The Shared Waters

Millions of years since our ancestors first drank from a pond, bathed in a stream, built a house by a lake, grew vegetables along a river, and channeled water for their home – today, in this anthropocene era, I sit and I wonder: whether a bird now shares its wetland with man, or does man lend his wetland to the bird. The bird is not your everyday business-man, or your money-lender. A bird here is Mother Nature.

Chapter I: The Built Wetland
The dancing bird
Jayakwadi Dam, Paithan, Aurangabad District, Maharashtra
A few centuries ago when the world was slightly different than it is today, man in many regions built temples, castles, and romanced, and wrote poems under the tree – always by the waters. This water was visited by many a creature beside man. Beside man, many depended on it, for food, for breeding, for life. And so the harmony between man, water, and his neighbours, was in epitome of its relationship – until that day when we learnt to own wetlands for our purpose, and our purpose only.

The rivers were banned from flowing any further. And the trees died when the waters flooded the forests. Over the years, we changed the very map of all the major rivers of the world. But then, we observed a very interesting thing – a whole new paradigm of nature, if you will. This was probably the subtlest way in which nature said to man: I am resilient than you are, or will ever be.

This paradigm shift has benefited many new creatures to cherish these man-made reservoir built with the sole purpose of serving man – an oasis that entirely replaced one ecosystem for the benefit of another.

About a few kilometers from the town of Paithan in Aurangabad District lay one of India’s largest dams – the Jayakwadi Dam, built on Godavari River. It was created as a “man-made” reservoir, now lovingly called Nath Sagar, in the year 1975 (Patil et al, 2008). On my first glimpse of the reservoir – resembling the sea herself – we saw the large wall of the dam as a menacing figure that disrupted the riverine ecology of one of India’s holy rivers Godavari. Yet after a few years since it flooded the ecotone of the river, today, we did not see devastation but a miracle.
Waterfowls feeding at dawn
Jayakwadi Bird Sanctuary
A miracle that attracted hundreds of thousands of birds to this still-water body, where once it was constantly flowing: the birth of a new ecosystem at the death of another.  This paradigm shift was observed by a number of people, and Nath Sagar was declared a Bird Sanctuary.
Bar-headed Geest homing in on their wintering grounds
Jayakwadi Bird Sanctuary
Birds that fly from as far as the Himalayas and beyond, the Bar-headed Geese, Pochards and Wigeons, and residents like the Open-billed Storks, Ibises, Egrets and Stilts, all form an integral part of this ecosystem where producers and primary consumers form the base of a food pyramid.

This water is shared by man and beast alike. The main purpose of building the reservoir was to supply water to the hinterland area of the state of Maharashtra that is prone to droughts, as well as to boost intensive agriculture in the nearby regions of the dam. Unknowingly it served several purposes in one – the birds found a sanctuary in the reservoir, locals could continue fishing in it, and the far-away development kept on its pace.
The biodiversity of Jayakwadi Bird Sanctuary
How lively was the natural-natural ecosystem of the river before the dam, I can only imagine. But there are certain areas along the shoreline that is suggestive of its long-gone years.

A few yards from where the reservoir waters shore upon the landscape of central Maharashtra – the flat lands with rocky outcrops and grasslands – are a place of farming with a few reminiscent wildlife of the typical Deccan plateau still surviving.
Rufous-tailed Lark, a few yards from the reservoir
Birds such as Rufous-tailed Larks, Sykes Lark, Blue Rock Thrush, Pipits, and reptiles such as Fan-throated Lizards, still thrive along the banks of the reservoir. They are the original residents of this place – but then, it begs me to think, are the visitors not an integral part of this man-induced ecosystem? If it were not for them, we might be witnessing eutrophication – one of the major problems of damming flowing waters. An assessment of natural control of eutrophication and that of technological will be worth exploring to understand the ecological as well as economic importance of the biota of the reservoirs.
Waterfowls such as Northern Pintails feeding on the algae and macrophytes
The Jayakwadi dam today is given the status by the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance, and its protection is confirmed by the Forest Department. However, any more protection of the reservoir which impedes the local dependence upon its waters and the fertile area that surround it has been discouraged by several locals. In good faith, a report  in 2007 says: “The sanctuary was welcome till the restrictions were limited to not harming the birds. If the Eco-sensitive Zone (ESZ) comes into force, every one depending on the dam will be in trouble”.

In September of 2012, the prospect to declared Jayakwadi Bird Sanctuary an “Eco-sensitive Zone” also proposed excluding the 17 villages dependent upon this reservoir for their basic needs, except enforcing ban on tree-felling, polluting industries, and use of plastics. This came in a good-light considering people’s perception of Protected Areas, where the locals are completely expelled from taking part in the decision-making process.

Chapter II: The Arrested Wetand
The lonesome bird
Salim Ali Lake, Aurangbad, Maharashtra
We also built a new type of an “arrested ecosystem” as our cities slowly engulfed land-locked water-bodies. A few decades ago they served as the only source of water for domestic and agricultural purposes, but as we found alternate ways to deliver water from hundreds of miles outside our cities, we stopped heeding these wetlands. And then we built walls so that there was no interaction with our world and the water world. And thus man arrested the waters.

When man realized that his urban environment cannot absorb the rainwater, he dug the ground to create a place of retreat for this water, calling it holding-ponds, or Stormwater Management Facilities.

Thus man has been responsible for destruction and construction of wetlands around the world. Today, the question is whether we own the wetlands or do the birds own it, or, simply put, who is the first stakeholder of the wetlands, in other words, will man continue to strip his neighbours of their right over the wetlands as and when he wishes? Or will he continue to coexist with them.
A panorama of the Salim Ali Lake
A wetland of a relatively small size of about 34 acres (Nalawade, et al 2008), Salim Ali Lake is situated a little north from the heart of Aurangabad city. If there is a wetland whose water is claimed by man but cherished by beast, it is this.

If you look at this lake from a distance as you glance from your vehicle, you will see an ordinary lake surrounded by sparce man-made plantation. If it is winter time, and you happen to step down from your vehicle and get close, you will see more. Hundreds of waterfowls – migratory and resident alike – dabbling in the waters with their heads submerged and tails upturned. This little lake received the status of a Bird Sanctuary for this reason.
Waterfowls such as Northern Shovellers busy feeding, with an upcoming park in the background
Salim Ali Lake
If you look around the lake, though, you will see a number of upcoming construction sites, a highway running nigh 100 meters from the lake, as well as well-trimmed gardens, which, although aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, are adding a lot of unwanted runoff to the lake – from particulate matter to fuel, pesticides and fertilizers. This slow-acting poison is slowly inducing a deathly lull into the waters. As Nalawade, et al has found, this lake is slowly deteriorating.

An arrested ecosystem
Some like to call such a wetland an urban ecosystem, but it is not. It is an ecosystem that is trapped by urbanization, and is slowly driven into oblivion. A concept such as an urban ecosystem does not exist, for the niche is extremely minute. Take, for example, the insects and spiders, rats and cats, found in a city – that can be termed as an urban biodiversity, for they live, feed, and breed here – and that might make a city an urban ecosystem. So, an alligator found along a river flowing from the heart of a city does not make it a part of the urban ecosystem, but a part of a trapped (natural riverine) ecosystem.

Solid-waste pollution is one of the major factors of further damaging the arrested ecosystems
Salim Ali Lake is one of the many trapped ecosystems of today’s times. It is a fast disintegrating world on which thousands of insects, fishes, birds, and mammals rely upon. The status of a Sanctuary is not enough to protect it in the long run.

A few crucial steps need to be taken at all the trapped wetlands, irrespective of presence or absence of visible biodiversity:

• Blocking any direct discharge into the waters, especially municipal sewage, or even treated waters.

• Creating a mechanism wherein the surface runoff from the city is blocked, or filtered, before it enters the waters: A similar mechanism was developed by TERI, where a “lotus-ring” or technically “a nutrient sink” was created to exclude the excess organic material from entering a lake in Navi Mumbai.
• Giving space along the bank of the lake for vegetation to grow naturally, and at the same time getting rid of exotic and invasive species from the banks.
• Disallowing, or controlling, any use of the wetland what-so-ever during the period of peak migration activity – especially during winter months.
• A fully operational security system to monitor visitors of the lake, and restricting the tourists to only one-third or half of the lake shore.
• Creating dustbins along the visitor areas.
• An information centre providing knowledge on the history, hydrology, and biodiversity of the wetland, and steps visitors can take to protect them.
• Continuous third-party monitoring of the status of the wetland – at least once in two years.
Spot-billed Ducks at dusk
Salim Ali Lake
These wetlands of today are of crucial importance not only to the needs of man, but also for the survival of many migratory birds, many of them facing the impeding threat of habitat destruction. It is very rarely that one would say man has done a little bit of good out of a little bit of bad.

Chapter III: In Conclusion
A Whiskered Tern gladly shares its waters with human fishers
As far as history of man and wetland goes, I understand this: man, through his decades of trial-and-error, has been able to sustain life, albeit unknowingly, as much as he is knowingly destroying life. There are several wetlands in each and every city. On my way to work I see three arrested (natural) wetlands every day – their dependence only shared by a handful of fishermen, a few resilient plants and animals, and people who even today seek the solace of wetlands for it rids the mind of all inhibitions – a subtle notion adapted by many poets and philosophers of old.
An ignored wetland is a dying wetland
But the wetlands today are in the back of our minds, our thoughts are arrested to think beyond what lies in front of us. A wetland is not merely a water body. We cannot ignore it anymore, for the seeds of their fall have already been sown by us. Our mere negligence can easily kill them.
A regarded wetland is a thriving wetland
But we humans, I hope, will not keep the wetlands for our self, and instead share it with our neighbours for it is the only way in which we let the arrested waters flow to-and-fro the natural ecosystem.

2 comments:

  1. It is always a great pleasure to read your each article aniruddha. I get to learn so many new things. Thanks!

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  2. Very Well written post, thoroughly enjoyed it. Paithan Aurangabad is really amassing place. You can also check my post at Paithan Garden at http://www.touristsafari.com/parks/paithan-garden

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