Though lakes are small in size they are an important part of the urban ecosystems. They provide much needed water for the cities they are located, recharge groundwater, act as sponges to control flooding, support biodiversity and provide livelihoods. These waterbodies, whether man-made or natural, fresh water or brackish are essential in maintaining environmental sustainability particularly in urban environments. Though their significance in maintaining city’s eco balance is unquestionable, today we are seeing many lakes in almost all cities of India are either disappearing or shrinking in size and depth.
Though environmentalists have been calling the attention of the governments and urban local bodies about the destruction of urban water bodies across the Indian landscape no serious preventive measures have been taken so far. For example, a 2012 study, Urban Flood Management – A Case Study of Chennai City, had pointed out that Chennai had about 650 small and big water bodies in the past out of which only handful of them are now remaining. Apart from gardens, Bengaluru was also known for its lakes. In 1960s, Bengaluru had 280 interlinked tanks and now most of them are untraceable. In Hyderabad more than 3,245 ha area of its water bodies in the last 15 years have been lost due to various reasons.
One need not do any in depth study to understand the impact of disappearing lakes in our cities as results are all there for us to see, experience and suffer. Almost all the major cities in India are facing water shortage in summer as the waterbodies which acted as source of drinking water are no longer in existence. At the same time we also see floods during rainy seasons causing damage to property, loss of life and misery. Causes of floods are due to natural factors such as heavy rainfall, high floods and high tides, etc., and human factors such as blocking of channels or aggravation of drainage channels, improper land use, deforestation in headwater regions, etc. Problems become more critical due to more severe and frequent flooding likely caused by climate change, socio-economic damage, population affected, public outcry and limited funds. Almost all major cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kochi in India are the victims of flood.
We have been using waterbodies for dumping solid waste and construction debris and as a result these water bodies have been shrinking in size. Encroachment of waterbodies by land mafia in collusion with government authorities is another major reason for disappearance of waterbodies in our cities. Ownership of water bodies is scattered among various government departments and is the root cause for lack of proper management. Many states have enough statutory powers to protect these lakes and waterbodies as in the case of Chennai which has the Protection of Tanks and Eviction of Encroachment Act. But such Acts and legal provisions are rarely used to protect lakes as the government authorities too are often found to be hand in glove with encroachers.
One of the direct and immediate impact of disappearing waterbodies in our cities is the flooding which has also been aggravated by uneven rainfall due to global warming, poor planning of transportation network which often found all along the water courses, inefficient and ancient water drainage system, increase in concrete spaces which stops percolation of water into the ground, etc.
Though the government has come out with a scheme, namely, National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) on cost sharing between Central Government and respective State Governments, ground reality doesn’t seem to have changed with this scheme either. The scheme has all that need to be done to protect our waterbodies like providing assistance for components such as survey and assessment, catchment area treatment, protection and monitoring, restoration measures, desilting and dredging, water management, biodiversity conservation etc. for conservation and management of wetlands, whereas for restoration and conservation of lakes, assistance is provided for activities such as interception and diversion of sewage, providing sewerage system and sewage treatment plants, desilting, catchment area treatment, storm water management etc. Again, implementation of the scheme is slow and time consuming with lot of exchange of communication between state and the Centre and in the process pushing the main objective to the background.
Since the urbanisation is the happening thing today, the situation (of disappearing city lakes) will only increase in the coming years unless the government intervenes in the matter with right earnest. The government need to take lake protection with the same degree of seriousness as in the case of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Lake preservation and conservation should be provided highest degree of priority under Smart City Mission. Because cities’ survival is largely dependent on the protection and conservation of their lakes. Sooner the government realises this fact the better.