Lessons From Kolleru Lake

Pelican, pair, lake
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
Once India's largest freshwater lakes, Kolleru is now a seventh of its full size. A case study in environmental mismanagement?

At Kolleru lake in Andhra Pradesh, children fish in long boats made of thermocol boxes tied together in a row. Of the indigenous fishing methods practised by locals at the lake, this one involves the most synthetic material – and even so, the children only set traps for the fish near the shore.

Sustainability is a part of such fishing methods, where fishermen release small catches back into the river. Kolleru is the country’s largest freshwater lake, at over 90,000 hectares. It hosts up to 189 species of birds, which arrive in the thousands each year – some coming from as far as Siberia.

For generations, fishing in the lake was sustainable. But in 1994, while India’s Information Technology sector raced towards a new millennium, a prawn-revolution changed the way the lake was to be used.

Unrestricted aquaculture turned the ecosystem into a prawn-only parade, forcing the water to turn saline. The prawns required manure to grow, and this seeped into the water – turning it into a nutrient soup that supported algae but smothered other life forms. Locals started buying their water in sachets, as non-locals made a killing. Soon enough, even the prawns raised here became toxic.

It was a textbook case of mismanaging water resources, where more than 40 years of policy twists and turns turned the lake from a biodiversity hotspot into a ‘dead lake’ by 2006. The subsequent demolition of fish ponds taken at that time spelt hope – but only briefly, as they returned unabated over years of a watchless administration.

What lessons in wetland management can we take from the case of Kolleru lake today?

Don’t exclude local communities

Until the 1970s, fishing in the area was restricted to local indigenous practices. These methods were non-destructive, and some were designed to allow small fish and eggs to escape – making it a sustainable venture.

In the 1970s, the Andhra Pradesh government started encouraging fishermen to form cooperative collectives. They were given loans, with each family allowed to cultivate an acre of land. Richer members of the community began leasing land from the cultivators and started to make a profit while hiring locals to work their own land. This was a larger phenomenon, not restricted to Andhra Pradesh.

Leasers make Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000 from the fish tanks while landowners make between Rs. 5000 to 10,000 per acre. It’s no win-win situation, especially not for the ecosystem. Locals familiar with sustainable fishing practices gave way to external interests who drove the aquaculture industry into unsustainable territory.

The cost of the fishing industry

The aquaculture boom of the 90s saw rampant encroachment of land. The runoff from prawn cultivation eutrophicated the lake. As fish levels dropped, so too did the numbers of visiting birds. Apple snails that were formerly the natural prey of storks were used to fatten tiger shrimp – making 60 percent of their population fall.

By 2005, both the inflow and outflow of water at the lake had been blocked. This led to a severe flood in 2005 that destroyed thousands of acres of rice fields. The government response was “Operation Restore Kolleru” – where 2916 fish ponds within the sanctuary were blown out of the water with dynamite. It didn’t stop aquaculture – displaced fishermen shifted business to Orissa and others waited for the dynamite to settle, before returning to encroaching onto the lake.

By 2016, India had the second highest fish production in the world, according to a Food and Agriculture Organization report that lamented that “only about 40 percent of the available area of 2.36 million hectares of ponds and tanks has been put to use and an immense scope for expansion of area exists under freshwater aquaculture.”

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Immigration-friendly environmentalism

What Operation Restore Kolleru succeeded at was bringing migratory birds back to the lake. In 2006, fewer than 75 pelicans turned up at the lake in winter. By 2014, that number had risen to more than 4,000. Another study found that waterfowl population which hovered around 1,000 in 2005, is at an all-time high in 2015 – with between 70,000 to 240,000 birds.

The 2005-2006 period is a clear trigger for change. But the government doesn’t seem to have taken heed – and on January 7, announced that they would be re-instituting the 136 fishermen cooperative societies they dismantled a decade ago.

Adding to the problem is that the lakes have dried up in recent times, with its coverage decreased to a third of its maximum value. As lakes dried up, migratory birds spread out looking for newer pastures. But some, like the Siberian Crane and Scavenger Vulture, long stopped turning up.

Plans to promote Kolleru as an eco-tourism destination were promising at first, but institutional neglect combined with the drying-up of the lake made the idea fall flat. Visitors complained that boat trips had been suspended due to the low water level – making sighting the birds a distance affair.

Keep your contours close, and your commissions closer

One of the reasons the lake had been drying up was a decrease in inflows from the Krishna and Godavari. The contour interval is a measure of all the points of a lake at the same height above sea level. At its maximum, Kolleru lake is contour + 10 feet, but the drought has brought it down to contour +3: 135 square kilometres, or seven times less than its fully-flooded area.

A government proposal is on the charts to keep it this way – to benefit farmers who need more land to cultivate. The P.A. Azeez commission constituted by the National Board for Wildlife recommended against any reduction – citing ecological reasons. Like with other expert environmental reports, the government has since chosen to ignore their advice.

Who are the concerned parties? 

The original fisher folk of the lake have long been replaced by fishpond cultivators and other agriculturalists. The lake’s demise affects species that traversed continents to come here. Without knowing the lake’s status, they land only to find that there is nothing to eat.

Neither governments nor private interests will protect land that ultimately, they don’t have to live in. India’s landowners and cultivators need to lead the charge to save their environment – and make it a better home for guests from afar.

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