On Monday, the Uttarakhand government announced that the maintenance of Naini lake, one of Nainital’s showpiece attractions, is being transferred from the PWD to the irrigation department. The move has come amid widespread concerns about degradation of the lake, which is surrounded by silt and debris, and whose level has fallen drastically over the past few years, all of it being attributed to tourism and wanton construction.
A lake whose maximum depth has been recorded at 27 feet is now 18.5 ft below normal, a PWD official says citing Thursday’s level. “The lake has been this dry [ahead of the monsoon] for two years now. In June 2016 too the water level had reduced to about 19 feet below normal level,” says Mahendra Pal, a junior engineer with the PWD.
Once it takes over the new responsibility, the irrigation department will work on restoration and maintenance based on surveys to be done by organisations including the Roorkee-based National Institute of Hydrology and the Geological Survey of India, says D C Singh, chief engineer (Kumaon zone).
Nainital, said to have been “discovered” by one P Barron in 1841, soon became a recreational site for the British. A century and a half later, residents and tourists are complaining of degradation with Twitter hashtags such as #SaveNainiLake and YouTube videos.
“On July 5, 2015, after a heavy shower, I saw Mall Road flooded with construction debris,” says Rajiv Lochan Sah of Nainital. “The lake had started overflowing and hotels and restaurants got filled with water, silt and debris.” Such flooding was unusual for Nainital until then, Sah says.
Cause & effect
While huge amounts of funds have been spent on aeration of the lake, beautification of the town and cemented roads through the forests surrounding the lake, the catchment area has reduced as houses and hotels have come up in areas surrounding the lake.
With a surface of 47 hectares, the lake has a catchment area of 470 hectares. “There is no problem with the lake. The only problem is with the catchment area,” says Surendra Nagdali, an environmental consultant working on restoration of lakes and reservoirs in the country. “Since the catchment area is small, it’s a lake which is easier to manage.”
In 2012, local historian Ajay Rawat filed a PIL in the high court against illegal construction in the catchment area. A few encroachments were removed following a court order.
In a study, Cambridge University geography professor Bhaskar Vira and urban ecologist Vishal Singh, currently working with the Centre for Ecology Development and Research, found that the level in the lake depends on recharge from an ephemeral lake, Sukhatal, about a kilometre away.
“Between 40 per cent and 53 per cent water in the Nainital lake comes from Sukhatal lake,” Singh says, adding that rampant construction near Sukhatal and use of its bed as a dumping ground for construction debris have “killed the Sukhatal lake”, leaving little scope for water to store and percolate to Naini.
Lakes in nearby areas such as Bhimtal, 22 km away, too are suffering reduction in levels. At Sat Tal and Naukuchiatal, respectively 26 and 30 km from Nainital, the water quality too needs to be addressed, says Nagdali.
A heavy tourist inflow has contributed to the degradation. R Meenakshi Sundaram, state tourism secretary, says the department is “working on decentralising tourism” so that tourists don’t crowd the hill towns, including Nainital, especially during summers and weekends. “We are developing villages into tourist spots so that crowds move to the lesser known places and tourism can be managed,” Sundaram says.
S P Singh, a forest ecologist and currently a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, was among the first to take note of what was happening to the lake, in 1975.
In an ongoing study, Singh and scientists of the Almora-based G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development, have found climate change as another factor causing the lake to dry. “We found that the temperature in the area [within 45 km of Nainital] is increasing by 0.02°C annually. Also, pre-monsoon rainfall has sharply declined. So, there is increased evaporation from the lake, with less water entering. This is due to climate change,” Singh says.