Pro­tected, yet pol­luted

De­spite be­ing a Ram­sar site, Ker­ala's Ash­ta­mudi lake re­mains pol­luted


IN 2002, when Ash­ta­mudi lake in Ker­ala was brought un­der the Ram­sar con­ven­tion, it was ex­pected that this would stop the lake’s de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Usu­ally, when a wa­ter body gets no­ti­fied un­der this in­ter­na­tional treaty on wet­land con­ser­va­tion, its preser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion is boosted. Ash­ta­mudi, how­ever, lost 27 square kilo­me­tres in the decade that fol­lowed. In 2002, the area of the lake was 61.4 sq km.

Ac­cord­ing to the Wet­land (Con­ser­va­tion and Man­age­ment) Rules, 2010, for­mu­lated by the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment, For­est and Cli­mate Change,the wa­ter bod­ies listed un­der the Ram­sar Con­ven­tion are not to be pol­luted or en­croached upon. In the case of Ash­ta­mudi, var­i­ous gov­ern­ment bod­ies have been pol­lut­ing and en­croach­ing upon the lake. In 2001, the Ker­ala Tourism De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion built a ho­tel right on the bank of the lake. It has also been dis­charg­ing un­treated sewage into the lake, says B Vas­an­tha Ku­mari,res­i­dent of Kol­lum district, where the lake is sit­u­ated. She vis­its the lake fre­quently and says it has turned black and stinks. Steps should have been taken to pre­vent this dis­charge once the lake came un­der the Ram­sar Con­ven­tion—an in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal treaty that pro­vides the frame­work for na­tional ac­tion and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion for the con­ser­va­tion and wise use of wet­lands and their re­sources.

In a sim­i­lar case, the Kol­lam Cor­po­ra­tion com­mis­sioned a bio­gas plant on the bank of the lake in 2007 with the help of the State Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board.The plant op­er­ated for a short du­ra­tion and pumped raw sewage into the lake.But in 2008,the board di­rected the cor­po­ra­tion to shut it be­cause the health of the lake had started to de­te­ri­o­rate.

The lake has be­come a waste dump­ing site for the town, says L Razeena Karim, re­searcher at the zo­ol­ogy depart­ment of Fa­tima Mata Na­tional Col­lege, Kol­lam. She says that dis­posal of Kol­lam’s mu­nic­i­pal waste has af­fected the phys­i­cal, chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the lake ecosys­tem. A study she did in 2011 found that bi­o­log­i­cal oxy­gen de­mand

in the lake was 9 mg/l. This is al­most three times the stan­dard set by the Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board (cpcb) for wa­ter fit for out­door bathing. The dis­solved oxy­gen was as low as 1mg/l—one-sixth of cpcb stan­dards. Nu­tri­ents like ni­trate and phos­phate were also found to be twice the stan­dard lev­els.The pres­ence of to­tal dis­solved solids in wells close to the lake was 64 times the per­mis­si­ble limit of 500 mg/l.As a re­sult, the ground­wa­ter, which gets recharged by the lake,also gets con­tam­i­nated, says Karim.

A lot of money is be­ing spent on recharg­ing the wa­ter ta­ble. This year, the district pan­chayat of Kol­lam ear­marked

8 crore for recharg­ing wells in the area.This ` would not have been re­quired had the lake been in proper health. Ex­perts say that restor­ing the lake can solve the prob­lem.

Tourist econ­omy

A part of the Ker­ala back­wa­ters, Ash­ta­mudi is the sec­ond largest lake in the state. Ash­ta­mudi wet­land is an es­tu­ary and the lake forms a ma­jor ge­o­mor­pho­log­i­cal fea­ture of the Kol­lam town. It is a ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion and house­boats are a big draw.But they are also a ma­jor source of pol­lu­tion be­cause they re­lease waste di­rectly into the lake,says Prasanna Earnest,for­mer mayor of Kol­lam. Apart from that, oil spillage from mo­tor boats is af­fect­ing fish pop­u­la­tion,says Karim. Ac­cord­ing to a 2007 study by the Univer­sity of Agri­cul­ture Sci­ence, Ben­galuru, the lake has an an­nual econ­omy of over 1,900 crore, with 87 per cent of it

` com­ing from fish­eries. Around 3,000 fish­er­folk de­pend on the lake for their catch.

An­other source of pol­lu­tion is the runoff from agri­cul­tural fields in ad­join­ing ar­eas. Chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers and pes­ti­cides are caus­ing eu­troph­i­ca­tion of the lake. Smallscale in­dus­tries like co­conut husk ret­ting also con­trib­ute heav­ily to its or­ganic pol­lu­tion.

Lack of co­or­di­na­tion

Ex­perts say that ju­ris­dic­tional is­sues are the big­gest hur­dle in the main­te­nance of Ash­ta­mudi.The land around the lake is un­der the state’s rev­enue depart­ment,the ir­ri­ga­tion depart­ment is re­spon­si­ble for the wa­ter while the catch­ment area is un­der the for­est depart­ment. Nizarud­heen, ad­di­tional sec­re­tary of Kol­lam Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, says since the town does not have enough treat­ment plants, un­treated waste is dis­charged into the lake.He says the mu­nic­i­pal­ity has ad­vised the district collector to set up treat­ment plants to im­prove the town’s sewage man­age­ment. V K Mad­husu­danan, con­vener of Ker­ala-based non-profit Ker­ala Sas­tra Sahithya Par­ishad (kssp), which has been work­ing on the con­ser­va­tion of the lake since 2006, says there is an ur­gent need to take steps for man­ag­ing the town’s solid waste. Ac­cord­ing to kssp, the lake and its sur­round­ing ar­eas have al­ready lost over 900 ha of man­grove for­est and this has desta­bilised the shore line.

Sav­ing the lake

P Si­vanan­dan, pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tre for De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies (cds), Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram, says that de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the lake ecosys­tem can hit tourism.But cds has a plan that can help, he says. The plan, which has been de­vel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Cen­tre for Earth Sciences, Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram, sug­gests mea­sures such as ban­ning min­ing in ar­eas close to the lake, pro­tect­ing the shore by plant­ing trees, im­prov­ing san­i­ta­tion and ad­dress­ing the prob­lem of de­clin­ing fish stock.

A few ini­tia­tives have also been taken at the district level. District collector A K Kawsi­gan re­cently or­gan­ised two meet­ings to get sugges­tions from dif­fer­ent de­part­ments for sav­ing the lake. The Col­lec­torate says it is com­pil­ing the sugges­tions.

But when will they be im­ple­mented is yet not clear.

Man­grove plan­ta­tion drive at the Ash­ta­mudi lake. Over 900 hectares of man­grove forests have al­ready been lost and

this has desta­bilised the shore line


The lake has be­come a waste dump­ing site for the town


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