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Political ecologist Eszter Kovacs and photo-journalist Toby Smith report on the water issues of Naini-Tal, Uttarakhand, India.

Nainital is a bustling town in Uttarakhand, India, built around a pristine mountain lake. This lake or ‘tal’ provides the settlement with drinking water, scenic beauty and its economy as tourists flock to its shores every summer.

Yet for the second year in a row, the lake’s water levels have experienced drastic declines, exposing visitors to the polluted sight of the lake’s stony underbelly and the stench of decomposing carp and rubbish.

In response, a group of concerned residents and returning visitors have formed a Citizens of Nainital group to galvanise formal action urgently through petitions and to promote public understanding around the reasons for the tal’s severe water declines.

Falling lake water levels reveal the consequences of incremental urbanisation, of unchecked tourism and their combined water demand. While rainfall patterns and intensities are also slowly changing with climate change, the current water crisis is the result of myriad human-made factors.

Nainital’s population has grown by over 30% since 1991.

New homes and undeclared hostels that house and employ these people have built over historic drains that once directed water run-off into Naini’s lake, decreasing the amount of surface water flow entering the lake.

Other channels have been concretised, meaning that water seepage is no longer gradual or possible, effectively decreasing the amount of water entering the lake.

Tourist numbers have been steadily increasing over the past decade, such that water demand seasonally exceeds available supply.

The past few years have brought less rainfall and drought in the winter, as well as higher-intensity, shorter rains in the monsoon. Sudden water surges cannot be held by the lake and to prevent local flooding sluice gates allow the water to escape.

Significantly, a hydrology report from the 1990s  established that one of the most important water recharge areas to Nainital is another seasonal upstream lake, Sukhatal. A faultline and complex aquifer system connects these two lakes, where water hostorically travelled and seeped slowly underground from Sukha to Naini.

This relationship has been broken, and the report ignored. Buildings have gradually encroached onto Sukhatal’s lakebed, beginning with the pumping station built by the Asian Development Bank, followed by a government parking lot, then private homes, permanent and makeshift. Construction waste is frequently stored on the lakebed, with frequent vehicle traffic and debris compacting Sukhatal’s bottom and giving rise to a swimming pool effect. This means that water no longer percolates or filters from the up- to the down- stream lake.

The tal’s crisis has been long predicted, as changes to Nainital’s condition have been gradual, not quick. In 1993, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed, urging rapid action to halt illegal construction and blockages to drainwater canals that feed the lake.

A new PIL was filed in 2014, explicitly drawing attention to the importance of Sukhatal as an important recharge area to Nainital lake. While the High Court has ordered the clearance of drains around Nainital, its actions on Sukhatal have been less forthcoming. In a recently published District Planning Report, the rejuvenation of Sukhatal was suggested through turning it into a permanent lake, in order to further its aesthetic appeal – to tourists.

Sealing the bottom of Sukhatal would prevent any subsurface water from reaching Nainital, in effect exacerbating the current downstream water crisis. The preferred solution displays an enormous misunderstanding of Sukhatal’s ecological role.

Just as Nainital gets its water from a myriad of sources, there will be no single solution to the lakes water levels. Actions need to be concerted, small and large: starting with drain clearance, existing building restrictions must be enforced and urban planning and development needs to be ecologically sensitive to where water recharge areas lie. The role and forms of tourism are rarely put under the spotlight, yet Nainital’s current trajectory compromises its long-term environmental sustainability, as well as the livelihoods of Nainital’s residents.

On the third of June 2017, the Citizens group will convene at the Mall on Nainital at 6pm for a silent, barefoot walk from Tallital to Mallital. Concerted, widespread action is only the beginning to “saving” the lake, and to ensuring that Nainital recovers its former beauty.