‘Live fish swim against the stream, while dead ones float with it’

When hundreds of fish washed ashore on Bengaluru’s Ulsoor Lake yesterday, the words of Rt. Rev Robert Daly from 1826 rang true, literally and metaphorically. The city, infamous for its frothing and flaming lakes, had done nothing to revive its water bodies or balance its unsustainable growth. Last year, its lakes Varthur and Bellandur rained snowy froth on the city’s inhabitants, and its Lake Yamlur simply burst into flames. The dead fish at Ulsoor Lake in short, merely went with the flow.

Initial reports suggest lack of dissolved oxygen in the lake occurring from excessive growth of algae in water may be a reason for the incident. Excess growth of algae is usually an effect of cultural eutrophication, a phenomenon triggered by the runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and waste water effluents.

According to a study conducted by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, more than a decade ago, around 90% of the city’s lakes were on the verge of extinction with less than required levels of dissolved oxygen content. Evidently, these findings had little impact on the city’s planning. Discharge of sewage into the water bodies and encroachment continued till they began to show apocalyptic signs.

Ulsoor Lake is incidentally, also a popular spot for fishing, making the possibility of biomagnification an increasingly relevant one. Biomagnification refers to the increasing accumulation of chemicals—toxic or otherwise—up through the food chain. The fish consuming population of Bengaluru will thus be a natural a victim of this phenomenon.

Emergency meetings summoned by Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar after the Bengaluru incident probably recognize that the issue is more than the sum of its parts.

The story of dying lakes and rivers is not restricted to Bengaluru alone. It is the dirty linen of almost all the metropolitan cities in India. Approximately 80% of the surface water in the country is polluted, as per a WaterAid report based on Census 2011 data. Delhi’s Yamuna, Mumbai’s Mithi, Kolkata’s Hoogli and Ganga (which now has a ministry to its name), are cases in point.

The mighty Ganges has a toxicity which is several times over the safe limit prescribed by the World Health Organization. The journey from Ganga Action Plan (Phase I and II) to Namami Gange was clearly not a productive one. Yamuna, one of the main tributaries of Ganga, does not fare very well either. The river—a source of water for 70% of Delhi’s population—is the outlet for almost all of Delhi’s rain water drains which now carries sewage from domestic and industrial quarters. The waste water also finds its way into the field in the name of irrigation polluting the ground water and severely compromising the nutrition levels of the crops.

The National Green Tribunal is a saving grace in terms of its role as a quasi-judicial body in environmental protection and conservation. Since its inception, it has been at the heels of industries for their irresponsible behaviour in terms of dumping untreated waste in rivers. The green court has issued show cause notices and even shut down units in many of the above mentioned riverine areas.

The progress in terms of installation of 24x7 real time monitoring systems, which also monitors the total suspended solids besides air pollutants, is notable. Among the industries notified last year for installation of monitoring systems, around half have already done so. If the pace quickens up, and extends to establishment of common effluent treatment plants, the country’s water bodies will begin to breathe better.

India needs a sound water management policy if it has to break away from the days of spluttering and fuming lakes. It should include sound sewage systems, efficient treatment plants, alternative cremation techniques, vigilante water pollution control teams for festivals, more real-time monitoring, and aware citizens.

Around two-thirds of the world already faces water shortage for at least 30 days in a year. Add to this issue of deteriorating quality of surface water, affected freshwater life and waterborne diseases. Town planners will do well to incorporate rejuvenation of water bodies in their agenda to develop ‘Smart’ ‘Swachh’ cities. Waiting for the well to dry to know the value of water is neither prudent nor sustainable.

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