How to restore our lakes

The eco-restoration of Lake Pashan in Pune is a good showcase for the partnership between experts and municipal authorities

Lakes in and around cities should be a major source of attraction for those living in urban areas. From morning walkers to romantic couples longing to get away in a boat, to the elderly who simply want to sit and watch the world go by, lakes cater to us all. And, of course, when associated with wetlands, they provide an opportunity to make our children and grandchildren into amateur naturalists. What many of us don't know is the vital role these water bodies play in maintaining the sustainability of our environment.

But in India we have come to dread water bodies in our cities only because instead of rainwater, it is sewage and effluents that are filling up our urban lakes and ponds. Rather than controlling the rate of run-off in our cities, we find our lakes carrying the load of garbage, sewage and encroachment by land grabbers.

It need not be that way. Pune has shown the way. The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), working closely with the Institute of Environment Education and Research, Bharati Vidyapeeth University (BVIEER), funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched an eco-restoration project that has successfully brought Lake Pashan and its surrounding wetlands back to their original glory. I could share the joy as Dr Erach Bharucha gleefully informed me that in the winter of 2012-13, a pair of grey herons nested successfully at Pashan, after a long, long time. A surgeon by profession, Dr Bharucha is passionate about environmental sustainability, and has found a second vocation as the director of BVIEER. He and his team have worked closely with the PMC in restoring biodiversity in the region.

Pashan lake and the surrounding wetlands used to be a major attraction for bird watching. The legendary Salim Ali was a frequent visitor. Bird counts were regularly taken by the World Wildlife Fund and Ecological Society of Pune. As late as the 1950s, the lake hosted flamingos, storks, nucta ducks and a host of waders. In winter, morning birds used to come to Pashan and return to the Mula-Mutha river bed (a 1 km stretch between Bund Garden and Koregaon Park) in the evening to roost on islands and rock bunds made by traditional fisherfolk. The lake was created by an ancient dam across Ramnadi, a tributary of the Mula river of Pune city. The ecosystem was an undisturbed habitat for aquatic birds with a full complement of raptors, such as Marsh harriers and Bonelli's eagles. The water flowed through an extensive forested tract of babul trees and scrubland on the surrounding hills. Scrubland is often looked upon as wasteland. Just because it does not produce crops and does not yield revenue, does not mean that it has no value. The terrestrial babul thorn forest and scrubland had significant value for rich bird and insect life in the region.

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