KEENJHAR, the country’s largest freshwater lake, declared a Ramsar site and a wildlife sanctuary, received highly contaminated water recently through a storm drain.
According to a community representative, at least four cows, an equal number of jackals and a turtle had died after drinking water from the confluence of the drain and the lake in recent days.
In addition to that dead fish, snails and freshwater mussel shells were reported floating on the dark coloured water flowing in the drain. The lake is a major source of drinking water for Karachi and part of Thatta district, a tourist point and source of livelihood for thousands of locals.
While the actual source of pollutants is yet to be determined, it was obvious from the water condition that poisonous compounds were released in the lake through water channel. The effect of contamination was restricted to a specific area, because wind blowing towards the east was preventing dead organisms and pollutants from entering the lake.
Keenjhar Lake is the largest perennial freshwater lake with extensive reed-beds and blooming lotus, mainly in the shallow western and northern parts. The lake supports diverse flora and fauna, and is a breeding, staging and wintering area for a wide variety of waterfowls.
The lake’s freshwater ecosystem is under threat due to increased industrial and domestic effluent discharge through the Kalri-Baghar Feeder (KB Feeder) canal which carries contaminants from Kotri urban and Industrial area. There are a number of industries in Kotri, which drain their effluents into the KB Feeder and these chemicals together with sewage discharge into the Keenjhar Lake. This water is then supplied to Karachi for drinking purposes.
The lake was formed by the union of two lakes Sonehri and Keenjhar, through the construction of a bund on their eastern side.
Originally, these lakes came into existence when the Indus changed its course. The purpose of the bund was to enhance the storage capacity of the lake. Rain torrents from surrounding hills were also the source of water to Keenjhar Lake.
The area had been an estuary of the Sakro branch of Indus River for a long time. This is evident from the fossilised life scattered over the area.
The lake is endowed with a rich wealth of natural resources comprising mainly 55 species of fish, 263 species of aquatic and terrestrial plants, 51 species of birds and almost 98 species of large and small mammals. Surrounding areas of the lake provide ideal habitat for almost 23 species of reptiles and amphibians.
Fisheries resources have been the main source of livelihood for the dependant communities. Fish populations have declined in the lake in recent years, mainly due to non-observance of conservation measures — diversion of freshwater through the bypass canal during monsoon season when fish juveniles are abundant in river water, unsustainable exploitation, juvenile fishing, pollution and introduction of alien invasive species of fish and plants.
The socio-economic assessment 2007, conducted by the Indus for All Programme WWF-Pakistan, indicated that the main source of livelihood of the people of Keenjhar is fishing, agriculture and livestock, but due to depletion of these resources, many people have switched over to stone mining and stone crushing. There are 39 villages around the lake out of which 26 are small, nine medium and four are large villages having population of 50,000.
According to a survey conducted by the Environment Department, Government of Sindh, only 29 industries located in Kotri SITE area are agents of pollution, while the rest are within parameters. The Environment Department had filed a case in the Sindh High Court to address these issues.
The stakeholders have been called and reprimanded, however there have been no on-ground changes. Seasonal streams (hill torrents) also carry untreated effluents from the Nooriabad Industrial Area and wash over pesticides from surrounding agricultural fields to the lake.
The departments of irrigation, fisheries, wildlife, environment and tourism besides the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board responsible for looking after the lake, work in isolation due to the absence of a proper mechanism for coordination.
The inactivity of concerned departments is a threat to the wetland’s survival, as they do not follow government rules and regulations. Those responsible for dumping untreated effluents in Keenjhar Lake must be identified.
The principle “the polluter should pay” should be applied and it should be ensured that this should not happen again. One major lesson drawn from recent incident is that there are no standard operating procedures (SOPs) to tackle such kind of incidents.
Hence, a dedicated authority with the clear hierarchy is needed to address the issues of wetland management in Sindh. The proposed authority should be answerable to the appropriate department. This would require both supportive legislation as well as political will.
Other measures specific to Keenjhar include the development of management plan, setting up of an endowment fund for the rehabilitation and upkeep of Keejhar Lake, contribution of at least one per cent income of the KWSB from water collection fee for the improvement, installation of treatment plants for industrial effluent by Kotri SITE and installation of nets at the inlet and outlet of the lake to stop the release of fish seed.