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Urban lakes in India are dirty and dying


Udaipur city, Rajasthan, is surrounded by the Aravalli hills and five lakes — Pichola, Fatehsagar, Rangsagar, Swaroopsagar and Dudh Talai. Deforestation in the hills surrounding Udaipur and in the adjoining forests of Mewar region has meant that each year’s monsoon washes down tonnes of silt into the lakes. It has been estimated that the capacity of Pichola is reducing every year by 0.93 per cent, and that of Fatehsagar by 1.16 per cent.

Approximately 60,000 people live around the lakes and nearly 60 hotels dot their peripheries. Domestic sewage and wastewater from the hotels is let into Pichola, Rangsagar and Swaroopsagar. Defecation on the banks of Swaroopsagar is a common practice. 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. The 73 ghats on lake Pichola are 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.

A large amount of faecal coliforms, 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 superclorinated to remove impurities. This is known to produce trihalomethanes, highly carcinogenic chemicals. This could be the reason for the high incidence of cancer in Udaipur. The poor quality of drinking water here is resulting in the high incidence of water-borne diseases such as typhoid, para-typhoid, amoebic dysentery, colitis, diarrhoea and viral hepatitis. The pollution has also practically wiped out the bigger carps, leaving only minor carps, minnows and puntius.

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. Besides, water treatment plants, which have a capacity of 24.1 million litres per day (mld), generally treat 31.8 mld — handling an overload of 32 per cent. A number of cracks in the filter beds results in suspended solids escaping into the drinking water.

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Upper lake, locally known as Bada Talab, was built by king Bhoj of Dhar (1000-1055 ad) by constructing a massive earthen bund across the river Kolans in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The lake, with a catchment area of 36.1 sq km, has become highly polluted primarily due to eutrophication (see: pp 42-43). 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. Agricultural crops are generally to be found in the area, rather than thick forests. As such the catchment area, covered with black soil, is subject to serious erosion. This results in silt and a large volume of humus material being carried into the lake by the Kolans river and other rivulets entering it. Also, agricultural residues from villages and solid waste, including construction debris from residential and commercial areas, find their way into the lake through drains and streams, particularly during the rainy season.

Besides, it is estimated that 7,500 cubic metres (cum) per day of sewage joins the lake. According to a report prepared by Pradeep Shrivastav, reader in the department of liminology, Barkatullah University, Bhopal, the bacterial load in the lakes has shot up 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 milligram per litre (mg/l) in 1965 to 90 mg/l in 1992. This poses a serious threat to the quality and the usable quantity of water for the city’s public water supply scheme, itself already handicapped by the absence of an alternative cost-effective water source.

Sadly, certain governmental decisions are totally contradictory to the objectives of the Bhoj Wetland Project –– a Rs 231-crore Japanese-funded conservation scheme to revive the upper lake system. 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 wildlife will be encouraged. Further, the Bhopal municipal corporation is planning to use the lake as the site for a multi-crore water sports club. A four-storeyed hotel that has been constructed barely 10 m away from the lake is also 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.

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The historic Hussainsagar lake in the heart of Hyderabad city, Andhra Pradesh, is now a stinking stretch of polluted water separating it from its twin city, Secunderabad. The lake, which once received unpolluted water from the upper reaches of the river Musi, now receives domestic sewage and myriad chemicals from 300-odd industries. Four industrial estates located in its basin — Sanathnagar, Balanagar, Kukatpally and Jeedimetla — drain untreated and partially treated wastes into the lake. This, along with domestic sewage received from Picket, Kukatpally, Bolakpur and Banjara Hills nullahs (drains), accounts for a daily flow of 28,190 cum per day of waste into Hussainsagar. Presently, the lake is saturated with phenols, benzenes, cyanides and toxic metals. Hussainsagar was a drinking water source from 1884 to 1930.

Lake Osmansagar and Himayatsagar, which provide potable water supply to the twin cities, are also facing extinction due to rapid siltation and quarrying in the catchment areas. Dredging of these lakes is required to increase the water holding capacity during monsoons.

Groundwater pollution along the Hussainsagar watershed poses serious health hazards. Nitrate concentration in the groundwater around the lake is reportedly high, ranging from 0-400 ppm (parts per million), several-fold higher than the permissible World Health Organization (who) standard of 10 ppm. A study in 1993 revealed high concentration of toxic heavy metals in groundwater samples along the radius of 0-800 metres around the lake. The concentrations of lead were in the range of 1-25 microgram/litre (µg/l), and cadmium concentrations ranged from 1-27 µg/l. These are significantly higher than the permissible levels of 10 µg/l of lead and 5 µg/l of cadmium recommended by agencies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research and the who.

Hyderabad meet

Hyderabad to restore all its urban waterbodies by 2009. A declaration (known as Hyderabad declaration) made by the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority (HUDA) at the end of a three-day international workshop on urban lakes conservation and management in Hyderabad on June 18, 2003.

The meet was jointly organised by HUDA and World Water Institute, Pune. More than 100 participants (including Mayors, Municipal Commissioners, non-governmental organisations and researchers) from India and abroad deliberated on how to revive these lakes to augment city's water supply. While speaking on the occasion, Lakshmi Parthasarathy, vice chairperson of HUDA, said, "The 162 waterbodies in Hyderabad city occupy about 3,000 hectares of land. And, if these lakes are revived than about 220 MLD of water could be recharged. This will be able to reduce the gap of 400 MLD between demand and supply". HUDA plans to tackle about 87 lakes in the initial phase. The Royal Netherlands embassy is funding the project. Working in this field for past four years, HUDA has successfully brought a government notification. It gives directions to keep 30 m of area from the full tank capacity level free from all construction related activities.

Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, inaugurated the event. A host of delegates presented their views. Ayan Appan from Singapore said that the pigs were the main culprits - so, their relocation from the catchment area solved the problem. Tej Razdan from Rajasthan and Linda Nowlan from British Columbia shared their experience to conserve lakes with judiciaries help. Nowlan said there are about 70 laws to conserve freshwater bodies in Canada and the defaulters have to pay heavy penalty. R Bhalla from FERRAL, Pondicherry, shared the application of GIS in conservation of lakes. At the end of the day, it was observed that encroachment and pollution are the major problems affecting the lakes all over the world. An international training institute was proposed in Hyderabad. The participants planned to meet again in January 2004 to share the progress made and chalk out the way ahead.

For further information:
M Ravinder Reddy
Hyderabad Urban Development Authority
1-8-323, Paigah Palace, Police Lines,
Rasoolpura, Secunderabad 500 003
Tel: + 91-40-27905993
Fax: +91-40-27903185

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The Dal Lake has shrunk more than 15 km over the last 60 years. Since 1992, the lake has shown a ‘red bloom’, denoting eutrophication or lake death. Siltation, direct inflow of sewage, encroachment and stagnant water have led to gradual degradation. One of the serious impacts of degra dation has been the gradual loss of a flood control system. G M Zargar of the Urban Environmental Engineering Department (ueed) says that there are frequent floods every year and the water level remains high due to inflow from feeder drains, local drainage and springs trickling into the lake bed.

Restoration plans are on but results are yet to be seen. A feasibility study for a Rs 410-crore restoration 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, which has been undertaken by the ueed (which manages the lake), would touch only the tip of the 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.”

In the past...
Walk down dirty steps to a dry lake Pichola

In the past, lakes and tanks were a very important aspect of water supply for the purposes of drinking and irrigation in India in both urban and rural areas. South India used to be particularly rich in tanks, with the Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijaynagar kings paying great attention to irrigation. Writing about the tanks in Karnataka in 1896, a British engineer noted that the tanks, constructed by the “rajahs or wealthy natives,” were “magnificent works on a gigantic up regardless of expenses, as their originators had for object the attainment of religious merit by execution of such works, quite as much as the acquisition of grain by the profits of improved cultivation.” However, tanks did not suit the British system of governance. They wanted to extract resources. As land revenue from each village was assured through a well-developed ryotwari and zamindari system, construction of tanks would not enhance any revenue. Maintenance, by extension, would mean useless drainage of the exchequer. Thus, instead of community-managed indigenous water systems, like tanks and wells, which deteriorated after they stopped receiving state patronage, the emphasis shifted to diverting and pumping river water through projects like the Punjab and Deccan Canals — and India's present obsession with dams and other large-scale water projects took root. Little has changed since independence, with minimal funds being allotted to minor irrigation projects in the Five Year Plans. As existing systems fail to provide the burgeoning metros with sufficient water, ambitious projects are being drawn up to pump water over large distances at enormous costs.
Over the years, the tanks and wetlands have been neglected and systematically encroached upon, and made the receptacles of city muck. Present Indian governments have meticulously followed the footsteps.

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The muck stops here

April 30, 1997
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