Written by Sohini Ghosh
New Year used to bring hordes of tourists to Nalsarovar, a natural wetland located 64 km west of Ahmedabad, as lakhs of migratory birds made the marshy area their winter home. From white-tailed lapwing to rosy pelicans, from lesser and greater flamingos to herons and white storks, over 200 species of bitterns and grebes travelled from their northern breeding areas, some from as far as Siberia, to the bird sanctuary every October and left only as the days became warmer in March.
But this January, there is none — neither the colony of birds nor the swarming tourists. Nearly 300 boatmen, who ferried tourists from one side of the lake meandering through flocks of brahminy ducks and purple moorhen, are sitting idle. The lake has dried up completely, revealing its cracked and blackened bed.
The last time, the lake and the adjoining marshes had witnessed a drought like this was in 2002, according to the people in the area. Satellite images of the wetland from the US government agency, United States Geological Survey (USGS), show how in the last three years, the watery areas of the wetland has severely shrunk.
According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), until August, Gujarat recorded the second highest rainfall deficit in the country — at 46 per cent. Surendranagar and Ahmedabad districts witnessed a deficit in the range of 70-90 per cent.
According to a senior forest official, the wetland received only 40 per cent of the normal rainfall this year. At present, according to a senior forest official, only one to two inches of water is available over an area of one square km of the bird sanctuary, which is spread over an area of 120 sq km and has 36 islands that are no more islands.
“We pushed our boats for 45 days this season, along a narrow stretch of water, until that dried up, too. We have been sitting idle for the past one and half months,” said Multani Abdul Usman, a boatman who also doubles up as a bird-counter.
“During the tourist season, we usually earn Rs 600-700 on a weekday, and nearly Rs 1,000-1,500 on weekends. But right now, we are earning absolutely nothing,” said Qurbanbhai, another boatman. His family is among the 50 odd boatmen families who have not yet moved to the city to work as daily wage labourers.
Others too, who rely on the Nalsarovar ecosystem for their livelihoods, have been left without any income, this season. They include some 60-70 women who run food stalls for tourists, and some 30-40 horse riders.
Although the tourist season last for four to six months, the income generated during the period used to be enough for them to partially supplement their annual income with farming and cattle-herding. But the dried-up wetland has made them worried. “Without water, we can’t even farm, and have nothing to feed our cattle,” said Qurbanbhai.
Residents of the area have tried to draw the attention of the government to their loss of livelihood through several representations of Nauka Vihar Nalsarovar Mandali, an association of boatmen, and the sarpanch of Vekariya village.
On October 27, Vekariya village sarpanch Abdulbhai Valibhai Sama wrote to Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), demanding that water be released to the wetland from the Narmada canal.
On December 6, the villagers wrote to Ahmedabad District Collector, requesting the same. According to the villagers, their demand for the release of Narmada canal water into the wetland is not new. They said that in rain-deficit years, water is normally distributed via Narmada canal, but this year, the local Divisional Forest Officer has not allowed it.
According to them, water from Narmada canal could be used to resuscitate Brahmani river, which empties into Nalsarovar. While the wetland relies heavily on rainfall every year, a check dam on Brahmani often supplements the water deficit. But the dam too has dried up this year.
Speaking to The Indian Express, PCCF (Wildlife) Akshay Kumar Saxena said that he has forwarded the villagers’ request to Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, which operates the Narmada canal. “We have taken note of the letter, and done the needful. We have filed a request with Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam. They will now inspect the requirements for this specific situation,” Saxena said.
Admitting that there is a provision to channelise Narmada canal water, if and when needed, Ahmedabad District Collector Vikrant Pandey said that the Irrigation Department has already concluded a survey to assess the necessary water requirement. “We also need to check the feasibility and the quantitative water release that would help those involved in tourism,” he added.
Meanwhile, the birds have found a new home — the water-rich bodies of Vadla, nearly 25 km from the Nalsarovar bird sanctuary; and Thol, a man-made lake in Mehsana.