WHEN legend has it that the pond at the Katas Raj temple complex in Punjab was formed by Hindu deity Shiva’s falling tears, one can only imagine the significance this sprawling ancient site must hold for Hindu pilgrims and tourists in general.

With temple structures reportedly dating back thousands of years, and also featuring the remains of a Buddhist stupa, mediaeval sanctuaries and havelis, Katas Raj is revered for its once overflowing waters of a cerulean hue. However, recent reports reveal a decrease in the pond’s water level because an aquifer has come under stress — water is being diverted by tube wells for use in nearby cement factories and homes.

Taking note of the site’s overall environmental degradation, a three-member Supreme Court bench headed by the chief justice ordered both the federal and Punjab governments to form a committee to look into ways to mitigate the damage. This isn’t the first time that overexploitation of water sources has adversely impacted the pond’s water levels — a similar scenario played out in 2012. When factories and residents in Chakwal have no steady water supplies, they rely on subsoil water from tube wells.

Clearly, the challenge of water scarcity is at the heart of the matter — one that the local government must address. Also, quarrying activities in the Salt Range causing further damage to this site must be investigated and limited.

To a great extent, administrative lethargy hinders preservation efforts in this country. For instance, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had inaugurated a water filtration plant at the cost of Rs1m at this site in January, but it has not been operational because of missing electricity connections.

Given that industrial projects close to historic sites not only damage heritage but also diminish tourism revenue, the state must enforce relevant environmental assessment measures and monitor activities. Our centuries-old heritage should be a source of pride, not one of exploitation for profiteers.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2017

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