A ridge spans the land between two sprawling megalopolis’ in the making–Gurgaon and Faridabad. Dotted with lakes, ponds and tiny water bodies, the Aravalli outcrops offer an interesting exploration format, not to mention its myriad ecological needs. But for land developers the ancient rocks are encumbrances that need to be blasted away, making way for an ultra-modern skyline. Many shimmering blue expanses have now disappeared, while others wait in dank silence for its imminent death. There are several international protocols that have been outlined for the large lakes—the Ramsar Convention being the most prominent, adopting over 26 lakes including wetlands in India (Chowdhary, 2018). However, smaller recreational lakes smattered around peri-urban areas are lost. A temporal GIS based study have been attempted in this paper where we have captured the plight of two lakes—Damdama and Badhkal, prominent water bodies that flank the north and south corner of the craggy outcrops of the Aravalli that not only serve as a tourist attraction, but form an important part of the cultural mosaic.
The Badhkal is a dammed lake built by embanking the down slope of the catchment (Siddiqui et. al., 2012), while Damdama is a natural lake, recharged each year by the monsoon. These lakes were popular weekend destinations—about 60-90 minutes away from Delhi, especially during winter when many migratory birds came visiting. Several minor streams meandered its way into the lakes, serving as a splendid feeding ground for birds and supported diverse habitats. The water level at one point in the early 50s used to reach 50 to 60 feet during the monsoon, but in recent times reaches barely 7 feet post monsoon (Pati, 2016).
Damdama and Badhkal Lakes | Changes seen through satellite imagery
Damdama: In order to find the periodic changes in the area of Damdama lake Landsat images spanning the period 1999 – 2017 were used. The imageries were registered and resampled to make them uniform with a view to enable comparison. Through visual interpretation the boundary of the lakes were drawn over different periods and the lake/wet areas were approximated. The lake boundaries of different years were overlaid to determine the changing lake surface area over these periods. Since false colour composites were placed in the imageries for visual interpretation, the lake has been depicted in blue/black, the agricultural area have been depicted by red and ridge outcrops and settlement by light/dark blue. Increase in the intensity of colour red is also indicative of the increase in agricultural activity over time which has a definitive role in the shrinkage of Damdama (Fig 1, 2 and 3).
The findings: Damdama is now a marshy tract instead of a lake. The satellite images reveal that there has been a marked decrease in the lake area over the period of study with two primary reasons for the drying up of this region—increase in agricultural activity and rise in built-up area. Figure 1 clearly indicates that in recent years agricultural activities have extended to nearly the edge of the lake area (in dark red), replacing the semi-arid forested tracts that abounded this region. The increased agricultural activities have drawn significantly on the groundwater, leading to a fall in aquifer levels and resulting in a reduction of the extent of lake waters, which dropped to 0.03 sq km in the month of May 2017. Coupled with this is the rise in built up area around the lake. Being promoted as an eco-tourism destination (Sharma, 2018), the lake area is dotted with camp sites and hotels, with even a high end resort of a five-star chain in the locality. A site visit to the field to validate the study found resorts standing out in sharp contrast to the rural backdrop of haphazard villages, narrow brick-lined lanes and open drains.
Another fact revealed during the site visit was the dredging that attempted to deepen the lake and increase its capacity. Locals allege that the water levels in the lake has declined post-dredging as the clay plug that helped retain the water was removed enabling the water to seep out of the region into the aquifer and beyond. Although there are evidences of dredging in certain parts of the lake, which was reportedly undertaken in 2017, there is no clear indication of where the dredged material was deposited. Locals say that the soil was used to raise the bund height—but the claim was unsubstantiated by visible evidence. It is quite possible that the dredged material may have been used as landfill in the adjoining regions to level out agricultural lands being claimed incessantly from the little left wilderness around the lake. Photographic evidence of a land site being levelled just next to an Aravalli ridge in the region shows this is a common practice in this area. Levelling, although advantageous for agriculture, enabling equitable distribution of water in the field, is disastrous for the catchment as it changes slopes, leading to channel blockage and ultimate drying up of water bodies. In the context of the occurrence of an extreme rainfall event, especially where villages are ill-prepared for any eventuality, such disregard for natural water paths can lead to catastrophic consequences.
Usage of the lake involved bathing and washing a decade ago, with village women accessing the banks regularly. The practice has however stopped with deteriorating quality and quantity of water. The built up area around the lake has increased manifold. Speaking with the locals it was clear that although they were alarmed with the shrinkage of the lake, they were not oriented towards its redemption. Most felt that with water now available through piped supply and property prices around the region skyrocketing, things are looking bright for them. If required they would sink a deep tube well and shrinkage of the lake was not a pertinent livelihood issue.
Also of concern is the loss of aquatic vegetation that was once dense with oxygenating water plants, as seen during the site visits in 2006-07 (Chattopadhyay et. al. 2007) to the area, but was absent at the time of the 2018 visit. The faunal diversity in the lake area (Space Application Centre, 2010) as the natural history records highlight,was rich about 15 years ago with cranes, cormorants, terns, egrets and kingfishers being residents, not to mention the many that visited the lake in winter. Today the bird population is primarily confined to egrets with reportedly very few birds visiting in winter. Low occupancy of the jungle cat, leopard, porcupine, rhesus macaque have been established in a study by the Wildlife Institute of India (2017). The lake had several species of fresh water fish which is today predominated by catfish, as it can survive in the wet mud as the water levels fall to a mere puddle in summer.
Badhkal: Using a similar technology as above, periodic changes in the area around Badhkal Lake have been mapped from 1999 onwards. False colour composites were placed to help interpretation—blue denotes the lake, while the increasing pink, orange and green colour characterise the spread of built up area
The Findings: It is clearly evident from Figure 5 that built-up area around the lake has grown exponentially, compounding each year from 6.3 sq km in 1999 to 17 sq km in 2017, nearly a three fold increase in a span of two decades. In the backdrop of the 1996 Supreme Court ruling in 2004 for the public interest litigation filed by M C Mehta Vs Union of India and others, dying Badhkhal was sought to be protected from construction activities. Yet, construction activities continued unabated, gaining fillip post 2008.
The lake however has run dry from 2000 onwards (Fig 6). The bed is exposed as the field-validation revealed. The little remaining rural area houses, predominantly pastoralists, who use the dry lake bed and the foliage around for fodder. Goats, buffaloes, cows and pigs are all reared around the lake. Farmers around the Badhkal are poor with small land holdings. The habitations are Muslim dominated with an emphasis on service based livelihoods conjoined with the adjoining area—Faridabad, brimming with tall buildings and snazzy shopping arcades. Although livelihood options related to tourism were many before the century turned and real estate became a viable option, now no entrepreneur invests in any activity related to the lake. Tourist footfall is virtually non-existent and the Haryana Tourism Corporation has discontinued its boating service for a decade now. Asked about the death of the lake, locals feel that it would help gain more common property. Clearly unaware about the long term prospects of a lost lake, locals talked only about short term gains.
Going by the lack of interest of the state government and greedy land sharks in Gurgaon and Faridabad, it is yet to be seen how the government can revive these and many such lakes. However, we look up to the National Green Tribunal and local environmentalists, Save Aravalli movement and more to redeem these lakes from ‘extinction’, bestowing the lost glory to the area.
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