If you close your eyes, it’s almost completely serene. There is the afternoon breeze, the fresh oxygen from the many trees around, the sound of the birds and the ripples of a lake that you don’t see. The moment you open your eyes, you see weeds – hundreds of them, just floating about, like a species with a mind of its own, out to destroy all that’s calm. They have names, exotic names for exotic plants, which are slowly eating into and killing the second largest freshwater lake in Kerala, the Vellayani Lake in Thiruvananthapuram.
“It is bringing down the quality of the water, choking the lake, killing it,” says Ajith Kumar, manager at Kanthari, an educational institute located on the banks of the lake. The lake is mostly private, partly the government’s. It had been a larger lake, once extending over 750 hectares, of which 165 belonged to the nearby Kerala Agricultural University and the remaining to private parties. This has now come down to 441 hectares, according to the Revenue Department, and 490 hectares, according to the Irrigation Department. Either way, it’s lost nearly half of its area because of many encroachments, concerned residents of Vellayani say.
Till 1953, the lake was extensively used for growing lotus for use in the Padmanabha Swamy Temple, according to a May 2014 report by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Kozhikode. “As part of Kayal (Lake) Reclamation Project to enhance food production, the border regions of the kayal was dewatered, segmented and given to groups of farmers for rice cultivation during 1950s. The Travancore Government gave the kayal on lease to private parties and this led to considerable decrease in the kayal area. There was not only leasing but a lot of unlawful encroachment also,” (sic) it says.
But more worrying for Vellayani residents now is the invasive species of plants – some reckon more of them came after the floods. “On October 3, the water near our parts was clear after we had a massive clean-up drive on Gandhi Jayanthi. But on November 3, it was completely filled with plants that we could not even see the water,” says Daksha Sheth, a dancer, who has been living in Ookode, Vellayani for 25 years now.
Ajith, Abhijith, Daksha, Kiran and Nikhil
Lessons from Akkulam and Aamayizhanjan Thodu
“If you don’t do something quickly, there won’t be any water left in one year. And once the lake dies, it is over. It will take 25 to 30 years to revive it, and who has that kind of time? This lake should not end up like the Akkulam lake or the Aamayizhanjan thodu (canal),” Daksha says. The two lakes she mentions had been freshwater lakes, but are now in a very bad state. A 2012 Thiruvananthapuram corporation report says, “As in the case of other canals in the city, Kannanmoola thodu (another name for Aamayizhanjan thodu) is also in a very poor condition with low carrying capacity as a result of deposition of silt and debris, vegetation, poor maintenance, bank erosion and low velocity. Unless the condition is scientifically improved, possibility of flooding in this area cannot be controlled.”
For a long time, the Agricultural College used to cultivate rice in their part of the lake, dewatering it. But on realising that it incurred them a lot of loss, they stopped cultivating the de-watered area in 1992. Around the same time, the government had issued orders to stop kayal cultivation to preserve the lake as a freshwater lake. But a few farmers initiated cultivation of rice in the surrounding lowlands of the lake with the support of the Agriculture Department.
Residents take inspiration from Dave Ojay
The residents of Vellayani did not simply watch their beloved lake go to rack and ruin. They got together – young people growing up on the lakeside brought in friends – and went into the water, removing the weeds with their hands. It was triggered by a Kenyan named Dave Ojay, a participant at the Kanthari Institute. “Dave has seen the decay of Lake Victoria. He could observe similar problems here, although it is not yet as grave. He told me, ‘If you want to do something about it, you have to do it now’. He initiated a drive on October 2 and about 200 people turned up to clean the lake. After that we do a clean-up every weekend,” Ajith says.
Dave, who is back home after completing his course at Kanthari, says on a WhatsApp message, “I started this same initiative for Lake Victoria and when I saw Vellayani was in a similar state I got emotional and wanted to do something and make this campaign global to speak for endangered lakes.” He began a global campaign called My Lake My Future and his project at Kanthari was called Naam Festival.
Dave’s movement inspired more clean-ups, especially among the young. “I was born and raised in this land. I couldn’t just watch it getting destroyed,” says Abhijith Nair, an engineer by profession. He, with about 20 of his friends, landed at Daksha’s home one day and set out to pluck the weeds. Joining them were other groups like Neerthadakam, formed by residents a few years ago, and HOPE, another NGO, all to save the lake.
Kiran of Neerthadakam has been instrumental in bringing everyone together. “If we wait for the authorities to act, it may take time to implement solutions and it might be too late to save the lake. So we thought we could start doing what we could. It would also help to spread awareness among other residents about how grave the issue is,” Kiran says.
“I let them leave the plucked weeds in my garden because these could make excellent manure,” Daksha says. At Kanthari too, that’s what they do. They clean the lake out almost every day becaue of which the part of the lake facing the campus is clear. Ajith shows us the ‘African payal’ they had left on the ground which has now become compost. African payal is one of the more dangerous species of plants. Another pink variety too has been causing a lot of trouble. “It is called Cabombo caroliniana,” says Dr John C Mathew, environment programme manager, Dept. of Environment and Climate Change. A team from the department had carried out an inspection on November 8, 2018. “The other exotic plants we observed there are Eichhornia crassipes, Limnocharis flava and Salvinia molesta,” he says.
Drinking water source
It is Dr John who shares the study report on the conservation and protection of Vellayani Lake by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management. Among other observations, the study states, “The lifestyle and culture of the people near the locality is still dependent largely on this freshwater source. The kayal serves as a source of income for a majority of people residing in the surrounding areas. It also supports the livestock of this area. At present, the kayal is maintained as a drinking water source.”
The lake is a drinking water source for two panchayats – Kalliyoor and Venganoor – and also for the Thiruvallom division of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. “Furthermore, the lake is expected to meet the water demands of the proposed International Container Transhipment Terminal at Vizhinjam. Therefore, it is utmost necessary to maintain the quality and quantity of the freshwater stock in the Vellayani Lake in a sustainable manner,” the study says.
Not that it’s been totally ignored. “Biju Prabhakar, when he was Collector, had come to my place. We spoke about the problem of the government pumping water every day for 18 hours. He said it was a wrong decision. Then Collector Vasuki came in 2018. We – a committee that a few of us had formed together – were supposed to meet her on January 3, but the BJP had called a harthal that day and we had to cancel it,” Daksha says.
Daksha believes that maintaining the water level at 10 to 12 feet might solve the problem. “Soon after we clean the surface, the plants keep coming back. First, we will need to dredge the lake so that the plants can be remove from their roots. This would require machines for which we need the help of higher authorities. The water level is now some five or six feet – if we keep it at 10 to 12 feet, the growth of the plants can be contained.”
But Dr John says the problem is mainly because the water is stagnant, there is no flow, and this increases the growth of the plants, and therefore more stagnation. It is a catch 22 situation. The only way out is to keep dredging, he maintains.