Dams · Wetlands

Ramsar Wetlands in crisis: West India

The four state of West India have only five Ramsar sites of international importance. These includes Sambhar lake and Keoladeo NP in Rajasthan, Nalsarovar in Gujarat, Bhoj Taal in Madhya Pradesh and Nandur Madhmeshwar Wetlands in Maharashtra. There is no Ramsar site in Goa state.

Ramsar Wetlands sites, West India

SN Names States Area (sqkm) GPS Coordinates Designated
1 Keoladeo National Park Rajasthan 28.73 27°10’36.63″N 77°30’43.30″E 01 October 1981
2 Sambhar Lake Rajasthan 240 26°57’43.82″N 75° 1’55.54″E 23 March 1990
3 Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary Gujarat 120 22°48’9.03″N 72° 1’40.35″E 24 Sept 2012
4 Bhoj Wetland Madhya Pradesh 32.01 23°14’59.02″N 77°20’37.53″E 19 August 2002
5 Nandur Madhameshwar Bird Sanctuary Maharashtra 14.37 20° 0’26.13″N 74° 7’13.60″E 21 June 1990

Rajasthan

Rajasthan has two Ramsar sites namely 28.73 sq km area of Keoladeo National Park (KNP) declared in October 1981 and 240 sq km area of Sambhar lake declared in March 1990. Both these wetlands though are important habitats for migratory birds but have been seeing decline in birds numbers over the years due to manmade reasons. While the illegal and unsustainable salt making and mining processes is damaging the wetlands ecology at Sambhar lake, the creation of Panchana dam on Gambhir river has disrupted the water supply to KNP. Apart from this the proposed developmental work in and around the wetlands including creation of solar and wind energy projects have become potential threats for migratory bird population visiting the wetlands.

Sambhar Lake: Man-made disaster failed to wake up the government  

The Sambhar Salt Lake is the largest inland salt lake is spread in Nagaur and Jaipur districts and borders on the Ajmer district. It is surrounded by the Aravali hills on all sides. The lake receives water from six rivers: Medtha, Samaod, Mantha, Rupangarh, Khari, and Khandela.

21 Sambhar Lake

Over the past many years, the lake is facing several problems including lack of water and drought. In November 2019, about 20,000 birds were killed in the lake reportedly due to sodium intoxication[i].

Despite being a Ramsar site, no central or state government department is taking care of environmental issues affecting the lake. Salt works is part of Hindustan Salt Ltd but the company is mining the lake for salts apart from several private salt miners. As per the report, the state government has been spending crores of rupees to promote tourism[ii] activities but overlooks bird habitat needs and conservation issues.

Before the mass bird death, the lake had gone dry increasing salt concentration in water. The water from surrounding rivers, meant to flow into the lake, was also diverted by the miners. On account of the heavy rainfall this year, the lake brimmed with water and the inflow made the water toxic due to the change in its alkalinity.

In August 2019, the lake was found to be among the eight worst-rated wetlands[iii] in the country in terms of ecosystem management, according to a draft report prepared by the union environment ministry in consultation with several independent experts. According to ministry officials there were seven parameters for the wetlands ecosystem health assessment including suitability of water quality for aquatic life, the extent of plant invasion in water bodies and inflow and outflow of water channel.

The exercise was carried out under a 100-day action plan for rejuvenation and restoration of 100 wetlands in India by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF&CC) and the ministry had sought ecosystem health cards for six wetlands in Rajasthan including Sambhar & Keoladeo National Park (KNP). The health card revealed[iv] that Sambhar lake’s water was highly alkaline, too saline, of poor quality, and prone to bacterial growth hinting damage inflicted by pollution.

The Lake water was found to be alkaline (pH value more than 7.4), the water’s salinity was found to be more than 40 grams per litre. For salt-water lakes, the desired salinity is between 30 and 40 grams/litre. The BOD level in the lake was found to be between 78 and 203 mg per litre, which was about 13 to 34 times the permissible limit of 3-6 m/l. Higher the BOD level, lower are the chances for aquatic life to survive.

High BOD, hyper salinity and high pH value of water are all indicative of rampant pollution around the lake, said experts. “This means the sate Pollution Control Board (PCB) has failed to control illegal activities in the lake even after a strong order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2017,” said environmental activist Babu Lal Jajoo.

In November 2016, the tribunal had directed the government to stop all illegal commercial activities around the lake. The State Wetland Authority (SWA) was told to consider recommendations of expert committees, but as per a state government official, the authority constituted in 2018 to examine them had not met even once adding that the approval to non-official members of the authority was still pending.

As per another report, the process of extracting salt[v] from the lake has undergone big transformation. The traditional monsoon dependent processes take about two months to get pure salt. However, now most salt production units use deep borewells to extract groundwater, reducing the entire process to 15 days. Excess water pumping has lowered groundwater levels by almost 40 feet in the area. Deprived of recharge from subsurface flows, the lake is continuously shrinking and seasonal streams and rivers are now vanishing. At the same time the local regulators are involved in corruption and deliberately ignoring the ecological destruction of lake. The labourers face exploitation & inhuman work conditions while companies make huge profits and the locals are worst affected.  

In addition, the impact of the practice of using pumped water to make salt now extends beyond the periphery of the lake. Salt production units now hire tankers which plunder groundwater from areas further away. With no legislation in place to prevent unsustainable groundwater extraction, regulatory authorities remain paper tigers. Most villages on the eastern side of the lake now face an acute shortage of drinking water, causing people to migrate. The destruction of their habitat has kept migratory birds away for a decade.

Similarly, a petition, filed in the Supreme Court, said that 15-20 illegal borewells[vi] were operating in every 3,000 sq yards. About 250 borewells were identified only in one part of lake in Nagaur district. Also, 10,000-odd tractors were involved illegal mining in the same area for carrying extracted salt. The petitioner had accused salt manufacturers of sinking unauthorised borewells around the lake and laying pipelines that sometimes extend several km into the lake.

Keoladeo National Park (KNP): Panchana dam on Gambhir river runs wetland dry

As per 2014 report, the water and food scarcity of migratory birds had not improved even after spending crores. Earlier the wetlands used to have flowing water from Gambhir river, a tributary of Chambal. After the construction the Panchana dam[vii] in Karauli district a decade ago, the river had turned dry. Now the river only flows when Panchana dam over flows, which happened only thrice in the past 12 years. With water bodies around the park drying up, no fish to feed, no nests to be raised, KNP is in for a catastrophe.

22 Keoladeo NP

Ironically, after spending Rs 52 crore on the 17-km-long pipeline from Goverdhan Drain to augment flowing water to the park, the park had not received a drop of water. Alternatively, out of 62 mcf (million cubic feet) pipeline water from Chambal, the KNP had received only 40 mcf water as the pumps were run only about four hours a day against need of 24 hours for at least 15 days in a month. There was 2 metre less water in Panchana Dam and Goverdhan drain too had no water owing to less rain.

As per Harsh Vardhan, honorary secretary, Tourism & Wildlife Society of India, about 8 to 10 sq km area of the total 29 sq km area of the park should remain submerged under upto 3 to 4 feet depth to kick-start post-monsoon cycle of its aquatic ecology which was not happening for more than a decade. For the maintenance of the wetland eco-system in KNP ideally about 550 million cubic feet water is required between July to October which is breeding season of most of the birds.

UNESCO had also noted that failing in restoring adequate water supply appeared to have adversely affected the park’s bird population which were the basis of its inscription on the List of World Heritage. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN considered that if the above water management infrastructure projects were not rapidly finalised, the park could soon be on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

As per 2016 report, the smooth coated otter had become extinct[viii] at the KNP, Bharatpur a decade ago. In 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) finding its population in fast decline, had listed it in the ‘Red List’, as vulnerable. One more report mentioned that the park which was once the only known wintering site for Siberian cranes in India, had not seen[ix] the bird in the last 15 years.

Another February 2016, report revealed that the African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) or exotic magur found its way into the wetlands[x] in the bird sanctuary posing a threat to native fauna. Following this, the forest department had to embark on a 10-year project to eliminate the African catfish.

Removal of invasive fish had become an uphill task for the forest department and massive operations had been undertaken since 2009 to remove these catfish from Keoladeo wetlands. In 2014-15, 7,304 fish were caught and removed while 40,117 were cleared in 2016.

Amid water scarcity and decline in birds’ numbers, the fish was shockingly found eating the remaining water birds in a devastating trend of role reversal[xi] in food chain system. As per the report, the catfish was introduced outside the park in 2006-07 to provide additional livelihood opportunities to locals. Officials noticed it in 2008-09 when they saw the bulging bellies of the fish. Further, investigations revealed that the fish was eating small birds on marshy land or in water bodies. It also spread to the remote areas of the park. Efforts to weed it out had not yielded results.

In 2016, after two decades[xii] the KNP got flowing monsoon water from the Ajan dam. The earthen dam constructed in 1760, was the traditional source of water for the park but due to drought in the past had created a grave situation for the KNP. In 2012, the officials had to especially open the Panchana Dam sluice gates to supply water to the park. In 2006-07 draught year, UNESCO was about to list the KNP in the endangered list due to water shortage.

In the past too, the KNP had faced continuous threats for its survival due to absence of flowing water. In 2014, an entire flock of 1,500-plus painted storks abandoned the colony in the middle of their breeding season, leaving behind hundreds of eggs which were later devoured by crows and other carrion birds.

As per 2017 report, disposal of cattle carcasses[xiii] violating the norms in the open on a land near KNP had become a health hazard for migratory birds and tourists. Finding no land available in the city, the Bharatpur Municipal Corporation had rented land near the bird sanctuary to store the bones and skin of dead cattle. The land touched the KNP boundary wall, about one km from the main gate of sanctuary on Jaipur-Agra national highway creating threats for migratory birds and human health.

Same year, the wetlands again faced water scarcity[xiv] affecting breeding of birds. The supply from Chambal was inadequate and the officials wanted release of more water from the Panchana dam. 

In 2018, the boating services for tourist were suspended[xv] due to insufficient water level in the lake.

The February 2019 report describes the equally disturbing state of affairs[xvi] at the KNP where the sheer invasion of stray animals and dogs had virtually taken over this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The menace was so bad that a flock of 1000 pelican which had descended at the wetlands after long time was forced to share space with at least one cow and over dozens of dongs were roaming around the water bodies, often attacking birds, smaller animals, and chasing away tourists.

While, in 1982, three years before UNESCO declared it a world heritage site, the government had banned grazing in the park, but the forest department had no answer as to how so many animals were allowed to take over one of the finest birding areas in the world. Officials also feared the exasperating presence of such a large number of cows, as well as dogs, could spark off a deadly disease, similar to what happened in Gujarat’s Gir National Park that led to the death of several lions in 2014. However, instead of making amends, the forest department had abdicated its primary role of maintaining a safe zone for the birds.

At the time of birds death at Sambhar in November 2019, a baby crane (colt) was also found dead[xvii] at KNP for unknown reasons.

Gujarat: Narmada dam water releases changing Nalsarovar ecology

Nal Sarovar consisting primarily of 120.82 sq km lake and marshes in Ahmedabad was declared a bird sanctuary in April 1969 and given Ramsar recognition in September 2012. For years, the avian diversity dependent on the wetlands and the water body itself has been facing several problems.

23 Nalsarovar

Even before the wetland was declared a Ramsar site, a study by Sejal Patel and Nishith Dharaiya of the department of life sciences, Hemchandrachaya North Gujarat University had revealed the migratory birds were preferring Thol lake[xviii] over Nalsarovar on account of anthropogenic pressure and tourism. The study also found that Thol lake just 7 sq km in size was supporting 77 species of birds against 50 birds species in Nalsarovar.

The analysis further concluded that assemblies of birds in a lake also show greater availability of food resources. The study concluded that the decrease in birds was directly related to tourist activity. Quoting some unknown officials the report also mentioned that the decrease in the number of birds at Nalsarovar over the last five years was attributable not just to the falling level of water in the lake, but also to drawing of water from the lake, illegal boating and the permitted boating by tourists. As per the report activities such as boating, illegal fishing were banned at Thol lake and water level was maintained well.

In June 2014, about 30 emus were found abandoned[xix] near the Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary by locals and officials of the forest department and shifted to an animal shelter in Ahmedabad. The incident showed failure of commercial emu farming in Gujarat. 8 of these birds were found dead, while some others were believed to be at large, roaming in and around the sanctuary. The report also stated that such instances were increasing across the state.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in April 2016 slammed[xx] the government for rampant poaching at Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary and inadequate measures taken by government to protect the Nalsarvoar and other wetlands in the state.

As per the CAG report, the forest department had caught 6,559 nets installed by poachers during 2010-15. The CAG also observed that given the large area of wetland, manual surveillance was not enough and forest department should use modern technology to curb poaching menace.

The CAG also noted that the bird viewing facilities were not upgraded and the viewers were left at the mercy of private boat owners who used old, shabby and uncovered boats and the Interpretation Centre, constructed in 2009 for providing information about the winged visitors, was not functional. The CAG further criticised the state government for relying mainly on central government funds released and not providing adequate funds in the Budget estimates for conservation activities. 

In June 2017, while taking suo motu cognisance of protection of wetlands issue following Supreme Court direction, the Gujarat High Court (HC) issued notice[xxi] to the state government to know steps taken for preservation and protection of the Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary.

As per July 2017 report, the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) buffer for Nalsarovar was reduced by around 69 per cent[xxii] and was given final clearance by eco-sensitive zone committee. However, the process for shrinking of the ESZ involved no objections or comments from stakeholders or local residents.

Unlike at Gir sanctuary, there were no voices asking for reduction of the Nalsarovar eco-sensitive zone. Even without opposition to the original larger ESZ, the Union government in the final notification issued, reduced the ESZ range from 2.35 km to 13 km from the sanctuary limits to 1.34 km to 4.84 km away. The ESZ committee, when publishing the final notification, recorded that no comments, objections or suggestions were received from local persons and stakeholders, in response to the draft notification published in 2015.

As per experts without suggestions or objections, the ESZ could not be revised. The government, in its meeting in April which made the recommendation, had not put on record people’s objections or demands. Instead, they just said that the “original proposal was covering non-significant catchment areas which have no relevance with the wetland.”

In January 2018, the increased water level[xxiii] in Nalsarovar was found making the habitat inhospitable for many migratory birds and they were either flocking to nearby shallower water bodies or making their way to other states.

According to report, at that time the water level at the wetland was around five feet deep while the ideal water depth for the habitat of most of these birds, including flamingos was about two feet. The report also mentioned that over the years, the Nalsarovar had become much deeper due to seepage of water from Narmada irrigation canals, causing drastic fall in the number of flamingos and other migratory birds to Nalsoravar in recent years. Forest officials accepted that wetland was turning into a deep lake and losing its charm as a preferred habitat for greater and lesser flamingos.

Contrary to this the forest department attributed the high rainfall in the Surendranagar, the main catchment of the wetlands as a reason behind high water level in the lake.  However, an official on conditions of anonymity revealed that excess water from Narmada canal seeps into the lake raising the water level. “Though none of the Narmada canal branches pass near Nalsarovar or its catchment areas, Narmada water released in river Bhogavo and distributary canals of Narmada overflow into rivulets which empty in Nalsarovar,” the officer added.

Also the birds moving out of wetland areas were becoming vulnerable to poaching as there is no surveillance over village ponds close to the lake.

Similarly, in a rising trend and new modus operandi, the poachers around Nalsarovar were found using kite threads to snag and injure the migratory birds[xxiv] in August 2018. Such incidents were earlier reported from Saurashtra to bring down cranes. Forest officials said that frequent kite flying (which usually takes place around Uttarayan or January 14) was observed in Dharji village, and inquiry revealed that kites were being flown to snag birds which were later sold or eaten.

In December 2018, amid peak migratory birds season, the wetlands was seen drying up[xxv] due to deficient rainfall. According to the January 2019 report, the wetland had dried up completely[xxvi] affecting livelihood of about 300 boatmen who used to ferry tourists in the wetland. The local people remembered that last time, the lake and the adjoining marshes had witnessed a drought like this was in 2002. Similar conditions were also seen in 1997.

The local people and people whose livelihood was affected had in October and December 2018 asked the forest department and district administration to release Narmada water in the wetland claiming that it was commonly done in rain-deficit years but not in 2018 post monsoon season by Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam.

According to them, water from Narmada canal could be used to resuscitate Brahmani river, which empties into Nalsarovar. While the wetland relied heavily on rainfall every year, a check dam on Brahmani often supplemented the water deficit. But the dam too had dried up this year.

Due to drying up of Nalsarovar the migratory birds were shunning[xxvii] the wetlands and visiting Vadla water body and man-made Thol lake in Mehsana. The fishermen community was also suffering because of lack of water in the wetlands. Even when Nalsarovar had good water levels, the Vadla attracted migratory birds in good numbers.

However apart from the Nalsarovar, another major tourist attraction and bird habitat the Thol lake in Ahmedabad was also seen drying up[xxviii]. In April 2019, Thol was left with a couple of water puddles which according to forest officials would disappear by month end. As per the forest department official, before year 2000 the lake used to go dry every alternate year but after it started getting water from the Narmada dam in 2000, it never faced dry situation, except in 2010. They also said that non-release of Narmada water for winter crops for the past two years was one of main reasons for the drying up of the lake.

In July 2019, the government informed the state assembly that the 7 islands, which were part of the protected Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary were encroached[xxix] and the government was successful in clearing encroachment from one such island. The state government in a written response stated that there were 300 islands spread across the water body that forms a part of the Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary as on May 31, 2019.

As per another report, the wetlands was facing a severe drought[xxx] since 1987 making it dry even till the end of July. Forest department officials also said that this was the first time since 1987, when there were two consecutive droughts making the wetlands dry for prolong period.

Prabhudas Thakkar, a former ISRO scientist stated that in the late 1990s, the lake would go dry every alternate year but there were inflows of water by the last week of June. Since the early 2000s, the government was releasing excess Narmada water preventing the dry spell.

In first week of August 2019 the Nalsarovar and Thol lake got water inflows on account of monsoon rain, excess water of Narmada canal was also released[xxxi] in both wetlands. However bird activities were more visible at Thol than Nalsarovar.

By the second week Aug 2019, the water level in Nalsarovar again rose to 5 feet keeping migratory birds away from the lake just as the paucity of water did earlier. The lake was brimming because of good rain in the catchment area and the overflow of water from the Narmada canal. Officials said that the lake dried up in 2018 because the government had not released Narmada canal water and diverted it to farms for rabi crops due to the water crisis.

The officials were also for long expressing fear that the flow from the dam was changing the nature of Nalsarovar[xxxii], a fresh water lake. However, another group of officials said that the Narmada itself is fed by rainwater. But all officials agreed the flow from the dam should be controlled so that the water level in the lake never exceeds 4 feet.

According to November 2019 report, the migratory birds were continuously facing poaching threats[xxxiii] around Nalsarovar wetlands.

In December 2019, the migratory birds were once again seen avoiding[xxxiv] Nalsarovar due to excess water filled in the wetlands. As per forest officials against the need of about 3 to 3.5 feet the lake had more than 9 feet of water in October and about 5.2 feet in December making wetlands unsuitable for optimal foraging conditions. The lake was brimming because of the higher than normal rain in the catchment area and overflowing water from the Narmada canal.

Forest officer said that Narmada water, released for irrigation, often flows into the lake taking the lake water level to 5 feet. Officials feared that if things remained unresolved, Narmada inflow could turn the natural freshwater lake into an artificial one.

At the end of December 2019, in a workshop, the experts criticised the government for paying more attention to the promotion of Asiatic lions and ignoring the state’s birds diversity[xxxv] including the migratory birds visiting its wetlands including Nalsarovar which were facing threats due to government apathy. They also blamed government for not taking adequate step to protect the several important wetlands like Khijadia.

In January 2020, again the Chinese nylon threads[xxxvi] sold for the Uttarayan festival were used to snare birds in Nalsarovar. Following a complaint, the forest officials recovered about 60 spools of Chinese threads from Shahpur village in Viramgam taluka. The sale of such thread was banned by the government but in villages on the periphery of the Nalsarovar it was still in use to set bird snares. A forest official said the modus operandi was simple. In the night the locals flew around 10 kites together, and one of them rousted out the birds. When the birds took sudden flight at night, they were snared in the kite threads. The injured birds were then eaten or sold.

Madhya Pradesh: BMC deliberately destroying the Bhojtal wetlands?

The Bada Talaab (lake) also known as Upper lake and Chhota Talaab known as lower lake making the Bhojtal is located in Bhopal. The 30.01 sq km area of the lake was given Ramsar tag in August 2002. The lake is major source of drinking water for the residents of the city, supplying around 40 per cent (30 MGD) of the residents. Despite being critical potable water source the lake is severely affected by sewage and solid waste problems.

24 Bhoj Wetland

Raising alarm bell over mindless dumping of solid waste[xxxvii] from over half a dozen wards, first in February 2014, a study by Barkatullah University revealed presence of heavy metals in Upper lake. According to the study, almost all the f human waste from Bhopal city wards was entering the lake along with around 247608.7 litres urine on daily basis contributing to 1627.82 kg of nitrogen and 200.409 kg of phosphorus.

The study also observed a decrease of 3.175 sq km of area during pre-monsoon and a reduction of 3.1625 sq km during post –monsoon season. The study stated that the Bhoj Wetland was getting wider rather than deeper resulting in a huge shortage of water during summers. Besides, sizeable quantity of mud and silt and other forms of residues were dumped through 22 identified nullahs of the city and non-point sources. Open defecation was also affecting the health of the city lifeline.

Similarly, the religious activities in the catchment area during festival seasons led dumping of materials like clay, clothes, papers, wood and insoluble paints containing harmful substances playing havoc with the health of the Upper Lake. Of 131 ton per day garbage generated in Bhopal, the municipal corporation was able to handle only 96 ton per day and the rest was going into the lake.

As per the study the lake conservation authorities adopted random management strategies but the nullahs were not diverted and the effective solid waste management was not implemented. Likewise, the growth of tourist inflow in recent years led to a haphazard growth of tourist infrastructure, which was not in harmony with environment, causing huge negative impact.

In November 2015, thousands of dead fish were spotted[xxxviii] in the Lower Lake. There were heaps of garbage and floating debris with dead fish on the lake fringe, with a foul smell repelling onlookers. Experts blamed the increased pollution due to the recent immersion of hundreds of idols for the mass death as the authorities had failed to ensure an eco-friendly idol immersion. They stated that the Lower Lake had become a gutter and there was need to study how the murky waters were affecting aquatic life in it.

As per another report, the authorities were unable to find out the cause[xxxix] of incident. Surprisingly the officials in the state fisheries department claimed to have no information of the incident. According to the officials, issues related to the twin lakes were primarily dealt by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC), which had not informed the department about the large-scale fish mortality in the Lower Lake.

Saying that a thorough analysis of the water and dead fish was required to ascertain the exact cause of fish mortality, SB Singh, the chief research officer in the fisheries department guessed that the incident could be due to cumulative effect of three factors which were dumping of sewage water in the lake, dumping of hundreds of idols and prevalent cloudy days reducing dissolved oxygen in the water leading to suffocation of the fish in the already polluted waters.

Quoting first vice-chancellor of Bhopal University (BU) Ravi Prakash Mathur, who belonged to the oldest families of Bhopal, former professor BU Professor Zamiruddin said, “The lake was called Bhoo-Pal, meaning water that nourishes the land. It was a name inconvenient to pronounce and over the years it became Bhopal.”

Then in May 2016, the state government mulled to undertake exploration[xl] of a ‘Vedic’ city assumed to be under water in the millennia old Upper Lake of Bhopal. The Mayor Alok Sharma said that some structures were spotted and the Lower Lake across the dam could have treasure hidden during the time of Rani Kamlapati.

As per the report, the Bhopal Lake, known as the Upper Lake, was 1,000 year heritage of the city and the oldest man-made lake in India. The lake spanning 13.8 sqkm, was built by Raja Bhoj, the Paramara ruler who ruled from 1010-1053 AD by constructing earthen dam across the Kolans river.

As per June 2017 report, the Upper Lake considered to be the lifeline of the state capital was dying a slow death[xli] as sewage, chemical and toxic waste from the city were being discharged into the water body, degrading water quality. The report further stated that each day, the Upper Lake the source of drinking water for 40 per cent of the city was being filled with millions of litres of sewage as the sewage treatment plants (STPs) were ineffective. 

Similarly the wetland was facing severe weed infestation in the fringe area. An inspection of water body by Bhopal Citizen Forum (BCF) had also found that the Shireen Nadi (river) was releasing large quantities of pollutants into the lake.

Shireen Nadi, originates from Idgah Hills and flows into the Upper Lake passing through Koh-e-Fiza. The poor quality of water was leading to the loss of biodiversity in the ecosystem. Hypo-limnetic loss of dissolved oxygen and loss of species diversity including fisheries, was apparent at Halalpura and Biaragarh area.

Likewise, the industrial pollutants and agricultural chemicals had made the water on the western side of the lake undrinkable. This area was the main source of catchment for the Upper Lake. Much of the water that streams into the lake during monsoon was from this belt.

An October 2017 report revealed that the Lower Lake was also gasping[xlii] for its survival. At that time, a large area of the lake near Raj Bhavan was converted into a marshy patch of land with hardly any water visible on the surface. Quoting World Lake Database, International Lake Environment Committee study report stated that the whole lake was converted into a large septic tank, making it shallow by the day.

Incidentally, about Rs 350 crore Bhoj Wetland Project financed by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation in 1995 failed to revive the decaying water body. The project was launched for eco-conservation management of the Upper and Lower lakes.

“As the chota talab is fast turning into a quagmire, toxic air emanating from the water body makes it difficult to breath in Professors’ Colony,” said Ramakant Gundecha , internationally-acclaimed Dhrupad singer, who lives near the banks of the decaying lake. Though BMC had spent Rs 5 crore in developing a park with granite benches and path ways on the lake bank near Professors’ Colony, the lake continued to stink.

As huge quantity of sewage was flowing into the lake from about 27 nullahs, eutrophication was causing reduction in dissolved oxygen in the water body and fuelling growth of water hyacinth. “According to the Central Water Commission (CWC) norms, the MP Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) has placed the lake water under D-category of IS-2296 which means that the water was fit only for fish culture and wildlife propagation,” board sources said.

Unfortunately, the pollution level had gone so high that even the aquatic biodiversity of the lake was adversely affected. “There has been an alarming decline in fish species in the lake,” said Shriparna Saxena, assistant professor, Barkatullah University, Bhopal. In past 10 years, the number of fish species has gone down from about 20 to 12.

As per March 2018 report, the development of 19 storm water drains and interlinking of sewage system in the city had hit a roadblock[xliii] on account of a fresh tender. With the expansion of the city and inclusion of more areas in municipal limits plus rising population made the existing sewage system inadequate. A substantial amount of money was spent over the last two decades, but 90 per cent of the city still lacked proper drainage network.

As per BMC estimates, there were 723 drains across Bhopal and most got clogged when it rains heavy. When the project was first envisaged in 2003, it was pegged at Rs 30 crore and later revised to Rs 42 crore. As per an assessment report submitted to the Union government programme Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Rs 550 crore was needed get proper sewage and storm water drainage system in Bhopal.

The unprecedented flooding in Bhopal in 2016 had jolted the civic body. Afterwards, the BMC estimated that 1,012 colonies in Bhopal had internal sewage network without an outlet. Many of these colonies were built on drains or natural outlet. Last year, the Union government had sanctioned about Rs 100 crore for development of new sewage system. A full network would cost about Rs 2,000 crore and was expected to take another three years to implement.

However, utilisation of funds for comprehensive sewage and storm water drain system was still pending. The BMC estimated the proposal would be implemented in two years. The plan proposed to create underground tunnels for drainage to flow. The storm water and sewage system length would be around 500 km, covering most parts of the city, the drainage system would be so large that even a mini-bus could pass through it. The system also entailed water processing plants at various points. In the last two decades, the BMC had spent around Rs 700 crore on schemes like Bhoj wetland project.

Two years after the severe flooding episode, the BMC officials accepted that there was little movement[xliv] on Rs 60 crore spent on development of storm water drains under AMRIT scheme of the union government. As per report, only 19 per cent of the sewage was being treated in Bhopal and sewage was overflowing from STPs built under Bhoj Wetland Conservation Project into Upper lake.

As per the government plan there was an allocation of Rs 1,800 crore for the entire state. Bhopal alone required about Rs 2,000 crore for a state of the art, storm water drainage system. The anti-encroachment operation by BMC in last two years had impacted hundreds of families but many of the illegal colonies had cropped up in outer periphery of the city, hindering the natural outflow of water.

During state assembly election, the political parties were seen making promises to bring more Narmada river water to Bhopal[xlv], known as the city of lakes and with four major reservoirs: Halali, Kaliyasot, Kerwa and Hathaikheda, and despite a Rs 415 crore project was completed to meet 30 percent of the city’s water needs via an 80 km pipeline from the Narmada.

As per the report, due to lack of water availability BMC was getting 19 MGD water from Upper lake instead of 30 MGD earlier. The corporation was using 36 MGD water from Narmada and was planning to increase it to 40 MGD.

In an alarming situation the Bhojtal was in June 2019 seen moving closer to dead storage[xlvi] level on account of less than normal rainfall causing concerns among city authorities over the looming water crisis. As per report, the city Mayor had raised a demand of Rs 100 crore from the state government to deal with the crisis.

In July 2019, the city faced acute water shortage[xlvii] as the level of Upper Lake fell to 1651.80 feet, below the minimum level of 1652 feet (full tank level is 1666.18 feet). While authorities talked of short term measures to tide over the crisis, there seemed little hope of being able to revive the lake in the near future, despite hundreds of crores being allocated to maintain and improve it over the past 20 plus years.

The first lake preservation project, named the Bhoj Wetland Project, was begun in 1995 financed by Rs 240-crore loan from Japan and grants from the Centre. The project included diverting the sewers from the two lakes, and for their de-weeding and de-silting. But little happened on the ground, and over the years, Bhopal’s Upper Lake continued to shrink in size due to encroachments, while about 35 open sewer nullas from various colonies around the lake continue to empty into its waters. There were allegations that instead of conservation,  money was being spent on non-essential things like floating fountains pathways which were also harming the wetlands ecology.

Then a loan of Rs 179 crore from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was given under Uday project to ensure clean drinking water supply in Bhopal and to address the problems of inadequate urban infrastructure and degradation of the environment in four cities including Bhopal too failed to make any difference for the health of the lake.

As per September 2019 report, the Bhojtal was choked with idol immersions[xlviii] despite the presence of alternative sites. Same month, 11 youths had died[xlix] after drowning in the lake during immersion. A 5 youths had drowned in the lake after their boat capsized during idol immersion in 2016.

BMC officials while admitted that about 200 tonnes of waste was generated in the lake due to the Ganesh Chaturthi, however they marked 3 locations along the Lower Lake and 1 along the Upper Lake for immersion purposes. As per SWA official, immersion of idols was prohibited in the wetland. However, the authority, chaired by State Environment Minister, lacked Integrated Management Plan as mandated by the Centre, and had issued no guidelines, even those relating to idol immersions, to the BMC.

The Bhojtal is also marked as an Important Bird Area for being a destination for migratory birds from Central Asia and Russia in winters. The wetland hosts 52 migratory and 28 local birds species every season, apart from being a tortoise habitat.

After completion of Bhojtal Wetland project, a State Lake Conservation Authority was set up, but in 2011-2012 it was merged with the State government’s Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation, thereby losing credence and teeth. In 2013, State Human Rights Commission called upon the State to set up an autonomous commission to protect water bodies. However, the BMC continued as the wetland’s custodian.

As per November 2019 report, PCB and SWA acting upon NGT order, confirmed that BMC was constructing an STP[l] inside historic Yaadgaar-E-Sahajahani park which is close to Lower lake without its permission. In addition, the BMC had also established one of its solid waste transfer stations near the STP site.

PCB in its submission to green tribunal also mentioned that it had written 3 letters to the BMC, asking it not to install STP in the park and stop all construction activity there. The visit by official and experts in September 2019 also found that the piece of land earmarked by the BMC for STP construction and solid waste transfer station were situated at more than 100-metre distance from the Lower Lake boundary in the down catchment direction.

Maharashtra: Nandur Madhmeshwar Wetlands; Fish diversity under threat 

Nandur Madhmeshwar Bird Sanctuary is the first and only Ramsar sites in the state of Maharashtra. It is located at Madhmeshwar dam site which is built at the confluence of Godavari and Kadwa river near Khangaon Thadi in Niphad Tehsil of Nashik district and 114.37 sq km area of the sanctuary was declared a Ramsar site in September 2019.

25 Nandur Wetland

The wetlands biodiversity has been suffering from drought, siltation of dam, introduction of invasive fish, over fishing and birds death. The entire stretch of Godavari River upstream the dam had gone dry in March 2016 due to severe drought conditions unseen since 1982.

As per a June 2018 study, NMW was supporting rich fish diversity with 39 fish species belonging to 7 orders, 14 families and 30 genera. However of the total fish species, 3 invasive alien species[li] were also recorded causing serious threat to native fish fauna. The study also stated that the fish fauna of the wetland was also threatened due to anthropogenic activities including heavy siltation of reservoir, excessive fishing. The study further listed numbers of other activities like operation of diesel engines, farming around dam, blasting from mining, stray animals and growth of weeds as causing problems for migratory birds and wetland eco-system.

In October 2018, the wetland was included[lii] in the Central Asian Flyway (CAF) an important migratory route for birds. The identification was a part of the 5 year national action plan announced in September by the Union environment ministry to enhance, secure and conserve migratory bird routes and habitats.

In January 2019, about 17 birds include an endangered darter, common crane, greater crane, ducks and others were caught in a fishing net and died[liii] in the NMW. This happened despite fishing was prohibited in the sanctuary premises.

In November 2019, the state government appointed the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to study migratory birds[liv] and their habitats across six wetland sites in the state including NMW over the next five years.

Summary The situation of Ramsar sites in West India is quite alarming. The recent mass birds death at Sambhar lake and previous developments of unsustainable and illegal salt production activities have been putting existential crisis on the future of some of these wetlands.

Similarly in another example of how dams are affecting rivers and wetlands, the construction of Panchana dam on Gambhir River has been turning the Keoladeo NP wetlands drier year after year. The introduction of invasive fish around the region has severely affected aquatic ecosystem of the wetlands. Similarly the growth of weeds and stray animals inside the park has become significant threat. The wetlands is kept alive on Chambal river water supply during dry periods.

The Nalsarovar has been facing peculiar problem of water scarcity during lean season and flooding during peak of migratory birds season, due to the Narmada CanalsThe new methods of birds poaching also require adequate regulatory response.

The story of Bhoj Taal in Bhopal is worst example of wetlands management. Despite revival projects and huge amounts of funds spent, the historic lake is facing more pollution, encroachments and degradation.

The Nandur Madhmeshwar Wetlands in Maharashtra is again a result of dam impoundment of Godavari river water by the Madhmeshwar dam. Declaring such sites as Ramsar wetlands is quite questionable as the dam have put adverse impact on river eco-system in upstream and downstream areas affecting large number of people. The human disturbances around the wetlands are on the increase. The fish diversity in the wetlands is falling and the fisherfolks dependent on fishing for livelihood are being kept away from the wetlands by forest departments instead of involving them in sustainable fishing activities.

Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

Also see,

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: North India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: North East India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: East India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: South India

End Notes:

[i] https://weather.com/en-IN/india/news/news/2019-11-16-expert-sambhar-lake-deathbed-thousands-birds

[ii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/jaipur/tourism-infrastructure-projects-in-rajasthan-s-sambhar-lake-to-be-complete-by-march/story-4LtGE4GGKPIryGiPi9gVcI.html

[iii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/sambhar-s-ecology-among-worst-report/story-WbT5MBaTrHifrcDLKwjSFL.html 

[iv] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/a-month-ago-raj-health-card-found-sambhar-lake-to-be-highly-polluted/story-O19qcDEpa1HjaYJuRLAWHO.html 

[v] https://www.indiawaterportal.org/news/salty-sore-dying-sambhar-lake

[vi] https://www.deccanherald.com/content/430758/development-taking-toll-migratory-birds.html

[vii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Keoladeo-National-Park-faces-survival-threat/articleshow/44480472.cms

[viii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/Theres-a-healthy-otter-population-in-Chambal-near-Kota/articleshow/52955318.cms

[ix] https://www.deccanherald.com/content/582319/hurdles-abound-migratory-birds.html

[x] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/now-a-10-year-project-to-rid-keoladeo-of-african-catfish/articleshow/56138441.cms

[xi] https://www.deccanherald.com/content/430758/development-taking-toll-migratory-birds.html

[xii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/Monsoon-water-in-Keoladeo-after-two-decades/articleshow/53295904.cms

[xiii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/jaipur/disposal-of-cattle-carcasses-near-keoladeo-national-park-poses-threat-to-migratory-birds/story-8nWRu27PFvZHuSyWWYd7eJ.html

[xiv] https://www.hindustantimes.com/jaipur/officials-worried-as-keoladeo-national-park-on-verge-of-facing-a-drought/story-LAEp8ugBqws1HjkpESd3eO.html

[xv] https://www.hindustantimes.com/education/governor-kalraj-mishra-for-constitution-parks-in-rajasthan-varsities/story-fFrZunjfp7vATVljv0iFVO.html

[xvi] https://www.firstpost.com/india/bovine-invasion-hurts-bharatpur-sanctuary-6094901.html

[xvii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/baby-crane-found-dead-in-keoladeo-natl-park/articleshow/72249269.cms

[xviii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/Birds-prefer-Thol-over-Nalsarovar/articleshow/11469336.cms

[xix] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/30-emus-found-abandoned-near-nal-sarovar-sanctuary/ 

[xx] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/rampant-poaching-at-nal-sarovar-no-step-taken-to-protect-wetlands/ 

[xxi] https://ahmedabadmirror.indiatimes.com/ahmedabad/others/guj-hc-fights-for-nal-sarovar/articleshow/59042053.cms

[xxii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/nalsarovar-eco-sensitive-zone-shrunk-without-demand-for-it/articleshowprint/59741688.cms 

[xxiii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/flamingos-yet-to-arrive-at-nalsarovar/articleshow/62515333.cms

[xxiv] https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/amid-independence-day-celebrations-gujarat-pachers-use-kites-to-snag-nalsarovar-birds-351029.html

[xxv] https://www.dnaindia.com/ahmedabad/report-2700021 

[xxvi] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/near-ahmedabad-livelihoods-dry-up-with-a-dried-wetland-5526078/ 

[xxvii] https://www.dnaindia.com/ahmedabad/report-gujarat-nalsarovar-dries-up-vadla-gains-birds-and-tourists-2705869

[xxviii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/thol-nalsarovar-in-deep-waters/articleshow/68695149.cms 

[xxix] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/ahmedabad-seven-islands-in-nal-sarovar-bird-sanctuary-encroached-5832763/ 

[xxx] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/lake-sinks-nalsarovar-suffering-its-longest-dry-spell-since-1987/articleshow/70312068.cms 

[xxxi] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/nalsarovar-thol-finally-get-water-inflows/articleshow/70579140.cms 

[xxxii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/water-surge-keeps-birds-off-nalsarovar/articleshow/70667275.cms 

[xxxiii] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/exotic-game-meat-in-vanod-protected-migratory-birds-suspected-to-be-hunted-6140743/ 

[xxxiv] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/problem-of-plenty-birds-give-nalsarovar-a-miss/articleshow/72430995.cms 

[xxxv] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/birds-should-matter-as-much-as-lions-to-state/articleshow/73012659.cms 

[xxxvi] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/chinese-thread-used-to-snare-birds-at-nalsarovar/articleshow/73235862.cms  

[xxxvii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/pollution/Study-presents-grim-tale-of-shrinking-Upper-Lake/articleshow/30490751.cms 

[xxxviii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/bhopal/thousands-of-dead-fish-wash-up-in-bhopal-s-lower-lake/story-OvhKWKm546PKqnyIVKWaIL.html 

[xxxix] https://www.hindustantimes.com/bhopal/one-week-on-cause-of-fish-mortality-in-bhopal-lake-unclear/story-xBINkvz1jKszm0A3xnCjyN.html 

[xl] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/Govt-to-explore-vedic-city-that-lies-beneath-Upper-Lake-says-CM/articleshow/52085194.cms 

[xli] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/sewage-and-filth-leaves-upper-lake-asping/articleshow/59242470.cms 

[xlii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/lower-lake-is-a-septic-tank-now-report/articleshow/61158190.cms 

[xliii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/sewage-stormwater-drain-nework-hits-tender-hurdle/articleshow/63275959.cms 

[xliv] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/bhopal-monsoon-at-doorstep-but-stormwater-drains-choked/articleshow/64542220.cms 

[xlv] https://www.firstpost.com/india/busy-selling-narmada-dreams-mp-politicos-disregard-declining-water-levels-impact-of-sand-mining-and-deforestation-6529091.html 

[xlvi] https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/mp-with-bhojtal-on-the-verge-of-drying-up-mayor-demands-all-party-meet-119060400089_1.html 

[xlvii] http://citizenmatters.in/bhopal-water-crisis-upper-lake-bada-talab-tree-cover-13186 

[xlviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/idol-immersions-continue-unabated-in-bhopal-wetland/article29503073.ece 

[xlix] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/bhopal-boat-capsize-news-update-toll-madhya-pradesh-lake-1598634-2019-09-13

[l] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/sewage-plant-raises-a-stink-at-shahjahani-park/articleshow/71976229.cms 

[li] https://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/article/view/4246/4509 

[lii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/three-bird-habitats-from-mumbai-included-in-central-asian-flyway/story-CirXysLfM7gQn1epEZBrpN.html 

[liii]  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nashik/17-birds-die-in-fishing-net-in-nandur-madhyameshwar/articleshow/67662181.cms

[liv] https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/maharashtra-government-appoints-bnhs-to-study-migratory-birds-in-six-wetlands/story-sh724sXOaKM8tZROctpPCP.html

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