Legend has it that, after the death of his wife Sati, Lord Shiva cried so inconsolably that his tears formed a pond that came to be known as the Katas Raj pond. Around this pond, temples were built dedicated to the Hindu dieties Shiva, Ram and Hunaman. It is the modern-day Lahore-Islamabad motorway that leads tourists to the arcane and sacred site. Situated in Punjab’s Salt Range near Kallar Kahar (at an altitude of 2,000 feet), the Katas Raj Temple complex is considered the second-most sacred shrine in Hinduism. The pond from the Hindu legend occupies an area of two kanals and 15 marlas, with a maximum depth of 20 feet.
The seven temples at Katas — believed to have been built around 650 and 950 AD — are connected to one another by walkways. The name of the temple complex is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘kataksha’ which means ‘tearful eyes’ and every spring and autumn, Hindu pilgrims from Pakistan and India visit the pond to bathe in it and ‘wash off their sins’.
The Katas pond drew attention last year when the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar took notice of the drying up of the pond. He stated, “This temple is not just a place of cultural significance for the Hindu community, but also a part of our national heritage. We have to protect it.”
Located in the Salt range, the second-most sacred shrine for Hindus faces peril at the hands of industrial development
Water from this pond has been used to irrigate the orchards of loquats in Choa Saidan Shah, a small town and union council in Chakwal district. It also supplied water to the nearby town for drinking purposes but now its own survival is at stake, with unsustainable development threatening its very existence.
This is not the first time the water body has faced perilous conditions. In the early 2000s when cement factories began to be set up in the Salt Range, popularly known as Kahoon Valley — a rain-fed zone — the local communities started to experience a sharp decline in groundwater levels, as their bore wells started to dry out. The Katas Raj pond was no exception to this, and the pond slowly began to dry up. By May 2017, the water level of the pond was so low that it left the temple stairs, which were previously submerged, exposed.
Waseem Ahmed Raja, a resident of Chakwal has been fighting to save Katas Raj pond from drying up for years. He has suffered the wrath of those sitting in power corridors having been served non-bailable warrants and even having been barred from entering Chakwal on one instance. Raja explains that the pond began drying slowly in 2009 and, by 2012, had nearly dried up altogether. “The situation re-emerged in 2017 and since it is an internationally renowned site, the issue was highlighted [in the news],” he adds.
Raja explains that in order to ascertain the reasons behind the depletion of water in the pond, it is important to understand what led to this. He holds the cement factories, which became operational in 2007, responsible. “In October 2008, I filed an application to the Environment Protection Agency [EPA] that one of the cement plants prior to installation had said that they will bring water for their use from Malkana, a nearby village. They later deviated from their commitment.
“As I moved the application,” he says, “a site inspection was done on January 14, 2009, which confirmed that the factory deviated from their Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA], thus threatening the local flora and fauna. The District Officer Environment also confirmed that the springs of the valley are drying up but, in the end, the EPA gave an ambiguous verdict that the deviation [from the commitment] had been proved but water scarcity could not be proved. The cement factory was then asked to plant 30,000 trees and stop causing pollution.”
In a report submitted to the Supreme Court, in answer to the CJP questioning the Punjab government for failing to safeguard the Katas Raj pond, the Punjab government admitted that an aquifer feeding the pond was depleting due to boring of tube wells by a cement factory.
The CJP advised the government that if the pond is drying due to groundwater abstraction by factories, an alternative water supply scheme should be found to spare the pond. “We have to find a solution as to how water can be provided to the pond. Even if we need to close down tube wells or halt the water consumption of the factories, we will do it,” he observed. A timeline was demanded of the factories for making alternative arrangements for water disbursement.
The National Assembly Standing Committee was told that these cement factories should be constructed on the other side of the valley, preferably in Lilla, as we knew that the pond at Katas Raj would dry up in a few years,” says former director-general of the Environment Protection Agency.
Asif Shuja Khan, former director-general of Pakistan EPA told Eos that when plans to build cement factories in Kahoon Valley were underway, he along with the then secretary to minister for environment strongly opposed the move for their construction, stating that a pristine environment will be devastated and all of its water springs will dry up, especially the Katas Raj pond. Despite their repeated warnings, Khan says, the EPA Punjab issued the environmental approval to the factories.
“The National Assembly Standing Committee was told that these cement factories should be constructed on the other side of the valley, preferably in Lilla, as we knew that the pond at Katas Raj would dry up in a few years,” adds Khan.
The CEO of WWF-Pakistan, Hammad Naqi Khan says that an EIA is a planning tool used worldwide to guage whether a project should be undertaken or not. It is instrumental in identifying potential impact, alternate sites and processes that bear a sustainable environment in mind.
“Before the factories were established,” he says, “there was a plan to construct them in Lilla, a union council of Jhelum district, which was of course a viable option, and water availability was much easier, as the Jhelum river was close to it, but Chakwal was chosen due to proximity to the Lahore-Islamabad motorway.
“The present devastation of Kahoon Valley could have been prevented had the Environment Protection Department (EPD) and the project proponents incorporated WWF’s comments on EIA reports,” adds Hammad Khan.
“The Chief Justice of Pakistan has now expanded the scope of the investigation and ordered to submit a detailed report on how cement plants are affecting the entire area,” adds Raja who is also party in the case.
The Tehsil Municipal Officer (TMO) Choa Saidan Shah, confirms that the cluster of cement factories in the area has led to the depletion of water levels. “The main water source at Katas Raj adjoining the cement factories and the tehsil municipal administration of Choa Saidan Shah provides water to the inhabitants of the area. This practice was enforced on a daily basis, but now the provision of water is limited to every four days.” The report even stated that if the situation persists, this “barani [rain-fed] area will face drought in future.”
Local communities say that these factories, in addition to producing cement are also producing ‘clinker’ which was not included in the approved plan, which means that the factories are consuming more water than their approved limits.
Naseem-Ur-Rehman, director of EPD, recalls that when the Katas Raj pond dried up previously, it was revived after de-silting. However in 2017, when de-silting was no longer helpful, Rehman suggested engaging the engineering department to solve the problem.
Rehman argues, “It is not correct to say that the cement industry is solely responsible, as excessive water consumption by domestic users of Kahoon Valley is also a major reason.”
Rehman points to population bulge, climate change and unpredictable rainfall patterns as contributing factors. He further said, “The groundwater level across Punjab has gone down and there is a need for groundwater regulation.
“An alternate solution to reduce burden on groundwater resources of Kahoon Valley, and discussed previously as well, was to bring water from River Jhelum for the cement factories, which can now be considered. We have also asked the cement factories to draw only the required amount of groundwater,” Rehman adds.
Asif Shuja Khan thinks that prospects of saving the pond are bleak. “It is too late now,” he says, “as water depletion has exacerbated to unprecedented levels. However, the last hope of saving Katas Raj pond is to chalk out a master plan of its environmental protection, entailing a thorough EIA and its subsequent implementation. An Environment Management Plan should be devised by independent consultants and then create a fund which the cement factories should contribute to, along with introducing inverted wells in the area to improve groundwater situation.”
Though cement factories are major stakeholders in the valley, pumping out water for their use, a surge in population, changing agriculture patterns and increased plantation of fruits and vegetables, increase in domestic tube wells and rainfall variability, along with other sources, are also responsible for worsening the situation. The hydrological study which is currently underway by the provincial government can help fix responsibility on the factors behind the groundwater depletion of the sacred pond.
The issue is not just of Katas Raj pond but for the survival of the entire Kahoon valley. If the situation goes unabated, a time may come when the groundwater for the valley is depleted, triggering migration of the local population. This would be a sheer violation of the land rights of indigenous communities, which have been duly recognised by the United Nations (UN). Moreover, it is open defiance of the international environment-related conventions, especially the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN’s Paris Climate Agreement, that Pakistan is signatory to.
Syed Muhammad Abubakar is an environmental journalist. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 18th, 2018