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When Stories Of Rivers And Wetlands Dying Hurt Humanity

Nabul River. Source: Friends of Loktak Pat FB
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In Manipur’s case, the ecosystem restoration and the rejuvenation of the health of both the Naga Turel and the Nambul Turel are essential for many reasons, of which environmental and health issues are paramount.

By Salam Rajesh

Stories of rivers and wetlands dying unnatural deaths are not new to Manipur, so much as there are enough examples at every foothold literally. The Naga Turel River in Imphal West District is a classic example and so is the Porompat wetland in Imphal East District.

Elsewhere across the country, there was a news story published from Chennai recently, captioned as “Its official: Chennai’s rivers are ‘dead’” (TNN, 18 January, 2023) which was rather shocking, so to say.

The story profiled a Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s assessment that three major water bodies in Chennai, namely, Adyar, Cooum and Buckhingam Canal that flow across the South Indian city are ‘dead’ for all practical purposes. The Board’s assessment noted that the water was unfit for any kind of life form as there was no dissolved oxygen at any of the 41 locations in Adyar and Cooum.

The analysis further noted that the dissolved solids in these water bodies each month was between 700 and 5000 mg per litre, and the water had high conductivity due to heavy metals. Faecal matter was 70-300 mg per litre in every sample while coliform presence was between 300 and 1500 mg per litre. It stated that even during the monsoons, there is no dissolved oxygen in these rivers barring near the mouth of the rivers.

Treated water is supposed to have a biological oxygen demand (BOD) well below 20 to ensure that more organic matter is not let into the rivers, whereas, the BOD level was well above 56 at Nesapakkam and Perungudi sewage treatment plants. It was noted that treated water from Nesapakkam entered the Cooum, and from Perungudi it entered the Adyar.

The reference with the Chennai rivers, particularly the level of pollution and the apparent absence of dissolved oxygen in the required quantity in these water bodies, can be suitably compared with the prevailing condition of the highly polluted rivers in Imphal – the Naga Turel and the Nambul Turel, as good case study.

The reference is essentially required in the context of these rivers depositing their contents directly into the freshwater Loktak Lake. Any amount of pollution and heavy metal contamination that possibly could be affected by these rivers can endanger life in the wetland which provides sources of livelihoods for thousands of local people, while supporting different forms of wildlife.

Interestingly, reflecting on this later point, the India Water Portal carried a story last year, captioned as ‘Heavy metal contamination in the sediments of the Brahmaputra river’ (16 August, 2022) wherein it was stated that the sediments in this mighty river had been contaminated by heavy metals. The contaminants could eventually pass through the food chain and result in a wide range of adverse environmental effects, it stated.

In a related reference on this issue, 25 international non-governmental organizations partnered with the Mediterranean Alliance for Wetlands and the Birdlife International to issue a “Red Alert” recently to save the Marmara Lake in Turkey (22 November, 2022). The organizations sounded the alarm bell to prevent an environmental catastrophe at Marmara Lake.

The organizations stated that over 98 percent of the lake had dried up in the last 10 years. The intention of these organizations was to warn the Turkish government and relevant international authorities of the potential loss of this biodiversity rich wetland which was ratified by the Turkish Government as a wetland of national importance in 2017. Marmara Lake is globally recognized as one of the 305 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and 184 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Turkey, the organizations stated.

This stated argument comes close to the oft quoted reference on Loktak Lake as a “dying” lake due to the nature of the gradually declining ecosystem of the wetland as a result of various factors of which human intervention was pervasive. Despite being a Ramsar site of international importance, the wetland has so far been not included in a policy framework that would look holistically at lake conservation and management through the scientific lens.

Disturbances in their hydrological functions, gradual shrinkage of ground water table, reclamation through draining of water for agriculture, and intrusion in wetland area for different human activities have caused the ruin of important urban wetlands like the Lamphelpat, Porompat, and Akampat in the central Imphal areas. This had been accentuated by a lack of State’s policy to prevent negative anthropogenic influences on significant water bodies.

The combination of rivers and wetlands drying up, or dying for that matter, can affect the local micro-climatic conditions on the one hand while impacting the ecological profile of the surroundings. Instances of urban flash floods and frequent inundation is said to be influenced by the loss of the natural drainage systems and the natural storage banks in the form of wetlands including ponds, peats, bogs, and swamps.

In Manipur’s case, the ecosystem restoration and the rejuvenation of the health of both the Naga Turel and the Nambul Turel are essential for many reasons, of which environmental and health issues are paramount. Both these rivers were substantially utilized by the locals settled along their courses for different purposes – river transportation, bathing, fishing, recharge for community ponds, and recreation for the kids and youths especially in the summer months. All that has now stopped in the highly urbanized and polluted sections of these rivers.

The issue of rivers and wetlands drying up or dying has to be viewed seriously by the State planners keeping in mind the question on environmental and health hazards in particular, while noting that the loss of the water bodies can have reverse reactions through such undesired processes of water scarcity, frequent occurrence of flash floods and unprecedented inundations, and importantly, increasing the pace of urban heat dome effect.

Historically, cities and human civilizations flourished along river courses. Important cities across the world are located by river banks. There are enough stories of how cities and human civilizations ceased to exist when the rivers took different courses or when they ceased to exist as they dried up altogether. It is a myth now that a river called Saraswati existed at one point of time.

(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])

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