The Burning Lake

Drought, overuse, tourism, climate change? No: here, the problems are different.

The Burning Lake

Drought, overuse, tourism, climate change? No: here, the problems are different.

There is a place, where the road narrows for a few dozen choked meters, and runs right alongside the rajakaluve, or canal. The water flows along until where the ledge of rock drops about a foot or so. At the base of this drop is where the fun begins.

The surface of the lake is still, unmoving, the picture of serenity. There isn’t a single ripple across the crystal plane. All along the edges, green plants sink their tentacled stems into the glassy surface. Not very much moves at all, really — it is a hot, windless day, and much of the ambient noise is only from distant traffic.

This illusion of tranquillity is a short-lived one.

The water is black.

I remember a recent report I read on Africa’s Lake Chad. Once covering 26,000 square kilometres, the lake used to be the water source for eight different countries, and oasis in the middle of the desert.

All that’s left now is the desert.

One reason for this is that droughts and a warming climate pushed it further and further south. The other reason, however, is that everyone wanted to use it. They diverted its water for drinking, as well as for cleaning, bathing, and running their factories.

And the rivers that flowed down to refill the lake?

They were slowed down too, diverted for irrigation or dammed to run up hydro-electric power plants. The water was so good and clean, everyone wanted to use it.

The water in this place is black because of the numerous toxins, chemicals, and domestic products that are in it.

In 1970, people were able to fish in Bellandur Lake. They would divert its water to grow their crops — paddy, tomato, cauliflower. They could drink the water.

By 1980, the outer tendrils of a rapidly-growing Bangalore had begun to reach the lake. The first apartment high-rises in the area were built. The first foam began to form.

By 1997, the lake had been reduced to being five feet deep.

The lake is now a convenient dumping ground for over 1000 ml/d — that’s a thousand million litres per day — of sewage. The nearby sewage treatment plant can process a mere 300 ml/d, at full capacity.

That means, over 70% of the sewage going into the lake is untreated.

Other than sewage, water runoff from places like car garages, tanneries and other water-based industries ends up here. And that’s just what we know of. There may be various other industrial wastes, with even more toxicity, that (illegally or not) flows in.

What does this mean? It means the 300 ml/d that is currently being treated is a proportion so small, it doesn’t really make a difference.

Iceland’s Lake Mývatn was affected by chemicals too. It was in the 1960s that humans began mining the area for minerals. This released a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous into the lake. Nitrogen and phosphorus, it is well known, act as fertilisers to help algae grow.

And grow they did. The algae grew so much that they covered vast areas of the lake, and prevented sunlight from reaching the bottom. The original inhabitants of the lake began to die out, including the rare but famous round roly kúluskítr.

But the chemicals in Bellandur aren’t using anywhere near as roundabout ways as eutrophication to cause trouble.

They’re doing it far more directly.

Not much of what goes into the lake is actually water. In fact, the stuff that comes out of the sewage-treatment plant is probably the closest thing to pure water that the lake receives. And this is a sewage-plant that does only primary and secondary treatment. That means the water has no suspended solids and few bacteria.

But it doesn’t make much of a difference in terms of toxicity.

If you’ve ever read Charlie and the Chocolate factory, you might recall a dialogue of Willy Wonka’s, where he says his chocolate is the best in the business because it is blended by waterfall. Why did I mention this? It’s a simple way of illustrating the fact that waterfalls churn things up.

Turns out, churning things up is about the worst thing you can do for a toxic soup.


Because you end up with foam bubbles from hell, that’s why.

Over the last decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of cases of lung infection, skin allergy, and dengue fever in the area. Even the groundwater has almost toxically high proportions of nitrate, phosphorous, and ammonium — enough to turn silver vessels black.

The foam is a dirty white colour, littered with darker patches, as it flows leisurely down the side of the road. Combined with the plastic that also lands up in there, hellish might be a pretty good description.

And then there’s a turning, which naturally, gathers up all the foam into one, large deposit, out of which chunks occasionally break off and drift into the air and across the street, all the way to the high-rises on the other side.

High-rise buildings are one of the problems threatening Lake Baikal. Hotels were build on its edge, because many people wanted to see it. And who wouldn’t?

Lake Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater body — so big, in fact, that locals affectionately refer to it as a “sea”. Many weird and wonderful things happen on Lake Baikal, including deep dormant volcanoes, huge beautiful mountains, and vast tracts of clear, transparent ice. Not surprisingly, it’s become a major tourist attraction.

And that’s the problem.

Not the tourists per se, but the hotels that grew to support them. More specifically, their drains and toilets. All the waste from those hotels has to be sent down somewhere — and what place is more convenient than that large, inviting water-body nearby? Even if the sewage is sent elsewhere, water flows — and Baikal is where it’ll eventually end up.

Lake Baikal’s beauty, it is feared, may prove to be its undoing.

As we pass the turning, a glob about the size of a fist drifts just past the window of our car, prompting a variety of responses, from shrieks to ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s. The locals are unfazed, going about their business like it doesn’t look it might be snowing toxic blobs.

They’ve become desensitized to it. Sure, it was a problem at first, but that’s what all the protective netting is for, isn’t it?

And we cant blame them. There are people in the area who used to swim in the lake as children. There are people who’ve been fighting for the rights of the lake for decades. And then, there are the people who’re there because they’ve bought chic homes in high-rise apartment complexes, with names that are versions of “Lake-View” which is almost laughably ironic.

Why ironic? They’re living by a lake aren’t they? Yes — but of the three-and-a-half or so square kilometres of lake, very little actual water is visible. The entire surface is covered in weeds and water hyacinth.

And can something even be called a ‘lake’ if it has caught fire multiple times?

The foamy waters first blazed up in May 2015 — probably because of all the methane build-up that came with illegally dumped sewage. This made the foamy lake inflammable, and actually made it burn. It repeated again in January 2016 — and that time the fire was so huge, a contingent of five-thousand army jawans were sent it to put it out.

It’s not fire that caused the drying up of Bolivia’s Lake Poopó. It was the heat. Climate change is causing more droughts in the area, and melting the glaciers that feed the country’s second-largest water-body.

Excuse me. Make that “the country’s former second-largest water-body”. Two years ago, news came in that Lake Poopó was no longer a lake. It was just a huge, flat plain of sand.

It’s not just droughts and melting glaciers, but evaporation and draining too, that’s been making lakes round the world go dry. Perennial, year-round water-bodies turn into seasonal ones, and seasonal ones dry up completely because they can never quite get full.

Once upon a time, this lake too was seasonal. It would fill up during the monsoons and dry up during the summers. It isn’t seasonal any more. How can it be, when conservative estimates suggest there’s about a billion litres of waste is going in every day?

Water usage, bacteria, tourism, and drying up. These are the problems that face many of the world’s greatest lakes. They don’t seem to have those issues where I’m looking.

Here, at Bellandur Lake of Bengaluru, the problems are different.

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