Save urban lakes to tide over water related problems

Catching the rain where it falls and storing it in lakes and waterbodies seem to be the only viable option for parched cities

A NITI Ayog report in 2018 placed India at 120th amongst 122 countries on the water quality index. The report had also stated that 54 per cent of India’s ground water wells are decreasing in levels and 21 major cities across the country are expected to run out of ground water by 2020. Over exploitation of ground water due to urbanisation has led to rapid depletion of ground water levels. And among all the measures being discussed and taken, there is hardly any substantive action taken for saving, rejuvenating urban waterbodies. And each of the big cities has anywhere between 100 and 300 lakes and waterbodies while the smaller ones have 50 ormore. That makes for about 50,000-odd lakes, waterbodies, johads, wetlands and others across Indian states. 

As Jayesh Ranjan, vice chairperson of the erstwhile Hyderabad Urban Development Authority (now Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Area), while talking about 400-odd lakes and waterbodies under its jurisdiction, had rightly pointed out how increasing urbanization had led to loss of waterbodies, thus resulting in increasing run off area (causing not just loss of surface soil but also flooding of urban areas; Chennai floods in 2015 being the worst example in recent times). The lakes not just contribute significantly to additional recharge of the ground water regime due to percolation but also can be of direct use all the time for various purposes. 

According to a research paper ‘Urban Development Impacts on Waterbodies: A Review in India’ by Sauni Wan Lenar Laloo and Alok Ranjan of MNIT, Jaipur, a holistic understanding and acknowledgement of an urban water system should be an important part of urban water management plan. Without a healthy catchment water body is no more than a tank and has no abilities to maintain its water balance by its own. It is also required to replace the fast track development programmes, with well analysed and environmentally sustainable programmes based on a holistic understanding of urban environment and its needs.

However across India, there are increasing number of examples of how not to revive lakes and waterbodies compared to very few examples of properly, scientifically done works. A recent example is from the national capital Delhi.

In the last week of December, the Delhi government announced a decision to revive 159 waterbodies and create two mega lakes using treated sewer water. Calling it as a “major decision, which would help recharge groundwater, create additional reserves of water among other benefits,” the Delhi Jal Board, the nodal agency for water in Delhi, approved the proposal for rejuvenation of 159 water-bodies all over Delhi along with the creation of mega lakes at Nilothi STP (25 acres) and Rohini STP (32 acres). While a whopping Rs 376 crore was approved for rejuvenation of lakes, more than Rs 77 crore was approved for the two mega lakes.

According to the government plan, the cumulative Lake area will be spread across over 350 acres with water potential to hold 1581 million litres or 135 million gallons. “Water-bodies will be designed scientifically to recharge groundwater to the maximum extent possible. Apart from rainwater, treated water from STPs will be polished using natural wetlands and other methods to maintain the water levels in the water-body throughout the year,” the government said. 

Further the government claimed that landscaping would be done, and public areas and open spaces would be created around the mega lakes and other big lakes. The consultants for the project are NEERI, IIT Delhi and WAPCOS and different models would be used for different lakes depending on the condition in the area. Some would have treated sewage water of the local area, those in the dry areas will be revived through nearby STPs.

Whither BoD?

But not all are happy with the Delhi government’s decision. Vinod Jain of NGO Tapas has been fighting a case in Delhi High Court since over a decade to save Delhi’s waterbodies. In 2007, the Delhi High Court constituted a monitoring committee that has been regularly carrying out field surveys on a monthly basis. Up till now, approximately 1100 plus waterbodies, big and small, have been identified across the national capital. Six monthly report is submitted by the Delhi government to the court-appointed committee, which has stated that of these (1100+), ownership of as many as 629 waterbodies has been established while that for rest, even when these are marked as waterbodies on revenue records, the land ownership is not confirmed. 

Of the 629 for which land ownership has been established, 159 waterbodies fall under the jurisdiction of Delhi government. The above-mentioned proposal is for these same 159 waterbodies. Jain, in a related case in the Delhi High Court, had drawn attention of the court citing the case of Hauz Khas lake about how diverting sewage water into the waterbodies can be detrimental for groundwater. Therein, the Delhi government had filed an affidavit stating that it will not divert treated sewage water into the waterbodies.

“(Now), diverting BoD (biological oxygen demand) level touches 10 plus, whereas world standards say BoD level need not be more than 3 for bathing purposes. If the government goes ahead with the plan of diverting sewage water into the water bodies for their revival, it will mean additional expenditure for eutrophication, just as was done in case of Hauz Khas,” Jain says, adding, “If and only if, the government has plans to bring BoD to about 3 or below, then only it should go ahead with this plan.”

Why the focus on infrastructure?

But it is not just the BoD part (the quality of water) that environmental activists have a problem with. It is basically the way these water bodies are planned to be revived. 

Diwan Singh of NGO Natural Heritage First, with his team members has been working for the survival and revival of waterbodies in Dwarka area of Delhi. Singh and his team have been fighting for waterbodies for more than two decades now. In 2011-12, they had carried out a survey across 50 villages of Delhi that had 183 water bodies, big and small. Of those, they found as many as 93 completely dry; 63 had sewage in them and rest 27 were a case of reverse storage where people were pumping water and extracting water from the ground using tube wells as these waterbodies were used by villagers for animal husbandry. The bottomline is, all of them are non-functional as waterbodies. 

Singh says the government plan concentrates majorly on using treated sewage water, not to forget the emphasis on infrastructure. 
“Instead, the focus should be on harvesting rainwater in water bodies, big and small. That is to be done through storm waterdrains and managing catchment area through contour management,” he says. 
Another aspect lacking is community participation. As Anupam Mishra, the Gandhian environmentalist and author of the famous ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talab’ had so well documented, India’s stupendous number of lakes that acted as sponge for absorbing rains where it falls, survived entirely due to community ownership. 

Time has come again to make citizens aware of the importance and benefits of lakes and wetlands. Just making policies and laws will not suffice. The community is an important stakeholder and the urban lakes and waterbodies cannot and will not survive and/or rejuvenate without the active participation of this most important stakeholder.

(This was first published in the January 2019 issue of Urban Update magazine and its online version can be read here. )

About Nivedita

Two decades of exposure to social issues as a journalist, as a writer and as a socially conscious traveler. Currently working as an independent journalist, I write on water, environment, climate change and interests of India’s tribal population. I have earlier worked with the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, and the Hindustan Times, Delhi focusing on developmental and environmental issues. My special interests include writing about water, rivers, forests and India’s north-eastern states, especially Arunachal Pradesh. A University topper and a gold medalist, I have also won awards for environmental and health reporting. This is my personal space showcasing my professional work and also chronicling my musings and other interests such as photography

View all posts by Nivedita →