Going, going, gone: Deepor Beel

By Fizala Tayebulla

Deepor Beel (‘Beel’ meaning a lake-like wetland with static water in Assamese) is an emblematic wetland found within Burma Monsoon Forest biogeographic region (Saikia et al, 2014). Declared in 2002, Deepor Beel is the only Ramsar site in Assam and is a permanent fresh water lake. It is an oxbow lake located 10 km southwest of Guwahati city [90°36’39’’-90°41’25’’ E, 26°03’26’’-26°09’26’’ N; Area: 41 SQ km (4000 ha of water spread), 53m above Mean Sea Level] measuring a maximum depth of 4m and averaging a depth of 1m (refer to Fig 1 for snapshot of Deepor Beel). The wetland falls under Azara Revenue circle of Kamrup-metro district is adjoined by copious built-up area – residential, institutional (Guwahati University, Assam Engineering College, Assam Ayurvedic College, Royal Global University, Assam Forest School) and commercial spaces such as brick manufacturing and soil cutting activities within the immediate Beel ecosystem. There is a railroad running through the southern boundary of Deepor Beel, fragmenting two previously contingent ecosystems – Deepor Beel and Rani/Garbhanga Reserved Forest. The main inlets of the wetland are Mara Bharalu and the Basistha-Bahini rivers, while the only outlet is Khandajan which flows into river Brahmaputra (Deka, Tripathi and Khan, 2011).

Deeporbeel

Figure 1 Part of Deepor Beel (Source: Fizala Tayebulla/ CUES, 2017)

Of late, Deepor Beel has been a recurrent item of report in the local (Assam) and even national news platforms. Unfortunately, much of this noise has been about the embolismic wetland’s dilapidation. There have been significant accounts of adverse effects of intrusive (yet typical) urban behavior in Deepor Beel. For instance, occurrences like the cryptic death of endangered migratory birds and fishes, problem of omnivorous avifauna finding food source in toxic landfills located in Deepor Beel area, unplanned and illegal encroachment in the Green-Belt, government-run waste incineration and compost generating plants operating adjacent to the water body and so on. To what news reports suggest, there is a general lack of government will to look into the issue or initiate discussions about Deepor Beel’s upkeep. In the absence of any recognized on-going restoration project of the wetland, I was interested to gather more information about the current situation and perhaps find substantial material so as to form a preliminary assessment of my own.

This miniature investigation at the base was divided into two parts, where firstly, I had to know how much of the Deepor Beel media reported status matches to observation, and secondly, how much significance does Deepor Beel hold in the State Municipality’s mandate. During the time that I was devising ideas on how to go about my investigation, I came across an online article reporting a mass death of 26 Greater Adjutant Stork in early 2017, and the incompetence of the state government’s department to intervene and contain the situation. I decided for this particular issue to be fodder for a brief independent study.

Following which, a visit to the site was made, specifically to the location of a recent development within Deepor Beel, i.e. a Municipal waste incineration plant. It was found that the plant is located a mere 20 m away from the waterbody, separated by a narrow strip of road which is used by dump trucks to transport the city’s garbage into the plant (shown in Fig 2).

Figure 2 Dump truck carrying trash through Deepor Beel waterbody and Waste incineration plant (Source: Fizala Tayebulla/ CUES, 2017)

  In mandate, biodiversity hotspots such as Deepor Beel – a recognized Ramsar site, and also declared as an internationally important wetland included in the Directory of Asian Wetlands is considered an eco-sensitive area with demarcated buffer zones, nominal human intervention and perceptive to eliminating forms of pollution. The waste incineration plant alone does not reflect optimistically on the part of planning by the state government given the site is a Green-Belt area.

The residue toxic waste created after processing Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is discarded in the bordering landfill site without further effluent processing or is left outside the plant (Fig 3).

Figure 3 Garbage dumped at the margin of waste incineration plant (Source: Fizala Tayebulla/ CUES, 2017)

Further, moving on to the region designated as Guwahati’s landfill site in Deepor Beel, it was observed that several avian species feasts on garbage piles (Fig 4).

Figure 4 Birds feeding on landfill site at Deepor Beel (Source: Fizala Tayebulla/ CUES, 2017)

Keeping in mind that waste in India is not segregated, the landfill site has the potential to be highly toxic from untreated industrial, biomedical waste deposited directly. Here, I’d like to link this factoid with the online news report (prompting this write up) claiming the death of 26 Greater Adjutant Storks in Deepor Beel to the unregulated landfill policy in Guwahati.

Owing to the easy accessibility of food, it is unlikely that the bird that is foraging on garbage will stop eating garbage. But if we segregate the waste at source, the bird will not be exposed to toxic chemicals or accidentally swallow plastic with the food. Management of garbage at the source and at the dumping ground is key,”

says Narayan Sharma, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences, Cotton College State University, Guwahati (Neha Sinha, 2017).

There is an ongoing NGT case filed by environment activist(s) against Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). The administration has shown serious concern over the deaths of storks, following which an investigation was conducted by GMC. The autopsy reports of the Greater Adjutant Stork carcasses found that there is inconclusive relation to death due to chemicals in the landfill (the source of this information is not public and has been retrieved from government officials). In addition, V.K. Pipersenia (Chief Secretary, Government of Assam) submitted an affidavit to the NGT stating that the location of the landfill site does not violate any provision of law.  The NGT had directed the state government to file a management plan for the long term protection of Deepor Beel, which is under preparation, taken charge by IIT-Kharagpur (Naresh Mitral, 2017).

From my visit to the Deepor Beel site, there is no visible pro-conservation management plan that could be observed. Admittedly, scavenging birds cannot be stopped from foraging in landfill sites, especially in urban areas where resources are scarce. However, an issue where birds feeding en masse on MSW and dying due to mysterious reasons is a severe ecological distress. Looking at the larger picture, taking into consideration this and several civic concerns, the importance of waste segregation at source point cannot be stressed more. There is no operative wetland conservation body that is looking after the wellness of Deepor Beel. GMC has handed the responsibility to create a management plan to IIT Kharagpur – an educational institution reputed to have undertaken successful research initiatives for mega projects of national importance. While there is much noise by those who condemn the handling of the situation by authorities, no private or civic group has initiated effective ecological measures to minimize damage.  There is a very significant problem that concerns ecology based studies, i.e. the extinction of biodiversity, case in point – the Greater Adjutant Stork, which is highly endangered and protected under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. ‘Urban areas also contain novel combinations of environmental factors, which have the potential to provide new insights into the processes which affect biodiversity’ (Pickett et al., 1997b, Chapter 3). In case of wetlands in urban areas, developmental processes have brought more degradation and loss to wetland landscapes locally and worldwide. Given the intensity of watershed and on-site stressors on urban wetlands, conservation and restoration of wetland habitat is challenging but can have substantial encouraging impact on the ecosystem (McDonnell, 2009).

Insinuated by several studies and reports concerning Deepor Beel and wetlands in urban areas, it is definitive that Deepor Beel has robust ecological value, although it is undeniably headed to complete degradation. Sooner the steps towards its conservation and restoration are taken, faster will be its recovery, and hopefully, careful revival.

References 

  • Deka, Jyotishman, Om Prakash Tripathi, and Mohammad Latif Khan. “A multi-temporal remote sensing approach for monitoring changes in spatial extent of freshwater lake of Deepor Beel Ramsar Site, a major wetland of Assam.” Journal of Wetlands Ecology 5 (2011): 40-47.
  • Naresh Mitral. (2017). Garbage dump near Deepor Beel not violating laws: Govt | Guwahati News – Times of India. Retrieved August 29, 2017, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/garbage-dump-near-deepor-Beel-not-violating-laws-govt/articleshow/57846459.cms
  • Neha Sinha. (2017). Thanks To Our Muck, It Stinks To Be Greater Adjutant Storks. Retrieved August 29, 2017, from https://thewire.in/105613/adjutant-storks-garbage-deepor/
  • Pickett, S. T., Cadenasso, M. L., Grove, J. M., Nilon, C. H., Pouyat, R. V., Zipperer, W. C., & Costanza, R. (2001). Urban ecological systems: linking terrestrial ecological, physical, and socioeconomic components of metropolitan areas. Annual review of ecology and systematics32(1), 127-157.
  • McDonnell, M. J., Hahs, A. K., & Breuste, J. H. (Eds.). (2009). Ecology of cities and towns: a comparative approach. Cambridge University Press.

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