Nainital lake is in danger

The water level dropped alarmingly this year despite normal rainfall.

 |  6-minute read |   01-07-2017
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Nainital was discovered by the British in 1839. Peter Barron, the sugar mill owner who discovered it, enthused that it was the most beautiful place he had seen in the course of a 1,200-mile trek through this part of the Himalaya.

Determined to get his hands on it, he attempted to get the land transferred to his name. He was stalled in this process by the local landowner or thokdaar, who claimed that the area actually belonged to his family since time immemorial.

The main reason the thokdaar attempted to stall the British in their possession of the lake was that the lake is holy. It is mentioned in the Skanda Purana as “Tri Rishi Sarovar”, the spot where three rishis, Pulaha, Pulastya and Atri, attracted water from Lake Mansarovar in Tibet to quench their thirst, forming the lake.

It is also considered one of the 64 Shakti Peeths of Sanathan Dharma, where the left eye of Sati fell. It was therefore the duty of the thokdaar to protect these holy precincts from heathen.

Peter Barron was, if nothing else, a resourceful man. Finding that his application was stalled, he had a boat carried up to the lake and launched it. Local people had heard about the proposed launch and had gathered in large numbers to see the first boat on the lake. Barron noted that he took the boat on a quick round and returned to the spot where the thokdaar stood.

Inviting him into the boat, Barron took him to “what looked quite the deepest part of the lake”. Pulling out a deed of relinquishment from his pocket, he asked the thokdaar to sign it or “take immediate possession of his property”.  

The thokdaar looked over the side, muttered something about it being very deep at that point and signed the deed. Thus, Nainital was opened for development.

naini_070117012408.jpgThe water in famous Naini Lake dropped alarmingly this year despite normal rainfall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In a few decades, Nainital became a popular hill station. In due course, it became the summer capital of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.

In 1880, a major landslide above the north-eastern end of the lake buried several shops and houses. Analyzing the disaster, it was understood that Nainital lake lies at the base of a bowl of hills. Enough rain falls annually to keep the lake topped up. The landslide was caused when water from several days of heavy rainfall percolated into the absorbent shale strata that covers the northern and eastern hillsides above the lake.

The upper layers of shale became heavy with water and when the weight exceeded a certain point, the water soaked rock slid off the underlying dry layers and came tumbling down. To prevent this being repeated, the municipality constructed a network of rainwater drains to get the rainwater off the hills and into the lake as soon as possible.

Since the drains are long and steep, they are stepped to break the force of descending water which might otherwise cause unforeseeable damage. It is to be noted that these drains served to remove excess water and did not prevent the recharge of subsurface spring systems on the hillsides.

Recognising that percolation of water into the soil was essential for the stability of hillsides, rules were framed forbidding any construction on shale hillsides with a slope of over 30 degrees. This effectively protected the hills on the eastern shore of the lake from unrestrained construction.

These and some other measures ensured the health of the lake even as the town grew. The 1990s ushered in a building boom and the population expanded, with houses and offices sprouting in the most unimaginable places. Almost every playing field had a house planted on it and, with the help of a few pillars, even steep hillsides were colonised.

As the area under roofs grew, the area available for percolation of water into the soil reduced correspondingly. As soon as rain fell, instead of seeping into the soil, it flows into the drains and into the lake. Since the volume of water entering the lake immediately after rain is rather more than before, the sluice gates are opened and water let out, to prevent overflowing.

This water would normally have reached the lake weeks or months after the rain through underground channels.

This year, the lake level has dropped alarmingly despite normal rainfall for the simple reason that the subsurface seepage, which would normally have entered the lake and maintained its level during the dry season, was not permitted to percolate into the soil because of the proportionately large area that has been constructed upon.

Speaking figuratively, the balance has been tipped, so that the area that could have been constructed upon without affecting the lake’s water supply has been exceeded.

As the area under construction grows, the level of the lake during the dry season will correspondingly recede, since the water that would have filled it at that season has already reached the lake within hours after rainfall.

The large colonies on Sher-ka-Danda and other parts of the catchment area continue to grow, despite strict orders from the Uttarakhand High Court.

The reason is simple: the Lake Development Authority, tasked with ensuring that building laws are applied, is not doing its work. Accusations of corruption are rampant.

In addition to passing orders banning construction that government officers are unwilling to implement, the high court might consider taking action against those officers responsible for preventing illegal constructions in the area. 

Faced with the alternatives of kowtowing to political and other pressures or strict action against them personally by the court, the choice for most officers would be very clear.

In addition, more water has to be permitted to percolate into the soil, which means that construction in some areas will have to be removed, regardless of the protests, poverty or political affiliations of those affected.

Nainital has a lot of healthy tree cover. However, the area under the trees is barren or sparsely vegetated. It is time to fence off the green areas and permit bushes, bamboos and other undergrowth to return. This helps percolation into the soil and keeps subsurface water in circulation.

Most important, it is time for the tourism department to draw tourists to other places besides hill stations, so that the large inflow into Nainital, which comprises the lure for illegal hotels, is reduced and the carrying capacity of the area not exceeded.

Also read: Why Nainital is haunted by September 16, 1880


Peter Smetacek Peter Smetacek

The author founded the Butterfly Research Centre, Bhimtal and specializes in butterflies and moths, which he uses as bio-indicators to assess the health of forests and groundwater.

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