Tuesday, May 11, 2021

World Water Day How city’s growth depleted quality of lakes

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At around 6 am on Sunday, three coracles ventured into the over 150-acre lake in BTM Layout, a suburban neighbourhood in the southern side of Bengaluru. In about an hour, the coracles returned one-by-one with nets full of rohu (Labeo rohita), catla (Labeo catla) and the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) among the about 160 kg of fish.

Morning joggers queued up to get the catch of the day, while many others just stood around the stall chattering on about the fish dumped on tarpaulins as it was weighed, cleaned and sold to customers.

“The water in this lake is not fit for drinking. But the fish is good,” said Antony, the 51-year-old who has the contract to cultivate and sell the catch from the lake. He said the lake’s condition improved ever since authorities diverted the sewage water.

This lake was developed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, the city’s civic body) and is considered one of the more successful projects of the administration that has spent—and continues to spend—tens of crores into ‘rejuvenating’ water bodies in the city. The civic body has also partnered with corporates to channel CSR funds into lake rejuvenation but with little success to improve the quality of water.

With the World Water Day being observed on March 22, the discussion on deteriorating quality of water, air and life in urban centres across India and other parts of the globe gains significance.

Once known as the ‘land of lakes’, Bengaluru has seen a steady decline in the water bodies as a victim of its own success. It has led to a higher allocation of funds but with little attention to the quality of water and ecology, experts said.

But lakes and tanks, which were part of the human-interventions in Bengaluru to mitigate the lack of river, are now found mostly in the pages of history books, experts said.

At least 19 lakes of the remaining 205 (out of earlier estimates of at least 250) under the BBMP were termed as disused lakes due to encroachments, according to a February 2021 report by the CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

Some of the encroachments are by big builders, who name their projects “lake view” to attract more interest from potential buyers.

Between 2008 and 2020, the BBMP claimed to have developed around 80 out of the 205 lakes with another 20 or so under various stages of completion.

“None of the lakes have drinking standards water,” said a senior official of the BBMP, incharge of lakes.

He said that until there is sewage water flowing theought storm water drains into these lakes, the quality of water cannot improve.

“Until the BWSSB (Bengaluru Water supply and sewerage Boad) continues to allow sewage to enter these drains, it wont help the lake,” he said. The official added that despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order to stop inlet of sewage into these drains, the practice contiues.

However, experts said that most of the money went into ‘ornamental’ developments like concrete walking/jogging tracks, gazebos, seating and fencing than implementing measures that improve the quality of water and its ecology.

“Money is not spent on lake rejuvenation but cosmetic and beautification. That’s why the lakes, ecology and environment are in a bad state. But you will see a nice park around lakes, gyms, walking tracks and people have been misguided to believe that this is lake rejuvenation,” said V Ramprasad, one of the founders and coordinators of Friends of Lakes, a citizen-driven initiative to revive water bodies in Bengaluru.

With the Vrishabhavathi river becoming a victim of over exploitation, sewage and encroachments, Bengaluru quenches its insatiable thirst by dipping into the Cauvery, about 100 km away. Thousands of crores is spent each year to divert water to Bengaluru, where leakages and lack of reuse of water have weighed on any sustainability goals India’s IT capital may have. Experts said that less than 5% city residents have implemented rainwater harvesting in a region known to get bountiful rains. Instead, the need for water in the city is met through borewells and supply through tankers, which snake around almost every inch of the city, delivering thousands of litres several times a day.

Lakes are no longer an answer and have instead become casualties of Bengaluru’s economic success.

The CSIR-NEERI report indicated that there were only around 21 lakes in the city where water is deemed fit for drinking.

This data, however, has been contested by environmentalists, scientists and residents of the city.

A report by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) in 2020 stated that not even one lake had fit-for-drinking water.

“One of the places they (authorities) are going wrong is their investment in the waterbody and not the entire watershed. It should take care of sewage and solid waste networks in catchment areas that give the lake a chance at revival. But merely putting up a fence or taking out silt doesn’t mean anything,” Dr Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a water activist and urban planner, said.

“For the money that is invested, the bang for the buck is absolutely minimal,” he added.

Few big apartment complexes have installed STP (sewage treatment plants), but most of Bengaluru’s used water flows through a complex system of lakes and open channels or ‘tank cascade system’. Experts said the unregulated and unchecked development of Bengaluru in the last two decades — right around the IT boom — has led to the construction of apartments, mushrooming of layouts and other establishments. It has facilitated open channels, receiving more untreated water and industrial effluents, causing a range of impact on these ecosystems.

Bellandur lake made global headlines for its toxic content and foam that often catches fire largely due to the sewage, metal and other harmful contents within the lake.

Hundreds of crores have been allocated, but there is little to show as ‘rejuvenation’, experts said.

Dr. Priyanka Jamwal, fellow at the Centre for Environment and Development at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment or (ATREE), said there was no clarity on what authorities wanted in respect to rejuvenation. “For water quality they just say that they want to attain a trophic level. In a lake, it could be Oligotrophic, Mesotrophic, Eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic, which depends on the productivity of the lake. Hypereutrophic is highly contaminated that has a lot of algae while Oligotrophic lakes are present in pristine environments,” she said.

ATREE has been monitoring Jakkur lake, considered one of the cleanest in the city for four years now, but even it has high content of faecal coliforms, nitrate and other contaminants that make it unfit for drinking unless treated.

“It can be treated and made drinkable, but the amount of investment required is very high,” she added.

About the fish from these lakes that are caught, sold and consumed, Jamwal said faecal coliforms die when the food is cooked at high temperature. However, Jamwal also pointed out that there are other heavy metals and contaminants bio-accumulated in the fish.

“The point is that nobody is testing the fish,” she said.

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