Over-exploitation of water resources threatening Nainital’s ecology
Ecology of Nainital and Mussoorie - the two quintessential Himalayan hill stations in Uttarakhand - is under threat due to changes in demographics, climate change, development initiatives, rampant concretisation and lack of long term planning that is in tune with the local environment.
In a four-part series, HT will look into the major problems of these two hill stations which attract hundreds of tourists every year. The first one in the series will focus on the challenges and threats around the water resources, especially the Nainital Lake, the main source of drinking water supply in Nainital.
Paradox of water woes
Anyone who visits Nainital for the first time is generally struck by its beauty, especially that of the Nainital Lake. The visitors generally assume that locals are so lucky to have access to such pristine water resources.
It is hard for them to believe that this hill station in the ‘lake of district of India’ has been facing water woes over the years, mainly an outcome of the over-dependence on Nainital lake for the drinking water supply and lack of developing an alternative source over the decades.
In 2017, noted classical singer Shubha Mudgal and thousands of others including Mrinal Pande, cricketer Mohammad Kaif, historian Pushpendra Pant even signed a petition on ‘change.org’ urging Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat to save the Naini Lake from dying.
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Over-dependence on the lake
This overdependence on the lake water resources here coupled with other factors has created its own set of problems, which will consolidate in the coming time if timely steps are not taken.
Nainital Lake, the lifeline of people here, is under threat due to increased stress on its water resources due to anthropogenic factors like surge in population over the decades which has led to drawing up more water from the Lake.
The other main factors that threaten the survival of this Himalayan lake include drying up of its source - Sukhatal, increasing siltation, constructions and encroachments on the slopes around the lake, eutrophication of the lake waters due to the entry of solid waste, construction debris and other pollutants into the lake waters, climate change and comparative warming up of the Himalayas.
Also, despite installing sewer lines to prevent sewage entering the lake, some effluents from drains and leakage still make their way into the lake.
Fluctuating water woes
Nainital, with its limited water supply, has been batting water woes, especially in peak summer months, when tourist influx increases substantially, with over 2,000 tourist vehicles making their entry into Nainital a daily, which rises to 4,000 to 6,000 tourist vehicles on the weekends.
Realising the dangers of over-extraction of water from the lake, last year administration decided to curtail withdrawal of water from the Lake to 8 million litres per day from the earlier 18 MLD. But now as summer is here and water requirement has increased, the administration has again decided to increase the water intake from the lake incrementally by half a million litres per day (MLD) after every 15 days for the coming few months.
Authorities are also planning to lift water from Kosi River near Khairna, nearly 30 km from Nainital, by creating one-kilometre long barrage in the river. The project is estimated to cost around ₹575 crore, according to preliminary estimates. Experts and some geologists had come earlier this year to Nainital for checking pre-feasibility of the project.
Environmentalists, experts and locals are expressing serious concern over increasing stress and overexploitation of Nainital Lake and emphasising on lack of term planning to manage the resources.
Vishal Singh, an expert on Himalayan water bodies and deputy executive director at Doon-based Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR), said solutions to the problems in Nainital should be found locally, as most engineering based solutions from outside are just patchwork and limited in scale compared to the whole ecology of the hill station.
Singh said he along with researchers from the geography department of Cambridge University have studied the critical water sources of Nainital lake over the years.
“It is a complex problem. In our study, we found that the revival of Sukhatal and depressions on the slopes here was critical for the long term survival of the Nainital Lake. Sukhatal, nearly one kilometre above the lake, alone supplied nearly 40 to 50% of the subsurface water to the Nainital lake,” he said.
“The problem is that the lake is not getting water recharge from the depressions and recharge zones on the slopes here. With a huge number of constructions on the slopes, the runoff has increased and seepage has decreased. This has affected the recharging capacity of the lake here,” he said.
Singh said the basic problem is lack of proper management and long term planning. “The solutions should be Nature based. Things like aeration of lake water are end of the pipe solution. We have to strengthen the recharge sources and natural recharge capacity of the lake,” he said.
What authorities say
Vinod Kumar Suman, district magistrate of Nainital, said since last year, steps were taken to lessen the dependence on the Nainital lake by cutting down the daily intake of water from the lake to around 8.5 MLD. “Due to this, the water in the lake has increased by many feet, allowing us to go for an incremental increase in water intake given the increase in the water requirement during the summer months. Other measures are also being taken consistently to save the lake here,” he said.