Dams · Wetlands

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: South India

Out of six states/ Union Territory in South India, three stares have five Ramsar wetlands sites which include one each in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and three in Kerala. There are no Ramsar wetlands in Telangana, Karnataka and Puducherry. In order to understand and highlight the present day situation of Ramsar sites in India, SANDRP has compiled information on all 37 wetlands under North, West, North East and East zone. This account in the series describes the threats affecting the Ramsar sites in South Indian States.

India Ramsar Wetlands sites: South India

SN Wetland State Area (sq km) GPS Coordinates Date of Ramsar Designation
1 Kolleru Lake Andhra Pradesh 901 16°36’13.70″N 81° 7’16.42″E 19 August 2002
2 Point Calimere Wildlife & Bird Sanctuary Tamil Nadu 385 10°18’13.93″N 79°44’20.55″E 19 August 2002
3 Vembanad Kol Wetland Kerala 1512.5   9°37’2.44″N 76°23’50.48″E 19 August 2002
4 Ashtamudi Wetland Kerala 614   8°58’3.10″N 76°35’4.00″E 19 August 2002
5 Sasthamkotta Lake Kerala 3.73   9° 2’14.04″N 76°38’21.88″E 19 August 2002

Andhra Pradesh

Kolleru Lake: Government destroying Asia’s largest freshwater lake  

Kolleru Lake[i] is the largest shallow freshwater lake in Asia. Kolleru is located between Krishna and Godavari deltas spanning over two districts – Krishna and West Godavari. The lake is fed directly by water from the seasonal Budameru and Tammileru streams, and is connected to the Krishna and Godavari irrigation systems by over 67 major and minor irrigation canals.

This lake is a major tourist attraction and hot spot for migratory as well as resident birds. The 308 sq km area of lake was declared as wildlife sanctuary in November 1999 and designated as Ramsar site in November 2002. At that time, the Ramsar Convention had allowed local Vaddi community to continue their traditional fishing occupation. 

The lake has been facing problems due to shrinking area, decreasing water supply and increasing pollution affecting the wetland dependent birds and aquatic ecosystem. The farmers and fishermen earning livelihood from the lake have been affected.

33 Kolleru Wetland

As per June 2013 report, Kolleru Lake, was constantly under the threat[ii] of encroachment for the production of food. Poor farmers living in villages around the lake were trying to encroach upon it to eke out a living, and vested interests also wanted to convert it into aquaculture tanks and paddy fields because of the high yields and low cost of production.

In December 2014, to promote aquaculture in fish ponds the state government proposed to shrink the lake size[iii] further from about 77,000 acres to 45,000 acres. The lake original area was 2,37,221 acres but its area has been shrinking. The government’s proposal to shrink the lakes further was also a threat to the rivulets that emptied into the lake.

The flow of water to the Kolleru was disturbed[iv] at many coastal areas, posing threat for villages with inundation problem during heavy rains in the future. The fish pond owners were also reportedly releasing water contaminated[v] with pesticides and fertilizers in the sanctuary areas causing problems of birds and aquatic life in the lake.

In 2014 and 2016 the large area of lake dried up[vi] due to delay in monsoon forcing birds in large numbers to migrate elsewhere. However, experts blamed successive governments neglecting the water body and stated that the construction of unauthorised bridges and bunds, encroachments and silt deposits was obstructing free flow of water in Kolleru adding into lake’s problems besides delay in rains.

As per the February 2016 report, the decrease in water level[vii] in Kolleru lake at Atapaka Bird Sanctuary also known as pelican paradise was affecting the fish and birds population adversely. The water levels had dipped upto one foot in the 320-acre pond in the lake at Atapaka hampering[viii] the migratory birds’ visit. The pond, located between Krishna and West Godavari districts, had also dried up twice in the last two years and fish worth crores of rupees had reportedly died due to drop in dissolved oxygen levels in the lake. There were incidents of birds poaching also.

Between April and June 2016, the lake had gone dry and the fish pond farming had come under a serious threat due to water shortage. And in July 2016, the aqua lobby had successfully pressurised the state government to divert Godavari river water[ix] with the help of Pattiseema lift scheme to support the aquaculture. As per report, around three lakh acres of land in and around the lake is used for aquaculture in both the districts.

Due to lake turning dry in summers, the fish farmers were finding it difficult to recycle the water in the ponds. In addition, the incidence of red disease caused by water shortage delivered a deadly blow to the growers, who saw a need to accelerate the proposal for Godavari water diversion.

The fish growers were also hoping to check the incursion of salt water from the sea through Upputeru creek with recharges of the water body with Godavari waters. The salt water incursion was also contaminating drinking water sources and spoiling the soil health of the lake.

However, the forest officials and green activists were against the move saying that it would turn the lake into a reservoirs. They wanted the lake to be closer to natural situation to facilitate re-germination of aquatic vegetation.

The encroachments had also become rampant inside the prohibited lake sanctuary area. Some ponds on raised ground were obstructing the water flow thereby letting the lake to go dry. Complaints were galore that fish ponds were re-emerging in the plus five contour where encroachments were pulled down by the govt in 2006 during the ‘Operation Kolleru’ program.

As per December 2016 report, the Krishna-Godavari river linking through Pattiseema LIP and Polavaram dam was a threat to aquatic eco-system[x] for the rivers and the lake in delta area.

In May 2018, a large part of the lake turned dry again[xi] affecting birds and aquatic life. It also raised concerns among fishermen and farmers. At that time there was demand to keep the lake alive by diversion of Krishna river water.  According to the fisheries department, about 2,000 fishermen families and 55 Fishermen Cooperative Societies were dependent on lake. 

The report also mentioned that the government fish tanks demolition move taken up under ‘Operation Kolleru’ project in 2006 to restore the lake had turned hundreds of island villagers jobless and forced them to migrate to urban areas.

In June 2018, the government pushed for de-notification[xii] of about 20,000 acres of land in Kolleru wildlife sanctuary despite the fact that the two expert committees had rejected the proposal. The move was criticized by several wildlife officials also.

Worried over the government plan, the former state agriculture minister said the construction of fish tanks on the land would hinder free water flow of streams thus increasing flooding threats. In past, the fish tanks were demolished as part of the Operation Kolleru for the same reason. The environmentalist also said the government had conveniently gone for denotification without fulfilling the conditions laid down by the Sukumar Committee.

In July 2018, the concerned persons wrote to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to stop[xiii] the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) from denotifying the patta lands until a case forwarded by the Supreme Court to the Andhra Pradesh High Court was disposed of.

As per former zoology lecturer B.V. Seshagiri Rao, following SC’s intervention in 2006-2007, several encroachments had been demolished in Kolleru lake area. But in less than three years, illegal fish ponds had surfaced again, apparently with the support of the local politicians.

As per November 2019 report, the boundaries of Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary declared in 1999 remained on paper and not visible on the ground[xiv] as aqua ponds were thriving around the lake’s area. The shape of the sanctuary’s 308.55 sq km wetland was disturbed and ruined by diverting much of its area for commercial activities creating anthropogenic pressures and altering the ecological character of the lake.

Tamil Nadu

Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary: Changing weather, posing challenges

Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary[xv] (PCWBS) is a 21.47 sq km protected area along the Palk Strait where it meets the Bay of Bengal at Point Calimere in Nagapattinam District. The sanctuary was created in 1967 for conservation of the near threatened blackbuck antelope, an endemic mammal species of India. It is famous for large congregations of water birds, especially greater flamingos. 

Major threats to the natural biodiversity and ecological balance of the sanctuary includes loss of habitat for water birds, soil and water salinisation by adjacent salt pans, spread of the invasive Prosopis juliflora, cattle grazing and scarcity of fresh water.

Apart from this the sanctuary is also bearing the brunt of intense cyclones. In November 2018, the sanctuary was kept closed[xvi] for a week due to water logging following heavy rainfall. In 2019 also, it was closed for same reason.  

34 Point Calimere Wildlife & Bird Sanctuary

Several wild animals and hundreds of birds around PCWBS were found dead[xvii] on account of cyclone Gaja in November 2018. More than 1.5 lakh teak trees that were raised under the Canal bank plantation program were also uprooted during the cyclone.

At that time, a study had found that the water quality of the sanctuary was unsafe for avifauna[xviii] to feed and breed. Despite listed under Ramsar site, chemical companies and small-scale shrimp farms around the wetland were posing a threat to the biodiversity and ecosystem of the sanctuary. Studies in past had shown that drinking the contaminated water can lead to deformities in birds. Coliform infections in the birds was reported to cause a change in their natural behaviour and even affect their long distance migration.

As per October 2019 report, the growing population of feral horses[xix] in the sanctuary was posing tough challenge to the forest department in ensuring an ideal eco-system for survival of blackbuck antelopes and spotted deer.

The floral diversity in the sanctuary was under threat[xx] due to proliferation of prosopis juliflora the seeds of which the feral horses were littering in their droppings. Every year, the department was spending substantial amounts in clearing overgrowth of prosopis juliflora.

The sanctuary had not fully recovered[xxi] from the cyclone Gaja’s destruction even after one year. In Feb 2019 bird census, surveyors had counted only around 12,000 of them, which was almost a third of the numbers in previous years.

Kerala

Vembanad Kol Wetland; Anthropogenic activities affect the wetland

The Vembanad-kol wetland[xxii] is a large complex aquatic ecosystem covering 2.5% of the geographical area of Kerala State. It is the largest lake in Kerala and with mangrove area 2114 sq km is the second largest Ramasar site in India after Sunderbans in W Bengal. The wetland includes a chain of lagoons from Kuttanad on the south to the kol wetlands of Thrissur on the north. The total area is about 1,51,250 ha and is the largest brackish water wetland. It is spread over Kottayam, Ernakulam, Alleppy, Thrissur and Malapuram districts of Kerala.

This wetland complex includes Vembanad Lake, Kuttanadu marshy areas and Kol wetlands. Ten rivers feed this wetland; they are Keecheri, Puzhakkal, Karuvannur, Chalakudy, Periyar, Muvattupuzha, Meenachil, Manimala, Pamba and Achancoil. All these rivers originate from the Western Ghats, flow westwards through the wetland system and join the Arabian Sea. The wetland is typically divided into two distinct segments, the freshwater dominant southern zone and the salt-water dominant northern zone. It was designated as a Ramsar site in Nov 2002.

The major conservation issues for this wetland are habitat loss, degradation, pollution, hunting and poaching of birds and over exploitation of some animal species. A recent study indicates that the shrinkage of Vembanad-Kol wetland is about 37 %. Reclamation of wetland area for farming and plantation is one of the major threats. The wetland area has become receptor of large amount of industrial and domestic waste water affecting the water quality and aquatic life. In the Vembanad wetland alone, about 157 million husks are retted[xxiii] per year.

37 Vembanand Lake

A study in May 2011 had raised concerns on high presence of Cabomba[xxiv], a fast-growing submerged aquatic weed species, along the Aranmula Sathram Kadavu stretch of river Pampa. Cabomba (Cabomba Caroliniana) also known as the Fanwort plant, is said to be a native of north and south America.

The study on the taxonomy and distribution of aquatic plants in Kuttanad showed that Cabomba was growing in all types of water bodies. Dense growth of the dangerous weed was found in canals, rivers, Vembanad lake and even in paddy fields.

Similarly, a study conducted in 2012 by Alappuzha district panchayat had revealed that houseboats in the district were polluting[xxv] the Vembanad Lake by dumping huge amount of waste into it. This was also destroying the fish wealth in the lake.

According to the study, there were 604 houseboats being operated in the district by 18 companies, in addition to 308 private motorboats and 33 speedboats. These houseboats were discharging a total of 23,0160 litre of waste water into Vembanad Lake per day, slowly killing the lake. Houseboats in Panavally were dumping 1,600 litre of waste water; those in Mannancherry and Kayamkulam dump 520 litre and 400 litre, respectively.

The study also found that there were 98 houseboats in the district plying without the no-objection certificate of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. According to the study, the overcrowding of houseboats was proving detrimental to the fishermen in the district with the pollution caused by them already destroying the huge fish wealth of Vembanad Lake.

As per August 2013 report, the Vembanad Kol Eco Development Authority (VEDA), the agency proposed to coordinate and oversee the conservation and management of the lake, had failed to take off[xxvi] even as the lake system was facing serious ecological problems.

In October 2013, Kochi activists had found that much of the mangroves wealth in Mulavakad had been destroyed[xxvii] in the name of development activities. Despite regulations, the activists found that the Vembanad lake was being encroached upon at several points through felling of mangroves and land-filling.

The reduction in lake area was stated as main cause of saline incursion into the Periyar river. The shrinking of the lake had accelerated the reverse flow in the river, increasing the salinity in drinking water at the Aluva pumping station. As many as 10 acres of mangroves had been felled in Nettoor.

Development activities such as the international container terminal had led to the destruction of 110 acres of mangrove, and the fisheries project to 70 acres of mangrove. The destruction of mangroves using chemicals for the oceanarium project had also begun at that time. All of these were being carried out in violation of rules.

According to July 2014 report, the once-prolific and vibrant rivers Pampa, Achenkovil and Manimala as well as their tributaries in the Central Travancore region were facing degradation[xxviii] from certain invasive aquatic species. The high nutrient content of water, due to flow of sewage, agrochemicals and land washouts into the river, was another major factor contributing to the fast growth of this dangerous weed.

As per experts, the Cabomba weed had the capacity to change the entire ecology of various water bodies in the State, if the authorities fail to launch effective de-weeding drive without any further delay.

In July 2014, the proposal to interlink[xxix] the Pampa and the Achencoil, two major west-flowing rivers in Kerala, with the Vaipar river in Tamil Nadu on the basis of a study conducted by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) two decades ago kicked up a controversy in the State. The environmentalists and river management experts had taken strong exception to the NWDA finding that the two rivers were surplus in water.

The Pampa is the third largest river in the State with a catchment of 2,235 sq km, and the Achenkovil joins the Pampa at Veeyapuram in Alappuzha district to empty into Vembanad Lake. Both the rivers were regarded as the lifeline of the Central Travancore region, and the proposed diversion of water would lead to an environmental and ecological disaster.

According to a study by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Sept 2016, the Vembanad Lake could cease to exist in another 50 years[xxx] as climate change was aggravating the complex threats posed by land use changes. The study on the environmental management action plan for eco-restoration of the lake & its inflowing rivers found that urbanisation, pollution and reclamation had whittled down the water mass by 40 % in area and 65 % in depth.

Scientist Ajayakumar Varma said that 55,000 ha of backwaters had been reclaimed and converted into polders for paddy cultivation. The capacity of the lake had gone down from 2.45 to 0.56 cubic km, registering a decline of 78 %, while the urban agglomeration had increased five times over the last 50 years. The study also found that the inflow of sediments to the lake had gone up over the years.

The study of the land use pattern in Vembanad revealed that the area under plantations had increased from 27 to 40 % during 1976 to 2010, while the area under settlements increased from 13 to 30 %. The forested area had shrunk from 59 to 30 % during the period.

Another study by the Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), Kumarakom, under Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) in Feb 2017 found that the pesticide residue[xxxi] from rice polders and nutrient discharge from urban settlements were aggravating the pollution of the Vembanad lake playing havoc with the fragile wetland ecosystem and jeopardising its tourism potential. The study also reported a high level of eutrophication of the lake.

Similarly, the data collected by the environmental surveillance centre at RARS indicated that the organic pollution of the lake was getting worse. The riverine locations near Pampa and Manimala indicated very high levels of bacterial coliform. The tourism house boat terminals at Thannermukkom, Punnamada, Pallathuruthy, and Kumarakom revealed high pollution.

The Cochin Port Trust (CPT) in April 2017, came under fire for its alleged flagrant reclamation of Vembanad backwaters[xxxii] and violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. A committee constituted by the union environment ministry had held the CPT responsible for CRZ violations in Vembanad, which was classified as a Critically Vulnerable Coastal Area in the CRZ 2011 notification.

The expert panel of the State-Level Monitoring Committee on the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008 in January 2018 said that the leachate from the waste dumping site on the Brahmapuram campus of the Kochi Corporation was adding to the contamination of waterbodies[xxxiii] and raising serious health concerns.

The August 2018 floods had adversely affected[xxxiv] the Kuttanad area which was often cited as a model farming system for climate change adaption scenarios. The floods had also brought several invasive fish species[xxxv] in state water bodies including Vembanad wetlands system.

Similarly, a post flood survey conducted by the SPCB and the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) in September 2018 revealed that the accumulation of plastic wastes and veterinary drug residue was posing a serious threat[xxxvi] to the Kuttanad wetland ecosystem with long-term consequences for human health. The survey carried out at 40 locations found that intense turbidity had affected the water quality in most of the rivers including the Pampa, Manimala, Achencovil, Meeenachil, Periyar and Muvattupuzha.

As per February 2019 report, with the central government amending[xxxvii] the Coastal regulation zone (CRZ)-2018, there were concerns that it could trigger environmental damage in the coastal region from construction boom as the amendments had reduced the no development zone to 50 m from the high tide line (HTL). However, before any activity, the state was required to ready coastal zone management plans (CZMP) for all coastal districts and local bodies.

Experts cautioned that any plan should be done keeping in mind the vulnerability to floods and inundation. The act had also not addressed the fact that around 50 per cent of the mangroves in the state were under private property.

According to May 2019 report, the state environment department was sitting on a sensitive report[xxxviii], which had listed the reported CRZ violations by Kappico Kerala Resorts at Nediyathuruthu in Vembanad lake.

Environmentalists in May 2019, alleged that concrete debris[xxxix] were piling up on the banks of the Chilavanoor water body and was being covered by mud taken from Chilavanoor backwater part of Vembanad wetlands by Kochi Metro’s Elamkulam station.

In June 2019, the Kerala State Housing Board’s (KSHB) planned[xl] to construct an international exhibition centre near the Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary. Mangalavanam, a thick mangrove patch, was already threatened by the buildings towering over it.

In May 2019, the SC had ordered demolition[xli] of Maradu apartments built on coastal areas of Vemanad lake. Incidentally, the SC had, in 2013, observed that the lake was undergoing severe environmental degradation due to increased human intervention. However, the state government had not acted against the encroachments.

As per June 2019 report, over the years the inland fish stocks had declined drastically[xlii] in Vembanad, Ashtamudi wetlands due to the pesticide and fertilizer runoff from paddy fields, high waves and pollution caused by powered boats, loss of mangrove cover, disruption of migratory waterways, sand-mining, exploitative fishing and illegal use of stake net during tidal ingress and as a conservation measure the fisheries department was planning protected reserves in the estuaries of these wetlands.

In September 2019, the HC appointed amicus curiae in a case relating to illegal reclamation and pollution of the Vembanad Lake, sought a directive[xliii] to Kottayam and Alappuzha District Collectors to file a report regarding the illegal construction of resorts and other home stays on the banks of Vembanad Lake and also on the efforts taken to regulate them.

The amicus curiae further pointed out that the government itself had carried out a permanent construction of a house boat terminal at Kumarakom, violating the CRZ notification and without any clearance from MoEF&CC. As a result, a fish sanctuary had been destroyed.

In October 2019, the government told the HC that around 625 constructions mostly residential along Vembanad Lake in three districts Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam were served notice for demolition[xliv] for violating CRZ norms. Similarly, the special investigation team of Crime Branch probing the illegal constructions told the twin towers of Alfa Ventures apartment buildings had been built encroaching[xlv] 17 cents of Vembanad Lake.

The research by Kerala University of Fisheries & Ocean Studies (KUFOS) in Nov 2019, revealed that the water flow in Vembanad Lake had decreased by around 50 %[xlvi] due to plastic waste & silt and in many areas of the lake & warned that the decrease would increase the intensity of floods.

Earlier the study had found sharp depth shrinkage of the lake from 8 to 9 metres in 1930s to the present 1.6 to 4.5 metres. Another alarming finding of the study was the presence of around 4276 tonnes of plastic garbage in the bottom sediments of the Alappuzha regions. The lake area in these regions is 76.5 sq.km. This amounts to 55.9 tonnes per sq km of plastic garbage. It is known that in Kochi regions also there is a similar situation.

Another study by the School of Marine Sciences at the CUSAT confirmed that the Vembanad backwaters were undergoing rapid ecological decay[xlvii] due to a range of reasons including unauthorised construction activities, violation of CRZ norms, intense pollution & heightened tourism activities. A striking findings of the study was that there has been a concentration of heavy metals like zinc, nickel & copper in aquatic organisms, lending a major threat to the ecosystem. The marked decline in the clam fishery in the estuary was also pointed out.

The study also cited the effect of the unscientific construction of the Thaneermukkom barrage in 1975 on the coastal ecosystem. The barrage may have been built to prevent saline water intrusion from the sea, but it has resulted in gross changes in the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the wetland system.

The Vembanad backwaters were continuously subjected to land reclamation[xlviii] for various purposes such as agriculture expansion, harbour development, and urban development. Untreated waste from houseboats is dumped into the waterbody the report said.

A report in Nov 2019 by KSPCB mentioned of the contamination[xlix] of the Vembanad lake due to heavy metals and pesticide reaching alarming levels and posing a major health risk to humans through trophic transfer.

As per Jan 2020 report, the 7-star Kapico Kerala Resorts in Vembanad Lake in neighbouring Alappuzha was built in violation[l] of CRZ rules and SC order had paved way for its demolition.

Similarly the 59 villas and other structures built defying CRZ rules in Nediyanthuruthu, an island in Alappuzha district’s Vembanad region were ordered to be demolished[li] by the Kerala HC.

Deteriorating conditions of the Ramsar site warranted study[lii] from KSPCB in February 2020. A major focus of the proposed study is the declining water quality levels in the lake following the spike in human activities.

One more ATREE and KUFOS report recently revealed decline in fish diversity[liii] in last two years due to increasing human intervention and fish wealth has declined from the lake by about 7500 tonnes affecting livelihoods of dependent people.

The annual Vembanad Fish Count (VFC) conducted of 2018 had recorded 117 fish species and the number fell to 98 in 2019. The lake had registered 153 fish species in 1980. The remarkable fall is primarily attributed to the annual closure of the bund, which causes disruptions in the hydrological cycle, sedimentation, & affects migration of fish from the ocean.

The study found that unrestrained fishery and high toxic situations caused by agro-chemicals in the run-off water and petrochemical exhausts from boats, leading to biodiversity loss are also of greater concern.

The situation has turned so bad that a sum of ₹10 crore[liv] has been earmarked in the state budget to get Vembanad Lake rid of plastic waste with the help of fisherfolk. Similarly not only the lake but the canals, streams like Konthuruthy river supplying freshwater in the lake have been facing encroachments[lv]

Asthamudi Wetlands: Saltwater incursion, declining flows, govt projects, Pollution damaging the lake

Ashtamudi Kayal (Lake)[lvi] is the most visited backwater lake in Kollam district. It possesses a unique wetland ecosystem and a large palm-shaped water body, second only in size to the Vembanad estuary ecosystem. Ashtamudi means ‘eight braids’ in the Malayalam language. The name is indicative of the lake’s topography with its multiple branches.

The lake is also called the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala and is well known for its houseboat and backwater resorts. Ashtamudi Wetland was included in Ramsar list for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetland. In November 2014 the lake was recognized[lvii] for sustainable clam fishing being done by around 3000 dependent fisherfolks. 

As per Aug 2012 report, the area of the lake had shrunk[lviii] to 34 sq km & it was facing serious degradation. Revenue authorities disputed the 61.4 sq km extent but agreed that the lake could have shrunk by at least 5 sq km in the past 10 years. In spite of the Ramsar status, there was no serious attempt to gain national/ international cooperation to protect the lake.

The wanton reclamation, pollution, & sand-mining were destroying the Lake. The pollution factor included hydro-carbon discharge from over 1,000 mechanised fishing boats that were operating in the lake. The lake had also become a solid waste dumping ground of Kollam city.

35 Ashtamudi Wetland

In 2007, some efforts were made by the administration to recover parts of the lake that had been encroached upon. More than 100 ha of the lake that had been reclaimed through landfill process was identified. However, no steps were taken to recover such land.

In Sept 2013, In spite of the govt’s announcement to conserve the wetlands, massive reclamation[lix] of Ashtamudi Lake was being reported at Dalawapuram in Kollam. A large portion of the lake was being reclaimed under the guise of developing the National Waterway III said the activist V.K. Madhusudhanan.

The unscientific construction of the Dalawapuram bridge across the lake few years ago had resulted in heavy sedimentation, an impediment to navigation in the area. Prior to the construction of the bridge, the lake there could be used even by large mechanised boats. But, later vast stretches of the lake were not even 6 inches deep during low tide, he said.

The activist further added that a course of the NW-III passed through the area and a contractor was awarded dredging work. It was the contractor’s job to transport the dredged sand and clay away from the place. But, the dredged material was being dumped on the bank, in a private property and over half an acre of the lake was slowly turning into land.

This was happening despite plantation of 2.45 lakh mangrove saplings as part of a Rs. 23-lakh afforestation programme supported by MoEF&CC during 2005-06.

In August 2016, inspired by Vembanad lake, the State Tourism Department proposed to introduce 500 boats[lx] in the lake and canals of Malabar. The move was criticized by the wetland conservationists who had demand Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and carrying capacity studies in Ashtamudi

The report also mentioned of adverse impact on Vembanad lake by over-exploitation of it for recreational boating and comparing the Vembanad with Ashtamudi was unwise as the lake was shallower with less water flow in comparison to Vembanad. There was also concerns on its impact on fishery activity in the lake.

Demanding guidelines for management of the lake, Dr. B. Madhusoodana Kurup, former Vice Chancellor, KUFOS who had worked on an Ashtamudi Lake management system said that pollution from the boats, including oil slicks & discharge of waste, were also areas of concern.

According to N. Nandini Menon, a scientist of the NERC, Kochi, who studied the impact of boating in Vembanad, the anthropogenic activities such as fishing, sand mining & tourism had already degraded the Ashtamudi lake system. She added that the lake was hit by low dissolved oxygen value, high E. coli count, indicating faecal contamination & heavy metal concentration.

Demanding EIA study, she said that increased boat traffic would lead to issues such as shoreline erosion, pollution from fuel emissions, destruction of fish spawning areas, churning & re-suspension of bottom sediments & increased turbidity, impacting biodiversity of the lake.

According to Oct 2018 report, the construction of the third phase of Ashramam Link road by filling some 8 acres of Ashtamudi Lake violated the CRZ norms[lxi] and was causing irreversible destruction to the wetland. The Rs. 114 cr Ashramam Link road extension undertaken by the PWD fell under the CRZ-1, under ecologically sensitive areas. The construction along these areas should be done only with pillars without affecting the tidal flow of water, which had been violated in the case of Link road extension. As the lake was a Ramsar site, it needed the permission of the state’s department of environment and climate change based on Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017.

As per April 2019 report, the government machinery had blatantly violated rules[lxii] for the project. Even environmental clearance from the State Wetland Authority of Kerala (SWAK) had not been obtained. The SWAK revealed no authorities had approached it seeking prior EC. No environmental impact assessment had been conducted before the construction, as per an RTI reply from the SWAK.

The project had not obtained sanction from Coastal Zone Management Authority either. In reply to an RTI query earlier, the KCZMA had maintained that the office had no details on the permission for construction along the lake as part of phase III of link road extension. Though authorities claimed the construction was on pillars, the tidal flow was likely to get affected. The lake had also been extensively filled in bus stand junction & Olayilkkadavu areas.

The construction from Kollam KSRTC terminal to Thoppilkadavu via Olayil Kadavu was entirely through the Ashtamudi Lake. Pillars had been piled and erected in the Lake up to Olayil Kadavu as part of Phase III of the project. The Phase IV of the project was yet to begin and involved the construction of a flyover from Olayil Kadavu to Thoppilkadavu.

In Jan 2019, concerns against the Ashramam ring road extension fell on deaf ears as PWD proceeded with fourth stage work[lxiii] connecting Thoppilkkadavu & Olayilkkadavu. The PWD was building the road despite it being virtually irrelevant with the opening of Kollam bypass.

As per Jan 2020 report, the fresh water wetland was suffering from saltwater incursion[lxiv] as fishermen had caught edible sea fish like mackerel (‘ayala’ in local parlance)  from the lake in large amount. It was feared that the backwaters would be affected adversely and the natural resources of Ashtamudi would get depleted, thus affecting the livelihood of inland fisherfolk. This phenomenon may adversely affect the ecosystem of several coastal regions, including Munroe Thuruth, in Kollam district.

A report of Jan 2020 mentioned of worsening condition[lxv] of solid and liquid waste in the Kollam district which was entering the Asramam Biodiversity Park including the Asramam mangroves forest, located on the banks of Ashtamudi Lake. Apart from a govt guest house complex, the site also consists of the creek of Ashtamudi Lake. It has a biodiversity of mangrove species, rare, endemic and endangered plants, fish and even attracts migratory birds. However, sewage waste and plastic pollution have caused severe environmental problems in the area.

Quoting Wetlands International South Asia, a Feb 2020 report mentioned that over the past one decade, there has been a reduction in inflow of freshwater[lxvi] up to 40 %, leading to increased salinity in the Ashtamudi wetlands system.

The freshwater inflow has declined considerably since the Kallada dam became operational. The reduced inflow has increased salinity in the estuary, leading to reduction in freshwater species, especially fish. Abattoir waste, along with other refuse, also reaches the system.

The lake’s ecology has been severely impacted[lxvii] by saltwater incursion, reduction in fresh water flows and bivalve invasion. According to K.K. Appukuttan, marine fisheries expert and former scientist with Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the freshwater lake’s water has become similar to that of the sea and if the marine regime continues, the entire aquatic environment will be affected.

Another major threat faced by Ashtamudi now is the presence of an invasive bivalve from South America. It started appearing in Vemband during early 2019 and currently it has colonised many creeks in Ashtamudi. The bivalves are around two centimetres long with very little meat, but they have been monopolising and altering the habitat.

The variation in salinity level and the presence of invasive species can also affect the fish sanctuaries being set up in Ashtamudi and Vembanad by the Fisheries Department as part of a project to revive the inland fisheries sector. The department had identified a number of sites to conserve pearl spot and yellow clam, but the recent changes in the habitat may not be ideal for fish seed ranching and clam relaying.

Sasthamcotta Lake: People trying to revive drying wetland

Sasthamcotta or Sasthamkotta Lake is the largest fresh water lake in Kerala. The lake is named after the ancient Sastha temple (a pilgrimage centre) located on its bank. It meets the drinking water needs of half million people of the Quilon district and is also source of livelihood for the fisherfolk. The purity of the lake water for drinking use is attributed to the presence of large population of larva called cavaborus that consumes bacteria in the lake water. The lake water level is maintained by Kallada river flowing close. Underground springs, seepage of filtered water from surrounding hillocks, and rain were the other water sources for the lake. The lake is included in Ramsar list since November 2002.

For years, the Sasthamcotta Lake had managed to remain a freshwater body owing to the virtual absence of nutrients in it. However, the Dec 2012 report mentioned of continuous degradation[lxviii] of the lake leading to entry of nutrients into it and causing big change in the chemical composition of the lake, including the threat of salinity in the long run.

The unauthorised sand-mining in the proximate lake areas had damaged the sources of the water and resulted in a fall in the water level. Instead of feeding the lake, the water from the sources was flowing into the pits created around the lake by the sand-mining.

The algal growth in the lake had lent a green hue to it in some pockets causing unusual sedimentation in the Sasthamcotta water treatment plant. The waste water after the treatment was being pumped back into the lake causing pollution.

Over a decade the lake was turning drier during summer and in April 2013, a portion of the 3.73 sq km lake turned into grass land due in the absence of water. Again concerned people complained of subsurface water meant to feed the lake during lean season was seeping away into huge pits created for the unauthorised sand mining in the adjacent West Kallada spread over an area of one sq km area. The state government had ignored the lake and the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority had not made any intervention to save it.

In July 2015, the administration banned sand mining[lxix] in the lake area. Notices were also given to local people for not bathing, washing and throwing garbage in the water body. The lake had faced acute water shortage even in 2014.

36 Sasthamcotta Lake

Alarmed on the lake’s degradation, the local people in April 2015 launched an indefinite agitation in the Sasthamcotta asking govt to take steps for the improvement of the lake including formation of autonomous body for management and protection of the lake, expert committee to prepare a master plan; detailed water balance study; pollution control & ban of mining in the catchment area.

Similarly, the Biodiversity Management Committee in Oct 2015 had brought pressure on the Kerala Water Authority to regulate the extraction[lxx] of water from the lake. As per the biodiversity register the lake was facing heat from urbanisation, pollution and changes in agricultural and land use patterns. The water level was decreasing and pollution level was going up calling for technical and financial support for the lake.

In May 2017 again the water level in the lake fell drastically due to drought and lack of rains. Similarly, a fish census carried out in Sasthamkotta Lake, in March 2018 revealed a decline in piscean diversity[lxxi], an indication of the deterioration of quality. The decline in fish species had jeopardised the livelihood of traditional fishers, forcing them to shift their operations to other waterbodies.

The survey concluded that the primary reason for the decline of fish diversity in the lake was the loss of breeding grounds due to heavy siltation & accumulation of weeds, especially in the shallow margins. Urban pollution was also affecting it. The study found that the increase in water temperature due to climate change was forcing fish to deeper areas of the lake.

In May 2018, the presence of iron bacteria in Sasthamkotta lake disrupted[lxxii] the water distribution to Kollam Corporation and various adjacent panchayats in the district. The Kerala Water Authority stopped sourcing water from the lake owing to complaints of discolouration. The lake was drying up at an alarming rate with nearly half of its total area of 3.73 sq km turning dry.  Despite attempts including planting trees along its catchment area to maintain the already depleted lake, the water level is coming down at the rate of 50 cm each year.

The lake was filled[lxxiii] with weeds and in July 2018 and local people had voluntarily taken up cleaning up initiative without the help of any government agency.

As per levels Wetlands International, South Asia, the abstraction of freshwater from the lake for meeting the drinking water needs of Kollam city has reached unsustainable[lxxiv] level and if the drawing of water continues at the current level, the lake system will dry up in another 10 years. Similarly the increased siltation of the lake has resulted in the reduction of capacity of the lake. The discharge of freshwater into the system has also come down.

Interactive map of Ramsar Wetlands sites in India

Summary The Ramsar sites in South India are affected by commercial fish farming, over fishing, invasion of alien plants and aquatic species apart from siltation, encroachment, drying up of critical water sources. These all are manmade problems and the respective governments have failed to address these growing threats.

The Kolleru lake in Andhra Pradesh has become infested with commercial fishing. The fish farmers lobby has been pushing government to divert either Krishna or Godavari river water to sustain their fish farming in the event of water scarcity in the lake. The state government has been pursuing denotification of wetlands area to promote more commercial fish farming which is probably being done under the blue revolution project of central government. Experts have voiced that drying up of lakes is part of nature’s cycle & benefits the.

The Point Calimere Sanctuary along east coast in Tamil Nadu is suffering from increasing number of feral houses and spread of Prosopis juliflora which is affecting avifauna and aquatic ecosystem. The area has also been severely hit by repeated cyclones.

Over a decade several government and public studies have raised alarm over continual degradation of Vembanad Kol Wetland eco-system. In fact it’s a classic example of all the threats the wetlands in India are facing, be it encroachment, siltation, deforestation, land use change, chemical farming, dumping of solid-liquid waste, adverse impact of commercial activities, declining fish diversity, over fishing and losses to traditional fishermen.

The invasion of exotic water plants and spices in the lake system seems a major reason. The construction of Thaneermukkom barrage in 1975 to prevent saline water intrusion has contributed to degeneration of lake eco-system. The barrage is now leading to gross changes in the physical, chemical and biological entity of the wetland system.

The incursion of salt water, and invasion of marine species has been posing threats to the Ashtamudi wetland. Excessive recreational boating for commercial gains has been affecting fish species and fishing community adversely. In violation of all norms and without any EIA study the Ashramam Link road project is being built through the wetland which experts have found totally unnecessary.

The amount of solid and liquid waste being dumped into the fresh water lake has increased manifold while its size continue to shrink. Moreover, post operation of Kallada dam, the supply of fresh water into the lake has declined worryingly which is leading to drying up of lake. 

Sasthamkotta lake is succumbing to growing water demand of Kollam city. The increasing siltation has been reducing its capacity and reduction in fresh water supply has been turning the lake drier.

There is far from adequate response to these realities either from Ramsar convention or from any of the relevant governments.

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

PS: Also See

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: North India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: West India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: North East India

Ramsar Wetlands in Crisis: East India

End Notes:

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolleru_Lake

[ii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Vijayawada/reduction-in-food-wastage-can-save-kolleru-lake/article4780646.ece

[iii] https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Hans/2014-12-26/Shrinking-Kolleru-Lake/122936

[iv] https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Andhra-Pradesh/2015-07-19/Land-sharks-gnawing-away-Penna-delta/164357

[v] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Vijayawada/mission-save-kolleru/article5200069.ece

[vi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Vijayawada/kolleru-no-more-a-cosy-home-for-birds/article6252957.ece

[vii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/fish-species-birds-under-threat-as-water-level-in-kolleru-lake-drops/article8259360.ece

[viii] https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Andhra-Pradesh/2016-02-29/Atapaka-pelican-paradise-in-peril/210489

[ix] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vijayawada/Godavari-water-for-parched-Kolleru-lake-brings-cheer-to-aqua-farmers/articleshow/53348145.cms 

[x] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vijayawada/blame-it-on-interlinking-krishna-ecological-balance-takes-a-hit/articleshow/56082611.cms

[xi] https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/andhra-pradesh/2018/may/04/dried-up-kolleru-lake-leaves-andhra-pradesh-villagers-high-and-dry-1809990.html 

[xii] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/environmentalists-up-in-arms-against-kolleru-denotification/article24176064.ece

[xiii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/sc-panel-urged-to-stop-kolleru-denotification/article24446249.ece

[xiv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/the-vanishing-habitat/article30126219.ece 

[xv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_Calimere_Wildlife_and_Bird_Sanctuary

[xvi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/point-calimere-wildlife-sanctuary-closed-for-a-week-due-to-water-logging/article25427714.ece

[xvii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/wildlife-from-point-calimere-sanctuary-became-victims-of-gaja/articleshow/66789260.cms 

[xviii] https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/is-point-calimere-wildlife-sanctuary-safe-for-migratory-birds/article25463648.ece

[xix] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/battle-to-rein-in-feral-horses-continues/article29683406.ece 

[xx] https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/blackbuck-habitat-faces-threat/article25344019.ece

[xxi] https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2019/nov/10/loss-of-flora–fauna-during-gaja-continues-to-affect-arrival-of-birds-2059642.html

[xxii] http://cpreec.org/96.htm

[xxiii] Husk retting is carried out by immersing coconut husks in lakes, rives and ponds for period ranging from 6 months to 1 year. During retting, materials of the husk which bind fibres together are degraded and fibres are loosened. Extraction is simple and yields fibre with polished surface properties.

[xxiv] https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/cabomba-weeds-posing-serious-threat-to-water-bodies-in-kerala/article2053777.ece

[xxv] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/Waste-from-houseboats-killing-Vembanad-Lake-says-study/articleshow/12917029.cms 

[xxvi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/promised-saviour-of-vembanad-lake-is-yet-to-be-born/article5076410.ece

[xxvii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/real-estate-mafia-uprooting-mangroves-say-kochi-environmentalists/article5237947.ece

[xxviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/invasive-weeds-posing-threat-to-water-bodies-in-central-travancore/article6166866.ece

[xxix] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/kerala-in-a-tizzy-over-riverlinking-project/article6241231.ece

[xxx] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Thiruvananthapuram/Vembanad-lake-may-vanish-in-50-years-study/article15005271.ece

[xxxi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/vembanad-wetlands-hurtlingtowards-crisis-kau-study/article17329534.ece

[xxxii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/reclamation-will-cause-ecological-damage-to-vembanad-says-panel/article17898505.ece 

[xxxiii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/leachate-posing-health-hazards-says-panel/article22362854.ece

[xxxiv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/kerala-floods-aftermath-kuttanad-may-never-be-the-same-again/article24857618.ece

[xxxv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/an-alien-invasion-post-floods-in-state-waters/article24929272.ece

[xxxvi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/vet-drugs-pose-threat-to-kuttanad/article25036147.ece

[xxxvii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/waterfronts-set-for-construction-boom/articleshow/67926735.cms

[xxxviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/no-action-yet-on-crz-violations-by-resort-group/article27074390.ece

[xxxix] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/kerala-activists-allege-backwater-encroachment-kochi-metro-construction-102358

[xl] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/exhibition-city-project-raises-fears-of-doom-for-mangalavanam/article28224223.ece

[xli] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/a-lake-in-the-cross-hairs-of-development/article29471576.ece

[xlii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/exclusive-zones-in-lakes-to-conserve-karimeen/article27958829.ece

[xliii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/amicus-curiae-seeks-report-on-vembanad-lake-pollution/article29532926.ece   

[xliv] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/after-maradu-625-buildings-kerala-along-vembanad-lake-face-demolition-109899    

[xlv] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/alfa-ventures-towers-maradu-encroaches-17-cents-vembanad-lake-crime-branch-110792

[xlvi] https://english.mathrubhumi.com/news/kerala/alarming-decrease-in-water-flow-in-vembanad-lake-1.4249533    

[xlvii] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kerala/kerala-vembanad-backwaters-pollution-ecological-decay-study-6119996/    

[xlviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/decay-of-vembanad-ecosystem-apace-says-study/article29966993.ece

[xlix] https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/kochi/2019/nov/15/toxic-contamination-of-vembanad-lake-in-kochi-poses-major-health-hazard-2061853.html 

[l] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/now-sc-orders-seven-star-resort-razed-in-kerala/articleshow/73197595.cms 

[li] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/sc-upholds-kerala-high-court-order-demolish-59-villas-vembanad-island-115889    

[lii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/vembanad-ecosystem-study-to-begin-soon/article30707370.ece   

[liii] https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/vembanad-stifling-under-human-intervention-gasps-for-breath/article30779394.ece

[liv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/kerala-budget-2020-2400-cr-package-brings-cheer-for-kuttanad/article30765557.ece   

[lv] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/128-families-along-canal-kochi-asked-vacate-homes-residents-strike-117968   

[lvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtamudi_Lake

[lvii] https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/Kerala%E2%80%99s-Ashtamudi-lake-gets-recognition-for-sustainable-clam-fishing/article10999934.ece

[lviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/ashtamudi-lake-a-shrinking-ramsar-site/article3785198.ece

[lix] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/concern-over-reclamation-of-ashtamudi-lake/article5092747.ece

[lx] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/Questions-on-houseboats%E2%80%99-impact-on-Ashtamudi/article14580638.ece

[lxi] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/201018/kollam-lake-laid-bare-so-much-fuss-over-development.html

[lxii] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/030419/ravaged-ashtamudi-in-poll-focus.html

[lxiii] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/250119/ring-road-to-affect-ashtamudi-lake.html

[lxiv] https://english.manoramaonline.com/districts/kollam/2020/01/11/mackerel-ashtamudi-saltwater.html

[lxv] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/kollam-municipality-sets-new-deadline-plastic-ban-book-violators-feb-1-117016

[lxvi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/withering/article30786059.ece

[lxvii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/greens-weary-of-saline-incursion/article30786037.ece

[lxviii] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/Sasthamcotta-Lake-faces-yet-another-threat/article12465200.ece 

[lxix] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/mining-ban-around-sasthamkotta-lake–1581 

[lxx] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/sasthamcotta-conservation-project-to-be-made-a-model/article7732924.ece

[lxxi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/fish-stocks-decline-at-sasthamkotta-lake/article22909753.ece

[lxxii] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/150518/sasthamkotta-lake-ceases-to-be-water-source.html

[lxxiii] https://english.manoramaonline.com/districts/kollam/2018/07/11/people-power-to-the-fore-for-sasthamkotta-lake-revival.html

[lxxiv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/withering/article30786059.ece

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