KOLLAM: The luscious beauty of Ashtamudi lake was an inspiration for poets in the past: Vayalar Rama Varma, the evergreen romanticist among Malayalam lyricists, was at his best when he wrote on the lake. The estuary where the lake meets with the Arabian sea, for him, a perennial imagery for lovers’ union. Such was its mesmerising appeal that writer Kakkanadan and poet Kureeppuzha Sreekumar have fancied it, too. Looks like the lake has stopped mesmerising people. It has started scaring them, instead. The lake has become one of the worst victims of human avarice and disdain for environment. Its very existence is under threat now: the area has shrunk; it’s being encroached upon, and being made a waste dumping yard. Its water has lost its quality. The lake, which once offered livelihood to thousands, has stopped being so.
The lake that once spanned across an area of 61.40 sq. kilometres has now shrunk to 34 sq. kilometers, almost half its original size. New islets formed between Dalawapuram, Neendakara, and Kavanadu have contributed to the reduction in area of the lake, apart from the encroachment for accommodating the ever increasing population. During the last 15 years, the lake has endured destruction caused by filling violating coastal regulatory zone (CRZ) norms. The lake has been listed as the state’s first Ramsar site in August 19, 2002, with a view to promoting its conservation. However, the lake has lost 27 square kilometres hence.
Ashtamudi lake has become a victim of urban pollution as the water body shares a major portion of its boundary with Kollam corporation. As per studies conducted in 2011, biological oxygen demand in the lake was one third of the standards set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for water fit for outdoor bathing and the dissolved oxygen was as low as 1mg/l which is just one-sixth of the standards. The ministry of environment and forests of the Union government had sanctioned funds since 2005 for three years but it was spent on unscientific purposes including construction of concrete walls along the lake boundary.
“The unscientific dredging of Ashramam lake along 1100 meters for the boat race and the deposit of residue in the lake alone have affected the smooth process of high and low tides,” said V.K. Madhusoodanan, an award winning environmentalist who works with Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, an NGO. The extension of Link Road to Olayil Kadavu starting near the DTPC building was completed violating the CRZ norms. The ministry of environment and forests had given permission to construct the road on pillars without disturbing the Lake and associated biodiversity. However, a massive area of 6.5 acres was filled near the slaughterhouse end for the road.
“The Link Road was constructed in the lake by destructing a forest cover that had eight species of mangroves. Destructing these trees affected the natural purification of water,” Mr Madhusoodanan said. He said the concentration of bio and heavy metal waste in the soil is increasing as the natural purification process is obstructed by the concrete structures. “The CRZ norms had also proposed that the inter-tidal zone should never be disturbed for the protection of Mangrove vegetation, but they were never followed,” he said.
Environmentalists say restaurants, hospitals and even industrial and commercial
establishments functioning in the Kollam Corporation discharge solid and liquid waste including toilet waste into sewers which find its way into the lake. The highly objectionable odour around KSRTC bus stand, boat jetty and adjacent areas is due to the waste being discharged into the Lake, they point out. The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) had recently spotted the presence of Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus bacteria in fishes, which is caused due to extensive biomedical pollution. The high level of pollution has endangered the processing units in the Neendakara area which have extensive export of oysters collected from the lake.
State too pollutes
The slaughterhouse in Kollam was started about 45 years back with a capacity to slaughter a maximum of 30 animals a day. The number has gone up more than ten times the originally envisaged figure; it is much more during the festival season. The slaughterhouse has been working without following any guidelines proposed by the Corporation; it has neither developed nor maintained the basic infrastructure including a proper waste treatment plant. Environmentalists point out that the slaughterhouse is one of the main sources of pollution of the lake. The waste including the blood of slaughtered animals seamlessly flows to the lake from the slaughter house. TS Canal that passes near the slaughter house takes waste, including plastic, back to the lake during high tide.
Manichithodu which traverses through the town and reaches the lake is a curse, especially during the monsoons. It functions as the channel for the city’s waste to reach the lake. The Kollam District Tourism Promotion Council has deployed three employees exclusively to collect plastic from the lake through the channel. The ‘Suchitwa Sagaram’ project of the corporation also collects plastic waste from the sea. Both the agencies, however, have not thought of setting up a mechanism to prevent the non-biodegradable waste from reaching the lake.
Oil pollution from KSRTC bus station and boats with onboard engines are another major pollutants of the lake. The worst a public sector company can do to a water body! Not to be outdone, private boat operators have set up workshops along the shores of the lake and but has no system to prevent pollutants reaching the lake. A visitor would not miss the layers of oil that cover the lake.
Environmentalists point out that hospitals in the vicinity have no proper waste treatment plants and find the lake an easy dump yard. A project to set up a sewage treatment plant in the district hospital has not yet materialised even though it was proposed years back. And if not all these are enough, the authorities have chosen Kureepuzha on the lake’s banks to set up a dumping yard! Vayalar was indeed lucky: his images of Ashtamudi will last for ever; though the lake is unlikely to.
Too precious to be lost to greed
The water gateway area of the lake, known as the Ashramam lake, was once important for its role in establishing trade links with Portugal and China as the ships that reached Kollam port were brought to the Ashramam lake through Neendakara estuary. Ibn Battuta’s historical records mark Kollam as one of the five major ports in the world. Ships used to reach Ashramam via Kureepuzha and dock at the port.
Even the Kochi port was formed by dredging sand but Kollam had direct access for vessels to the heart of the city. Over 200 hectres of area adjacent to the Ring Road in Kollam is home to mangrove forests and hosts a historic guest house. The Ashramam ground has been considered for the first biodiversity heritage site in the state. The state government has taken the initiative for the move by considering the three-decades-long fight by taxonomist N. Ravi to preserve the mangrove vegetation in the area and the studies conducted by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP).
According to the studies conducted by KSSP, the Ashramam mangrove region and the associated watershed area are home to 15 species of mangroves, 22 supporting mangroves species, 122 species of plants, 34 edible fishes, and 62 species of birds. Over 160 species of rare and endangered species of plants were found within the area.