Sunday, March 29, 2009

Urban wetlands

In a fairly recent post, I had mentioned how many of Bangalore’s lakes are being killed. But nature is extremely resilient, and given the slightest chance it will bounce back. And some of Bangalore’s lakes are wonderful examples of urban wetlands that are priceless treasures.

I’d recently visited the Hulimavu lake, a fairly large lake just half a kilometre from Bannerghatta road, one of the busiest roads in the city. This road is filled with apartment complexes and office blocks, with traffic that usually moves at 5 miles an hour on good days. Not surprisingly, this lake is under severe stress. There is plenty of legal and illegal construction all around the lake, and much of the lakebed has been encroached. Many of the other construction sites nearby use the lake as a convenient dumping ground for excavated earth. Along one channel, untreated sewage is slowly being discharged into the lake. A whole lot of people seem to use parts of the lakebed like a public toilet. And there are roads running all around the lake, on what clearly was the lake’s spillover bed. As is sadly the case in most Indian cities, the local residents are either unaware or unable or unwilling to do anything about this.

In spite of this, there remains an incredible diversity of life in and around the lake. We decided to take our binoculars and see what birds still inhabit the lake. I was more than pleasantly surprised at what we saw. There were plenty of brown pariah kites, and a few magnificient copper and white brahminy kites (and we were also able to follow a couple of them to their nest, on a nearby eucalyptus tree). There were also plenty of cattle and little egrets all around the lake. In addition, we saw a couple of grey herons in statuesque stillness, waiting for their next fish or frog to swim by, and a good number of moorhen pottering around the wetland. In the lake itself there were a good number of Eurasian coots swimming around, as well as a few snake-necked darters out hunting. These were just the confirmed sightings in a span of about 15 minutes of standing by the lake with Salim Ali’s indispensible handbook, which makes it more than likely that many more waterfowl inhabit the lake.

Urban wetland management unfortunately is not much of a concept in most of India. Yet this lake is just one example of the kind of diversity and richness of life in lakes around the city. It is also a fine example of a lake that could easily be made into a city nature park. To do that, only a little needs to be done to protect the wetland. Obviously, preventing encroachment around the lake would be a priority, as would be stopping the flow of untreated sewage that is choking the lake would be an obvious other step. In addition, the usual mismanagement of “lake development” that most city authorities eagerly embrace should be avoided. Usually, the city decides to build a big “garden” around lakes, which means manicured lawns, paved paths, lots of flowers and trees that don’t usually grow in wetlands, and a complete destruction of the wetland around lakes. This usually ends up slowly killing the lake. Most of these birds live and nest amidst the reeds that grow in lake wetlands, nurturing a rich ecosystem that supports frogs, breeding fish, small reptiles and small insects. Unfortunately, “beautifying” or “developing” lakes by building parks only breeds mosquitoes (by killing off fish and dragonflies that eat them, and breed in the reeds). The Yediyur lake in Jayanagar was a thriving lake that was killed off by just this effort of “development”. First came some lawns, and then there were motor boats and motor scooters, and now it is just a little swamp that breeds mosquitoes.

Instead, if the city could declare some of the lakes of Bangalore protected wetlands, and then spend a pittance on preserving the wetlands, we would be left with wonderful city parks where children and adults alike could spend evenings or weekends observing a diversity of birdlife and plant life (in addition to perhaps small amounts of regulated recreational fishing). It would be a chance to educate and enrich our own lives, and reconnect with nature in the heart of a stressful urban environment. A fond memory of mine is the environment around Lake Washington, in Seattle, right by the magnificent Husky Stadium. The wetlands around the lake are now carefully protected, and there is a beautiful little nature trail, with a description of the flora and fauna around the lake, as well as the importance of wetlands for human survival. People relax here now on weekends, paddle in little canoes, or walk around the unpaved nature trails, or spend lazy sunday afternoons trying to fish (with a permit). Yet this wasn’t always so, and the lake and wetland had nearly been killed in the sixties, and a massive restoration effort of over twenty years revived it. Here, we have wonderful living lakes in the midst of a massive metropolis. Do we need to sacrifice them in the name of “development”, or can we learn to live with them, and allow them to make our lives so much better?


Meera Baindur said...

Good Blog. The values that you talk about in the lake are mainly aesthetic, inspired by an idea of nature being a place for relaxation.
When we did our project on hebbal we found that lakes which are stable are never water bodies like that of the US. They are rain fed and will dry up in summer. To expect them to be full, blue and clean and green all the time means they are to be " managed" or developed. Its right that the sewage and other urban effects need to be countered but also sometimes it still worries me that we buy into the romantic philosophy of landscapes or into functionality. I wonder if there ever be a middle path.

Sunil said...

meera....thanks for your comments. I didn't ever mention that lakes in B'lore will remain blue, clean and green. Quite the contrary! Lakes are indeed rain fed and do dry up, but that is part of their natural system. What I said is that I hope to see them untroubled in the name of development, and I hope their lake bed (which is a large dry plain in summer) remains "undeveloped" in the typical sense here. Lakes, even in the US, are of very different types. Most lakes in Texas for example, are man-made, storing rainwater. On the other hand, in the northwest, you have spring and rainfed natural lakes, with a very different wetland system. So too are the lakes in Tennessee or Louisiana very different. The common theme there though is that they are all largely allowed to remain in their natural health, with their wetlands managed, even if they are in the midst of a large urban area.

xanindia said...

Good preservation scheme. At least the environment is now at the forefront of every concerned citizen. It takes courage to start restoring the "damage"

Sanjeev Saikia said...

Hi Sunil,

Loved your article. I especially liked the bit about signboards near the Washington lake that explains the importance of wetlands in human survival. Maybe a low cost signboard campaign near all natural areas could make a difference. I will discuss with my friends in nature and birdwatching clubs here in Delhi.

Meanwhile do hop over to my blog and check it out. The post 'Spare sparrows' is actually about birdlife conservation.

Sanjeev said...

you website have great content!

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