Cauvery issue: The shocking story of Bengaluru's dried up '1,000 lakes'

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 13 March, 2016. In light of the Cauvery river water dispute, this piece is being republished to highlight how Bengaluru's water problems stem from the state of its lakes. 

In March, the Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru turned fish graveyard as hundreds of thousands of dead fish surfaced belly up, shocking environmentalists and neighbourhood residents. V Purushottam, president of a local residents’ group said that sewage water from many parts of the city was allowed to flow into the lake, thereby depleting oxygen levels in the lake water. He said that authorities have been continuously ignoring pleas to repair a bund that was supposed to keep this from happening.

Following Monday’s incident, officials swung into action. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told NDTV that he had held two meetings with officials to discuss the incident. “They have given me details on what they are doing to improve the situation. The lakes’ system in Bengaluru has been destroyed for the past few decades. Colonies have been discharging their effluents into the lakes, which has led to this situation.”

 Cauvery issue: The shocking story of Bengalurus dried up 1,000 lakes

Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. Image from Reuters

Mamata Saravanan, local corporator of the area also admitted laxity. “The maintenance of the lake has been very poor,” she said, adding that the lake’s health was worsened by the immersion of idols following festivals and unrestricted fishing activity.

Water samples collected from the lake have been sent for testing. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have started a petition on asking the municipal commissioner to affix responsibility for the loss of aquatic life at Ulsoor lake.

The real tragedy though is that Ulsoor still remains one of the better maintained lakes in Bengaluru. Located in a high-end residential colony, it’s a popular destination for walkers and joggers, while rowing and boating activity also draws crowds. And this incident comes just a few years after the government launched a massive clean-up operation here. Until the clean-up, Ulsoor was full of slush and silt left behind after the immersion of Ganesha idols. The lake was found to be full of water hyacinth. Clearly, the action taken by the government wasn’t enough.

And Ulsoor is not the only Bengaluru lake to be facing these concerns. Last year, the Varthur, Bellandur and Yamlur lakes were all found to be frothing at their mouths. Soon afterwards, the Yamlur lake burst into flames. In December last year, bird waters and students surveyed 20 lakes in and around Bengaluru to do a census on the waterfowl found here. It was the first time in 19 years that such a census was being conducted. Ulhas P Anand, one of the bird waters, told The Hindu, “Land use has been one of the biggest changes, which has affected the bird population tremendously, particularly among waders.

A bird census in the mid-90s had found several varieties of migratory birds, numbering over 5,000 in each lake. However, by 2015, these numbers had fallen drastically. According to the bird waters, sewage inflow, debris lining the shore, commercial fishing, unhindered chopping of trees along the shore and disappearance of wetlands had all affected the health of the lakes. Furthermore, some of the lakes had gone dry while some others had been bifurcated by main and arterial roads, while industrial areas surrounded some others.

All these factors contributed in a big way to the reduction of the bird population. Migratory birds, just like fish and other aquatic life, are the best indicators towards the health of a lake. In turn, the lakes are essential water bodies, needed to improve the quality of life of citizens. Disappearance of the lakes could result in rising temperatures, water shortage and reduced rainwater storage basins. Since the lakes have catchment areas for the collection of rain water, an ill maintained lake could mean increased dependence on already depleting underground water resources.

But it wasn’t always so. Bengaluru was always known as the city of one thousand lakes. These are lakes dug in the 16th century by the city’s founders, the Kempe Gowdas. The Mysuru Wodeyars and the British later developed them further. These wetlands were home to a variety of aquatic life, nurtured water birds and also provided drinking water to the area’s residents. By 1960, Bengaluru had only 280 lakes though. This figure dropped alarmingly to 80 by 1993. Currently, the number of healthy lakes in and around the city is a dismal 17.

Horrifying statistics, right? So, what happened to the lovely lakes that Bengaluru was known for?

Many of the lakes were converted to bus stands, golf courses, playgrounds and residential colonies by the government or were leased out. The rest were encroached by slums and builders, while some others dried up or became cesspools of human and toxic waste.

In 2013, DNA reported that the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) would be conducting a survey of lakes in the city to identify encroachments made by the influential land mafia. The ambitious project, costing an estimated Rs 50 crore, was supposed to clear the encroachments and rejuvenate 78 lakes in the city. This was part of a more comprehensive plan which was to revive and conserve 183 lakes in and around the city.

That was over two years ago. In September last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had pulled up the Karnataka state government over encroachments on lake beds. The tribunal regretted that a city renowned for its 261 lakes only had 68 as of today. It also slammed the high-powered committee and the Lake Development Authority set up by the government and raised some serious questions.

Among the points the NGT raised were:
- Un-authorised encroachment and possession of wetlands by builders
- Steps to be taken by the officials and the extent of damage done to the ecology and environment, particularly the wetlands, by the builders
- What was the extent of the discharge of sewage and other effluents from the lakes? What remedial measures were being taken to ensure compliance of the law?
- What was the status of the show-cause notice issued by the Pollution Control Board to the builders? What steps are to be taken?

Meanwhile, several environment organisations have, over the past few years, been conducting regular surveys on the lost and disappearing lakes of Bengaluru. They have now joined forces to get the government to take action and save these lakes. Whatever efforts are being made to save the last few remaining lakes and water bodies of Bengaluru, one thing is clear: It cannot be left to the government alone to take action. Like any successful campaign, even this needs to happen with the support of environmentalists and citizen bodies.

These bodies have also got to be extra vigilant to monitor the action taken by the government. It is ultimately up to us to ensure that what happened at Ulsoor lake this week doesn’t happen anywhere else.

Updated Date: Sep 19, 2016 11:41:33 IST