3. India's dying lakes

Posted: 5 January 2001

Author Info: Darryl D'Monte is President of the Indian Federation of environmental Journalists.

All of India's lakes are under siege - from new threats as well as traditional ones. Darryl D'Monte reports.

In Chilka, in the eastern state of Orissa, prawn farmers are seeking to exploit this inland sea, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia, with full blessings of the state government. An $8 million aquaculture project launched by the Tata industrial house, the country's biggest, was resisted by fishermen and had to be abandoned, but the smaller schemes are sprouting everywhere along Orissa's 480 km-long coastline. The Bhitarkanika sanctuary, also a large freshwater body, is similarly being targeted for aquaculture, with all the shrimp for export. As many as 26,000 hectares along the Orissa coast have been identified by the World Bank for fish farming, with only 1,350 hectares reserved for small fishermen. But more time-honoured threats abound as well. The Loktak Lake in the tiny northeastern state Himalayan state of Manipur, one of India's three Ramsar sites, is being choked by a hydroelectric project. Rashmi De Roy, programme co-ordinator of wetlands of WWF-India, told a magazine: "The problem with wetland conservation is not merely the local economic pressure. More pertinent is the fact that most wetland development policies of the government are proving detrimental to the natural functioning of the economic cycle of the sites."

The natural flow into the Lake has been curtailed and the 290 km² wetland has been converted into a reservoir, altering the ecological balance and disrupting the natural flood and fuel chain which local people depend on. According to De Roy, the pressure on wetlands is from outsiders who are in a hurry to develop such areas for tourism or fisheries under the mistaken belief that they are otherwise not being exploited. The Loktak Development Authority has taken "protective" measures, including a ban on cultivation in the park and erecting fences to prevent people from entering, but this has only heightened the villagers' hostility.

Bird Sanctuary Perhaps the most celebrated case in the country is that of the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, in the north-west, also a Ramsar site. It is better known as the Bharatpur bird sanctuary and lies cheek by jowl with the Taj Mahal, which is why its migratory birds are almost as big a tourist attraction as the world-renowned monument. This unique wetlands dries in summer but is fed from waters of two rivers impounded by a barrage. Thanks to uncontrolled use of this water in the last two decades, however, the park has been facing periodic droughts, which prove catastrophic for the birds and the vegetation on which they thrive.

Bharatpur - much of the wetlandsurface choked by plant growth© Sunjoy Monga/Porpoise PhotostockA ten-year study by the 110-year-old Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) recommended "an integrated development programme ... to be implemented taking the needs of the villagers into account." What the naturalists refrain from mentioning is the clash between villagers and the park authorities over a decade ago, in which a few villagers were shot dead by the police. They were agitating against the decision to bar them from grazing their buffaloes in the park. Some ecologists argue that such a ban is justified because the buffaloes would disturb the delicate breeding and other natural cycles. It is perhaps partly due to human interference that Bharatpur's most famous annual visitor - the Siberian crane has been missing in recent winters. Wading through the shallow wetland, the buffaloes trample on nests and destroy the under-growth on which the birds perch.

Unique history

However, there is another school which believes that the buffaloes have been around for a couple of centuries and have become part of the ecological life of the sanctuary. Their dung provides nutrients for vegetation and, what is more, they devour weeds which choke the wetlands otherwise. The study, headed by Dr V. S. Vijayan of the BNHS, actually advocates the controlled return of buffaloes to the park as "the traditional primary consumers of the wetland."

The study concludes: "The history of Keoladeo National Park presents an unique feature of man's interaction in the evolution of an evanescent, temporary, rainfed tiny tank into a world famous waterfowl refuge. The culture and economy of the villagers around the park had played a remarkable role in the transformation and maintenance of the system." As many as 18 villages surround the park and the residents depend on it for their livelihood. Co-existence is feasible and desirable.

Dr Lata Vijayan, an ornithologist from Coimbatore, who assisted her husband in the study, believes that wetlands like Keoladeo are "vulnerable because they are open systems influenced by activities from the outside and also by the inadequacy of the support and participation of the local people."

According to De Roy, development strategies for conservation and sustainable use are applicable to all important wetlands in India. The government should shift from treating this invaluable resource as commercially exploitable to attempting to rehabilitate them ecologically, taking into account entire drainage systems, rather than examine each wetland in isolation. It should also not physically modify these wetlands drastically and, perhaps most important of all, learn how to incorporate people's management practices in their present-day maintenance.