Vembanad lake, the second largest wetland system in India after the Sunderbans in West Bengal, is shrinking and its unique biodiversity is under threat of ecological decay despite it being declared as a Ramsar site 20 years ago.
The lake, which is a source of livelihood for farmers of Kuttanad and the fisherfolk community, continues to undergo ecological degradation due to pollution and unauthorised constructions on its banks, with experts calling for “committed efforts” to save its wetland ecosystem.
With a gradually shrinking area of over 2,000 square kilometres and a length of around 96 km, it is one of the largest lakes in Kerala and the longest in the country and is bound by the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Ernakulam.
According to ecological experts and various studies conducted over the years, the lake is facing serious environmental degradation due to recurring floods, increased pollution, reduction in water spread area and increased weed growth.
Experts like E J James, who was a member of the national committee on wetlands and a former director in Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), believe the steps that the state government claims to be taking remain on paper and nothing is ever implemented at the ground level.
Recently, when the issue was raised in the House, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said that an inter-departmental committee has been set up to carry out a comprehensive study on checking the existing backwaters and to take further steps.
James, who was part of the expert panel which had pushed for Vembanad to be declared a Ramsar site, said the solution to the threat of ecological decay faced by the lake is not as simple as removal of encroachments or building an outer bund to prevent silt deposition in the Thanneermukkom bund.
The bund was constructed to regulate saline water intrusion into the freshwater lake.
“After it was declared a Ramsar site, hardly anything has been done to protect the wetland system or maintain the ecological balance there,” he claimed.
A Ramsar site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention which is also known as the ‘Convention of Wetlands’.
A similar view was also expressed by CPI(M) MP from Alappuzha A M Ariff who said that after declaring the lake as a Ramsar site, nothing was done to protect or conserve it.
“Everything has been left to the state government. The state government is taking steps, but it is not enough. A lot of projects were announced with regard to conservation of the lake, but they are yet to be implemented,” he told PTI.
Ariff also said that the bunds on the lake were crumbling at certain places, making fishing difficult and on top of that the water body requires regular dredging and desilting also.
Besides environmental concerns, pollution and recurring floods in the lake also paint a bleak picture regarding the livelihood of the fisherfolk in the area and farmers as Kuttanad, also known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala, lies on the southern portion of the water body, James told PTI.
He said the lake has to be managed in a manner that both agriculture and fisheries sector can complement each other.
“This requires a scientific and efficient operation of the Thanneermukkom bund and Thottapalli Spillway,” he said.
Even the Swaminathan Foundation report of 2011 and a subsequent joint study of 2012 by teams from IIT Madras and CWRDM were of the same view.
The foundation in its report had said that Thanneermukkom bund has partly failed to serve its purpose mainly due to the unscientific manner in which it is operated.
Regarding the spillway, James said that it was not constructed as per original plans and now it would be difficult to change its dimensions.
All this is resulting in a situation where either agriculture or fishing would be possible, but not both together.
“This is one of the major conflicts in the area,” he added.
Another conflict, he pointed out was tourism, which while a major boost to the state’s economy could pose a threat to the ecology and water quality of the lake and its wetland system if waste disposal and treatment along the lake was not closely monitored.
On this aspect, Ariff said that residences and resorts along the lake shore discharge their waste into the river and many of the houseboats do not have eco-friendly or bio-toilets.
“There is also no sewage treatment plant there,” he added.
James also said that it has to be seen whether effluents from the houses as well as the houseboats, as the lake is a major tourist destination in the state, are being treated before they flow into the water body.
“Kerala’s biodiversity and its water bodies are the main assets of the state. They also give a boost to the tourism sector. We need to protect them.” James, who is now Pro-Vice Chancellor at Karunya University in Tamil Nadu, further said that where encroachments are concerned, the huge constructions by private landowner or builders and the government along the lake shore are the ones which pose a major problem and instead of focusing on them, going after common people living there was not a solution.
The CPI(M) MP was also of the view that the lake was being encroached upon by the residents living along its shore as well as those running resorts to extend their properties.
“As a result, Vembanad is shrinking and is also facing ecological problems,” Ariff said.