residential area mushroomed over the lake bed, pumps were installed “to ensure that houses in and around Sukhatal were not flooded during the monsoon, ironically making it a “sukha-taal” or a ‘dry-lake’.” This has severely reduced the recharge capacity of Sukhatal lake which has directly manifested itself in the form of decreasing level of the Naini lake.
The encroachment on the Sukhatal lake and its impact on the Naini lake isn’t unknown to locals. Ajay Rawat, local activist and former professor at Kumaon University moved court against the encroachment in 1993. (See: Timeline below)
Rawat filed another PIL in 2012, asking the Uttarakhand High Court to look into the matter of encroachment in Sukhatal and the natural drains recharging the Naini lake. It also urged the court to declare the lake area an eco-sensitive zone. The court had ordered the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to submit a report on why water level in the lake is receding. Last year, hearing Rawat’s PIL, the Uttarakhand High Court directed the Irrigation Department of Uttarakhand to rejuvenate the Sukhatal lake.
Concern over irrigation department’s revival plan
Singh says that the Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared by the irrigation department is lopsided. “They are saying that they will create an artificial lake in the Sukhatal lake region. But this will seal the lake bed and destroy its recharge capacity,” he says.
Moreover, Singh also fears that the lake, with its storage capacity of 8.8*104 m3, might actually be a disaster waiting to unleash itself on the region. “A fault line runs near the Sukhatal lake and divides Nainital into two. This is a seismically active zone and any tectonic movement will wash away the entire settlement,” he explains.
The other factor eating up, or rather drinking up the Naini lake is the increasing amount of water abstraction from the lake to meet Nainital’s water demand. According to the Uttarakhand Jal Sansthan (UJS) data, a major portion of the Nainital’s water demand is met by the Naini lake and it is supplemented by water from Sukhatal lake and natural springs.
“Currently, on an average, 14 million litres per day (MLD) of water is taken from the Naini lake, 2 MLD from the Sukhatal lake and around .5 MLD comes from the natural springs,” Singh quotes UJS data.
Sewage is another problem
In early 19th century, Nainital got a very basic sewerage system—perhaps its first. But rapid urbanisation soon proved this set-up to be inadequate, leading to overflow from storm water drains and ultimately causing sewage discharge into the Naini Lake.
The UJS maintains that only 200 homes are not connected to the sewer network. However, countless households are illegal and unregistered. Hence, an official estimate is not available. A K Saxena, executive engineer, UJS, points out that “of the 2,000 registered houses in the town, only 1,100 are connected to sewer lines.”
“Labourers hired for housing construction activities, and hailing from Nepal, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, defecate in the open on the shores of the lake,” says Rawat. Due to this, a lot of ‘illegal’ sewage also flows into the Naini. According to the District Urban Development Agency (DUDA) and Nagar Palika Parishad (NPP), Nainital has 10 main slums scattered across the town, accounting for about 21 per cent of the total population. Many of these slums lie within the catchment area of the lake. Moreover, Nainital does not have sewage treatment facilities. It has to expand its sewer network, and provide decentralised sewage treatment plants (STPs) and on-site treatment in low density areas.
Deforestation, too, contributes to the problem. “Though tree felling is banned above 1,000 metres in the Himalayan region and Nainital is more than 1,938 metres above sea, the Forest Department itself cut 246 green trees, mostly oak, in the G B Pant High Altitude Zoo, Nainital, on the pretext that the animals are feeling cold,” Rawat told Down to Earth.
Activism on the ground
While it is clear that the fate of the Naini lake hangs in the balance, the locals have now started organising campaigns to save their water body. A change.org petition started earlier this year is culminating into a “silent and barefoot protest” on June 3. Protestors will march barefoot from one end of Nainital (Talli tal) to the other (Malli tal).