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ISLAMABAD: Water supply from the Rawal Dam was suspended on Saturday after a large number of dead fish were spotted in the lake, sparking fears that the waters had been poisoned or contaminated.

Rawalpindi Deputy Commissioner Talat Mehmood Gondal said the dead fish were first discovered a few days ago, after recent rains raised the water level in the Rawal Lake.

The reservoir, which is the main source of water for the twin cities along with Khanpur Lake, was last tested by the National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) on July 11 and declared “fit for human consumption”.

While the lake itself is situated in the federal capital, its water is the property of the Punjab Irrigation Department, possibly because its key catchment areas lie in Murree.

Water, fish samples sent to labs for testing; officials point to turf war between local fishermen, contractor

However, the responsibility of managing the land, wildlife and environment lies with the Capital Development Authority (CDA).

Further still, the fish and other aquatic life in Rawal Lake are the jurisdiction of the Islamabad chief commissioner and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration.

ICT Director Fisheries Lubna Said told Dawn that fresh samples had been forwarded for testing to Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), while samples from the dead fish had been sent to the Punjab Forensic Science laboratories in Lahore and the NARC.

Water and Sanitation Authority Spokesperson Mohammad Umer Farooq told Dawn that the Small Dams Organisation – which manages the dam – had suspended its water supply from Rawal Lake around noon on Saturday.

In an initial report from the district water-testing laboratory of the Public Health Engineering Department, the water from the lake was not found to contain any poisonous substance, and there were no arsenic particles in it, either.

“Water samples were also sent to the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) for further testing,” he said, adding that as soon as the reports were in, a decision could be taken to restore the water supply from Rawal Dam.

In the meanwhile, residents of Rawalpindi will be supplied water through 408 tubewells that will run round the clock, and a water tanker service will also be operational 24 hours a day to ensure the water supply, the spokesperson said, calling on citizens to use water judiciously.

CDA Member Planning Asad Kayani also blamed illegal and unplanned construction in the areas around the reservoir for the poor water quality.

“Today, huge, illegal and unplanned construction has been carried out in Bani Gala, Bhara Kahu and other catchment areas of the Rawal Dam. We have been trying our best to stop the illegal construction and ensuring that the sewerage water should not be included in the streams. Sewage treatment plants will be installed to treat water from Nurpur Shahan etc,” he said.

Turf war

There were rumours that the alleged poisoning was linked to a dispute between local fishermen and the contractor, Younas Enterprises, who won fishing rights in the area through an auction, conducted late last year.

The contract was awarded in March 2017, and the contractor was due to begin netting from October this year.

Over the past several years, however, a large number of local fishermen, who are at odds with the contractor, have established illegal businesses along the lake shore.

To control these elements, the ICT administration recently imposed Section 144 to curb illegal fishing in Rawal Lake, and an operation in this regard was conducted on Friday, July 7.

“The dead fish started to appear a day after all the illegal fishing setup was removed from the lakeside,” said an official of the Fisheries Department. He feared that local fishermen may have used dynamite to kill fish in large numbers.

Another official in the Rawalpindi administration expressed the fear that the fishermen may have poisoned the waters following their tussle with the contractor. He said that the local administration and Special Branch were working to establish how the rumour spread.

Expert opinion

Not everyone was convinced that dead fish found in the lake were killed by a poisonous substance. Rawalpindi DC Talat Mehmood Gondal said that according to experts, the fish could have died due to low oxygen levels in the water.

He said that initial reports suggested that the Silver Cod fish, known locally as Sunehri, died in high temperature and low oxygen.

“There was less oxygen in the Rawal lake in last few days as the day temperature rose and rain occurred in the night. The other animals and fishes in the dam are alive which made it clear that the water is safe,” he said.

“There is no clear reason why the fish are dying in mass numbers,” Ms Said told Dawn.

“The summer heat is normal, the water level is on the rise and most importantly, initial tests have cleared the quality of water as fit for human consumption.”

Dr Javed Akram, vice chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) told Dawn that over the past few years, a number of poultry farms had been set up in Bhara Kahu and other catchment areas of Rawal Dam.

“In this season, poultry farmers spray their farms with chemicals, which are washed into the nullahs and eventually reach Rawal Dam. Moreover, there are a number of factories that have been dumping their chemical waste here. Even hospital waste is also thrown in the streams,” he said.

“In developed countries ‘soakage pits’ are used to treat the waste as water passes through sand and other filters before it flows into the streams, but there is no such vision here.

FIR registered

Also on Saturday, capital police booked unknown persons for fouling the water of Rawal Lake on the complaint of the Fisheries Department under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Police have also been asked to take action against a “local mafia”, who fisheries officials blame for the situation.

“They bully and beat officials from CDA, the fisheries department and even police, and have no respect for the law,” a police official said.

Secretariat Police registered the case in response to a complaint lodged by Fisheries Deputy Director Mohammad Sadiq under sections 277 (fouling water of public spring or reservoir) and 429 (mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc., of any value or any animal) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Rawal Dam was constructed on Korang River in the 1960s and has a catchment area of around 275 square kilometres. It can store 84,000 acre feet of water in an average rainfall year.

Rawal Dam supplies 28 million gallons per day (MGD) to Rawalpindi’s City and Cantonment areas, via the Rawal Filtration Plant. Currently, Rawalpindi City’s daily requirement of water is 60MGD, but the agency provides around 54MGD.

There are three main sources of water for Rawalpindi city; Rawal Dam (which provides 28MGD) and Khanpur Dam (6MGD). The remaining water is obtained from 408 tube wells

The lake’s water level currently stood at 1,740 feet, against a maximum level of 1,752 feet. It is expected that the reservoir will reach that volume after a few more rains.

In July 2009, then-chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry took suo motu notice of contaminated water in Rawal Dam. A number of hearings were held, but the issue has yet to be resolved.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2017