Vembanad Wetland is spread over the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Thrissur of Kerala. It is the longest water body in the country and largest in the state. The wetland has an area of 1521.5 km2 and volume of 0.55 km3, fed by 10 rivers flowing into it, adding up to a total drainage area of 15,770 sq km. It is a complex aquatic system of 96 km. long coastal backwaters, lagoons, marshes, mangroves and reclaimed lands, with intricate networks of natural channels and man-made canals.
The wetland is at the heart of Kerala Backwaters tourism with hundreds of kettuvallams (houseboats) crisscrossing it and numerous resorts nestling on its banks. Five rivers originating in the Western Ghats drain into this water body. The Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is located on the east coast of the wetland. Vembanad is famous for its scenic beauty and has become a major tourist attraction. The area of Vembanad has shrunk from 36,329 hectares in 1834, to 12,504 ha in 1984 and the water holding capacity consequently declined from 2.449 cubic km to 0.559 cubic km.
The wetland was included in the list of wetlands of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands in 2002. It is home to more than 20,000 waterfowls in India. Major livelihood activities include agriculture, fishing, tourism, inland navigation, coir retting, lime shell collection.
The lake reduced to 37 per cent of its original area, as a result of land reclamation. The uncontrolled mining of shells from the lakebed is also posing a threat to the eco system. The sewage effluents and the heavy load of organic material released from the neighbouring areas including a medical college at Alappuzha is let into the water and are responsible for the decrease in dissolved oxygen content in the water in the water body.
The fish, reptile and the mollusks found in the lake are facing a threat to their existence due to this. Coconut husk retting also deteriorates the water quality to a great extent. High organic content (6-13%), high BOD (5,137 mg/1), low oxygen (0.05 ml/l) and high sulphide (4.97 mg/1) characteristic of retting zones are found to be devastating for the bottom fauna. The construction of Thannermukkom barrage in the year 1976 had created a number of water quality problems such as reduction of the flushing action in the lake and thereby caused a proliferated growth of weeds and water hyacinth in the water body. Considering the fragile ecosystem of the wetland, deterioration of water quality and consequent damage to aquatic organisms and the shrinkage of Vembanad Lake, this wetland system was included in the NLCP by the National River Conservation Authority, chaired by the Prime Minister under the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in 2003. Government sanctioned Pampa Action Plan (PAP) under the NLCP, with the Central share of 70 per cent of the project cost in 2003, but the project did not meet the expectations. Several NGOs like Kerala River Conservation Council, the Kuttand Foundation etc are approaching the government for implementing an integrated management-action-plan for this wetland. Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), initiated Vembanad Wetland Conservation Program, to help conserve the wetland.
ATREE along with the Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), conducted a participatory fish census in 2008, titled the ‘Vembanad Fish Count 2008’, to prepare inventory of fish biodiversity in lake. Because of pollution and over fishing the fish population has decreased from 156 species 50 years back to 51 - 62 in 2008 fish count. The second fish count in the Vembanad Lake commenced in 2009. Pampa Parirakshana Samithi, an NGO is also fighting for its conservation.
Different groups of environmentalists and fishermen filed PILs in the HC of Kerala to save the fragile ecosystem of the wetland. In 1994, the environmentalists of Institute of Social Welfare alleged that the project would jeopardize the hydrological and acquatical eco-system in the ecologically fragile Vembanad Lake. In 2005, Vaikam Lime Shell Cooperative Society and the Kerala Malsyathozhilali Aikyavedi, Perumbalam unit moves the HC to prohibit dredging by Travancore Cements Ltd for lime shell in Vembanad Lake. In 2008, C.C. Nizar filed a petition against Secretary- Mannancherry Grama Panchayath, Mannancherry Grama Panchayath, Village Officer, Mannanchery Village Office , Shibu Lal, Director, Infosys, and Tahsildar, Taluk Office, Alappuzha (Addl.), alleging that unauthorized construction was taking place violating zonal regulations and even filling up natural water courses.
Several PILs have been filed in the HC of Kerala to save the lake. All the PILs have been settled in the HC. The followings are some of the highlights of the HC orders and government actions.
Thottappally spillway was built to divert floodwaters from the rivers away from Vembanad Lake and into the sea. However, the capacity of the scheme was insufficient, because the channel leading to the spillway was not wide enough. Moreover, every year the mouth of the spillway silts up and has to be dredged at the onset of the monsoon to release the flood waters.
Construction of Thannermukkom barrage to prevent saline water intrusion into paddy fields during the dry season, and thus bolster paddy cultivation. But it created a number of water quality problems such as reduction of the flushing action in the lake and thereby caused a proliferated growth of weeds and water hyacinth in the water body.
In May, Government constituted a special authority, Goshree Islands Development Authority (GIDA) for the integrated development of five islands in the backwaters of Ernakulam. It envisages reclamation of an area of 362 hectares in the Vembanad Lake abutting the Arabian Sea. The cost estimated for the project was roughly Rs. 506 crores. Government in March released a grant of Rs. 2crore to GIDA to meet its preliminary expenses.
The environmentalists of Institute of Social Welfare alleged that the project would jeopardize the hydrological and acquatical eco-system in the ecologically fragile Vembanad Lake. The Institute moved the High Court. An alternative project was proposed by GIDA restricting reclamation of land from backwaters to 25 hectares as against 362 hectares proposed in the original project.
The petition was dismissed in August by High Court. The State Government informed the Court that the implementation of the scheme would be confined to construction of bridges after obtaining requisite sanction wherever it is required.
State Government filed a review petition for apprising the Court that reclamation work cannot be limited to the construction bridges. When the review petition was heard, both the sides agreed that the Writ Appeal can be disposed off afresh in view of this changed stand of the State Government. The review petition and the Writ Appeal were allowed then.
It was contended by the respondents that central government, through an expert body, had studied the entire position and granted sanction subject to the conditions for constructing bridges and for carrying out the proposed land reclamation. They claimed that it would be wrong for the court to decide on factual dispute while exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution.
The appeal was dismissed.
High court directed the government to start work on the new project in March.
Lok Ayukta created under the Lok Ayukta Act of Kerala in 1999, directed the houseboat owners to install sewage treatment plants in houseboats, to replace outboard engines with inboard engines to reduce spillage of oil into water bodies, to reduce plastic items on houseboats and to construct dry waste disposal facility on land to dispose off the solid wastes from houseboats.
Vaikam Lime Shell Cooperative Society and the Kerala Malsyathozhilali Aikyavedi, Perumbalam unit moves the HC to prohibit dredging by Travancore Cements Ltd for lime shell in Vembanad Lake.
The petition was disposed off.
In March, Kerala State Pollution Control Board and the Water Resources Department moves the HC against houseboats which failed to take pollution control measures as directed by the Kerala Lok Ayukt.
C.C. Nizar filed a petition against Secretary- Mannancherry Grama Panchayath, Mannancherry Grama Panchayath, Village Officer, Mannanchery Village Office, Shibu Lal, Director, Infosys, and Tahsildar, Taluk Office, Alappuzha (Addl.), alleging that construction company Infosys was annexing puramboke land in Ward IV of Mannancherry Panchayath and is engaged in making unauthorized construction violating zonal regulations and even filling up natural water courses.
Photographs were taken and the Deputy Director of Panchayats prepared a report in November.
In February, the Govt. of India clarified, vide Order No: 83/A2/09/S&TD dated 5-2-2009 that the banks of Vembanad Kayal between Thanneermukkom bund and Thottappally Spill Way did not come within the purview of the Coastal Regulation Zone Act.
In March, the court concluded that the construction was done only on the dry lands. According to the court there was no merit in the petioner’s contention that there was no violation of coastal zone regulations. The site in question comes within the said area. The Hon. High Court of Kerala has also made this point clear vide judgment reported in 2003(3) KLT 1105. The construction was allowed in areas leaving set back limits with reference to the limits excluding the poramboke area. The secretary Mannancherry Grama Panchayath was directed to initiate eviction proceedings against the 3rd Respondent –Infosys, with regard to the encroached land. The 3rd Respondent was open to surrender the encroached areas to the Panchayath by execution of necessary Forms/Deeds. He was directed to construct his compound wall excluding the poramboke areas as per the plans.
The petition was closed by HC with these directions.
A study was carried out by the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) in September and the study reported heavy metal pollution in Vembanad Lake and the rivers emptying into it.