Instead of restoring the degraded Sukhatal, developmental authorities are converting the alive wetland into a dead swimming pool, thereby killing its wetland status forever and creating deadly repercussions for the Nainital Town.

Sukhatal Lake
Source Vishal Singh

A wetland restoration project is expected to repair a degraded wetland back to its original and healthy condition.

For this, the wetland is modified without disrupting its original flow and natural functions. Soil, plants, and habitats are re-established, so it mimics its former natural landscape.

But the ongoing Sukhatal Lake restoration project in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand is far contrary to what should be done ideally in a restoration project.

An estimated Rs 29.16 crore project has been released to restore Sukatal. However, the sole interest is inclined to generate revenue by alluring tourists to the lake.

Currently, the Nainital District Level Development Authority and the tourism authority-Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN), are ruthlessly converting a natural wetland into a swimming pool by concretizing its base and boundaries.

This year, in March, KMVN mentioned using sandstones for landscaping 50% of its area. However, they are continuing with complete concretization without releasing any official statement.

Sukhatal- a crucial wetland

Sukhatal lake covering 2 hectares, is a small wetland in the Nainital district and is situated 50 metres above the Nainital lake.

The wetland has a unique function. It acts like a sponge absorbing monsoon water and percolating it down its porous limestone rocks into its aquifer. During non-monsoon, when Nainital lake’s level falls for not receiving any rainfall, Sukhatal gradually releases down the stored groundwater towards the lake.

Stated as a primary recharge zone of Nainital lake by hydrology reports, Sukhatal supplies more than 50 per cent of water to the Nainital lake. The lake, in turn, meets water requirements of 90% of Nainital residents.

The wetland soaking torrential rain and runoffs from its surrounding drains also helps in significant flood control for the eco-sensitive area of Nainital.

However, despite serving a crucial role, Sukhatal is not officially granted a ‘wetland’ status and hence given ‘no protection’.

Denied Wetland status, paved path for encroachment

The Ramsar Convention, ratified by the Govt. of India, defines a wetland as a land covered or saturated with water- permanently or temporarily. Sukhatal, in every respect, qualifies to this definition.

Meeting the scientific criteria, Sukhatal is documented as a wetland in a scientific report by WWF-India and Uttarakhand Forest Department. But Sukhatal is not yet officially registered (notified) as a wetland, making it highly vulnerable to encroachments.

Its encroachment began by building a pumping station by Asian Development Bank, a government parking, followed by private buildings on the lakebed. The encroachment, consequently, squeezed Sukhatal’s area from 46,000 sq. metres to mere 22,000 sq. metres.

In 2020, Uttarakhand High Court ordered to abolish 44 buildings encroaching the lake, but the matter is still pending. Instead, it is surprising that the drains that recharge Sukhatal lake have been diverted to keep Sukhatal lake dry and the illegal buildings safe.

Though The Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rule 2017 strictly prohibits encroachment of any kind and grants wetlands protection. But Sukhatal, for not having the wetland status, enjoys no protection under the Rule.

Vishal Singh, a research coordinator at Center for Ecology Development & Research (CEDAR), Dehradun, remarks, “Without the application of the stringent wetland rules, it is challenging under the law to demolish such encroachments.”

wet land

Constructions on the wetland. Source: Vishal Singh

An alive wetland to a dead pool

The Wetland Rule applies to all wetlands, irrespective of their location or size but has its shortfalls. It exempts all human-made waterbodies, specifically constructed for recreation purposes, to be notified under the Wetland Rule.

The concerned authorities are using this exception to their advantage by fast converting the natural wetland into a human-made pool by sealing its bed with concrete. Once converted, Sukhatal can disqualify from the wetland category, crushing any future possibilities to get protection under the Wetland Rules.

Besides, this conversion will completely kill its functional value. Dr Anvita Pandey, a Scientist at CEDAR, says that Sukhatal has a highly diverse function, including filtering sediments to provide clean water, controlling floods and recharging Nanital lake. But if plastered with non-porous material like concrete, it will stop acting as a sponge, and all its functions will destroy.

“Altering a wetland doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. Once we destroy the biological functions, Sukhatal will degenerate from an alive wetland to a dead entity.”, she adds.

Deadly repercussions:

As the concretized bed will stop water from filtering down and recharging the Nainital Lake, the water level of the Nainital lake will decrease down remarkably. It will create further water scarcity for Nainital town, which is already populated beyond its carrying capacity and burdened by massive influx of tourists.

Dr Singh informs that Sukhatal recharges an aquifer below it, from which 2 million litres of water is extracted per day by the people for drinking.

“If Sukhatal is concretized, the aquifer will dry up, creating water emergencies”, he adds.

The restoration project also promises generation of local livelihood by creating a vacationer spot with boat rides and an amusement park. However, the livelihood generation purpose will defeat as it will be difficult to maintain water quality in a concrete lake.

“Once we hinder its natural flow, the water will become stagnant. It will attract dirt and start stinking, creating unexpected hazards and ruining its beauty.”, says Pandey.

JCB

Thick concrete walls marked around the wetland. Source: Anvita Pandey

Sukhatal is cocooned by dense spruce forest and a couple of deodars that support rich biodiversity. But rather than fringing it with native plants and trees, the authorities are constructing thick concrete walls around its boundary. Thereby claiming it as a solution to encroachment.

“Once we concretize a wetland’s borders, we can lose a one-third of bird diversity as vegetation provides foraging ground for birds.”, informs Dr K.S Gopi Sundar, Principal Coordinator of the Indian Cranes and Wetlands Working Group.

A wetland should be demarcated using vegetation barriers to stop nutrients and silt from running off into the wetland. “But we have become masters of using concrete.”, he remarked.

The only way for its protection is to grant Sukhatal its Wetland status and use natural materials and methods for its restoration.

Eva Badola is an independent researcher and writer on the Himalayan environment and society and the Indian sea coast.


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