Vanishing Wetlands: Unveiling Delhi's Environmental Crisis

Vanishing Wetlands: Unveiling Delhi’s Environmental Crisis

Delhi, the bustling capital of India, is currently facing a lesser-known but critical environmental crisis - the rapid disappearance of its wetlands. In this news documentary, we delve into the alarming situation of Delhi's vanishing wetlands, shedding light on the causes, consequences, and the silent environmental catastrophe that unfolds as a result of their depletion.
First Published: Jun 30,2023 11:25PM
by The Probe team
Vanishing wetlands of Delhi

Script by Prema Sridevi

Delhi, the bustling capital of India, known for its rich cultural heritage, is now facing a lesser-known but critical environmental crisis – the rapid disappearance of its wetlands. The wetland ecosystem in Delhi once teemed with vibrant flora and fauna, crucial for maintaining ecological balance and providing numerous benefits to the city’s residents. But now, these wetlands are vanishing at an alarming rate. 

The Najafgarh Jheel used to be a huge lake in south west Delhi. This wetland once had a vast expanse of water. It was home to a lot of species of birds and aquatic life but today it stands as a haunting testament to the alarming rate at which Delhi’s precious wetlands are disappearing. The Najafgarh Jheel wetland in Delhi was once connected to the Yamuna River through a natural shallow drain called the Najafgarh nullah. However, misguided flood control measures in the 1960s led to the widening of the drain, ultimately draining the ecologically rich lake completely.

In an interview, Dr. M Shah Hussain, a renowned ecologist and scientist, shared his concerns regarding the rapidly vanishing wetlands of Delhi. Dr. Hussain emphasised the critical lack of a robust wetland policy in India, which has led to the worsening condition of these vital ecosystems. “Wetlands are actually the abused lands. Abused means there is no policy on wetlands right now, I would say, and they are all considered as wastelands,” Dr. Hussain remarked. He highlighted the dire state of wetlands not only in Delhi but across the country, pointing out that these areas are often relegated to being dumping grounds due to the absence of protective policies.

Delhi’s Wetlands at the Brink: A Tale of Neglect and Despair

Delhi’s wetlands, nestled in areas such as Najafgarh and Wazirabad, have long been the silent guardians of the national capital. These natural reservoirs have tirelessly offered flood relief, contributed to water purification, aided in preventing reservoir siltation, and played a pivotal role in groundwater recharge. Yet, as urban sprawl continues unchecked, these lifelines are under severe threat.

Upon visiting the Yamuna Ghat Wazirabad wetland, the evidence of neglect was stark. The site, which should have been a sanctuary of natural beauty and biodiversity, was marred by the presence of garbage piles flanking its sides. The Yamuna River, as it enters Delhi and meanders through for 22 kilometres before exiting, showcased a grim reality. The water, defiled with plastic and human waste, painted a sorrowful picture of environmental degradation.

Dr. Syed Ainul Hussain, Project Manager at the Wildlife Institute of India, voiced his concerns regarding the lacklustre approach to wetland conservation. “The allocation of funds to the conservation of wildlife or for the protection of wetland is meagre in comparison to other developmental activities,” he stated. Dr. Hussain further elaborated on the detrimental impact of urban development on the Yamuna and its surrounding areas. “There are around 23 major drains contributing to the pollution of the Yamuna between Wazirabad and Okhla. Additionally, the encroachment of floodplain areas for construction purposes, such as the establishment of a temple and the development of the Games Village a decade ago, has significantly compromised the floodplains’ ability to recharge groundwater.

Delhi’s Wetlands in Peril: A Call to Action for Hauz Khas Lake

Hauz Khas Lake, a serene and picturesque wetland nestled in Delhi’s historic landscape, is currently experiencing a gradual and concerning decline. Once teeming with life, the lake now presents a different picture. The lake area emits a foul smell, while the water is polluted and displays a disconcerting greenish colour. The water levels have significantly decreased, resulting in a troubling mixture of water and sewage. The residents in this upscale area of Delhi have made several appeals to the government for restoring this wetland, but though the government claims it has a plan to conserve wetlands, no concrete action has been taken on the ground. 

In contrast, the Neela Hauz lake, sharing a similar plight, has seen a glimmer of hope through the collective efforts of local residents, environmentalists, and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). A proactive initiative aimed at rejuvenating and restoring the lake has been undertaken, showcasing the power of community and governmental collaboration.

Dr. Shah Hussain sheds light on the historical significance of Neela Hauz lake. “Neela Hauz used to be the biggest lake in South Delhi, serving as a crucial source of drinking water to the entire region. However, rapid urban expansion and infrastructure development, including roads, buildings, and educational institutions, have severely impacted the lake’s health,” Dr. Hussain explains. The encroachment and pollution have transformed Neela Hauz into a lifeless body of water, necessitating urgent restoration efforts spearheaded by a joint program between Delhi University and DDA.

Bhalswa and Sanjay Lakes: A Tale of Neglect and Decline

Bhalswa Lake, compared in its heyday to the scenic Naini Lake in Nainital, is now a shadow of its former self, marred by garbage dumps and excessive sewage. Similarly, Sanjay Lake has vanished under the pressures of urban encroachment and pollution, leaving behind a landscape of muck and lost biodiversity.

During a recent visit to Bhalswa Lake, the extent of neglect was starkly evident. The lake, plagued by contamination and encroachment, has failed multiple water quality tests, with its waters highly polluted and nearly half of its area transformed into a landfill site. “Many wetlands in Delhi urgently need restoration, but the process is fraught with challenges,” ecologists warn. Prof. C.R. Babu, in charge of the Biodiversity Parks Programme at DDA, highlights the major lakes in Delhi requiring restoration, including Bhalswa, Najafgarh Jheel, Sanjay Lake, and Hauz Khas Lake. “The restoration efforts are hampered by encroachments, urbanisation, and pollution from various sources,” Prof. Babu explains.

Sanjay Lake’s condition is particularly alarming. Once a vibrant habitat for migratory birds and a recreational spot for locals, it has now been reduced to an expanse of muck, devoid of water. Despite being identified by the Delhi Wetland Authority for conservation and prioritised for restoration efforts, progress has been minimal, with the lake barely recognisable from its glorious past.

The situation underscores the broader issue of rapid urbanisation and industrial pollution impacting Delhi’s wetlands. Sushmita Sengupta, Senior Programme Manager at the Centre for Science and Environment, suggests a way forward for industries to mitigate their impact on these vital ecosystems. “Industries should invest in effluent treatment systems to ensure that clean water is discharged into lakes or connect with Central Effluent Treatment Plants for waste management,” Sengupta advises, emphasising the role of industries in adopting sustainable practices to protect and preserve the neighbouring water bodies.

A Beacon of Hope: The Success Story of Yamuna Biodiversity Park

In the heart of Delhi, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park stands as a testament to the potential of successful wetland restoration. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, significant strides have been made towards rejuvenating this vital ecosystem. The creation of water bodies and dedicated conservation efforts have led to a notable increase in bird populations, underlining the park’s importance in maintaining ecological balance and supporting the city’s groundwater resources.

Prof. C.R. Babu, the project in charge of the Biodiversity Parks Programme at DDA, shares insights into the park’s development process. “The Yamuna Biodiversity Park began on sodic soil, barren of any crop or encroachment, presenting a unique opportunity for restoration without the usual hurdles. However, challenges such as encroachment and pollution plague other sites like Bhalswa Lake,” he explains. Prof. Babu emphasises the importance of catchment area restoration and the strategic channelling of rainwater to facilitate the natural rejuvenation of wetlands.

Experts, including Sushmita Sengupta stress the necessity for sustainable solutions in wetland conservation. “Sustainability is key. Actions must be backed by political will and a long-term vision to ensure the viability of conservation efforts,” Sengupta asserts. She calls for a reorientation of planners and policymakers towards creating new water bodies within upcoming urban developments, thereby enhancing the recharge areas essential for a healthy ecosystem.

Dr. Syed Ainul Hussain advocates for a strategic approach to wetland conservation. “We must prioritise and prepare detailed management plans for the most critical wetlands, focusing on actionable and funded solutions rather than spreading efforts too thinly across numerous sites,” he suggests. This targeted strategy aims to ensure the preservation and restoration of key wetlands, thereby safeguarding their future.

The journey of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, coupled with the expert insights on sustainable conservation practices, offers a blueprint for addressing the environmental challenges facing Delhi’s wetlands. As the city grapples with the repercussions of human neglect and environmental degradation, the success of the park serves as a beacon of hope and a call to action. The need for concerted, sustainable efforts to protect these precious ecosystems has never been more urgent.

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