Toxic Lake Bursts Into Flames
Bangalore, IndiaWhen Shalini Sahni moved back to India after eight years in the U.S., she craved a waterside home like the one she had in Austin, Texas. This was not an easy thing in Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru), a landlocked, densely populated city in the middle of South India. But the electronics engineer found something similar in an apartment complex fringing Bellandur Lake, the city’s largest. Less than a year after moving in, her beautiful view of the lake was one of flames on the water.
The January 19 blaze burned for more than 30 hours and rained down ash on balconies and cars more than six miles away. Less than two weeks later, the lake caught fire again. Bellandur Lake made international headlines last February when videos of a fire went viral. But there have been major fires going back to 2015.
Another searing image of the 900-acre lake is a snow-white foam that often covers its canals. It has even bubbled up to a height of several stories and toppled onto roads and buildings nearby.
“Why in the world would a lake catch fire?” Sahni asked. “Water should be used to extinguish, not be fuel for a fire.”
But what’s in the water is the same thing fueling the fires and the froth. It’s a potent mix of domestic and industrial waste.
Unchecked development propelled Bangalore, once a sleepy “pensioner’s paradise,” to India’s outsourcing and IT hub of 10 million people. About 40 percent of the city’s untreated sewage flows into Bellandur Lake every day. Industries discharge effluents directly into the water. City residents find the banks of the lake an easy place to throw their garbage, as do trucks, which regularly dump construction debris. What results is a lake that can catch fire, whether through solid or liquid waste floating on its surface, or flammable methane generated from its oxygen-starved waters.
Seen in a larger context, the toxic waters of Bellandur Lake are just one example of India’s struggles to protect its environment. The country slipped to the bottom five worldwide on the recently released Environmental Performance Index, a program by Yale and Columbia Universities and the World Economic Forum that measures environmental health.
“The fire in the lake was a first-of-its-kind event in India. But this is a warning for every other city in the world which is developing,” said Priyanka Jamwal, an environmental scientist.
Jamwal studies the water quality of Bangalore’s lakes at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. By coincidence, she tested Bellandur Lake just a day before the first fire of this year. She found that 70 million gallons of sewage enter the lake every day. Jamwal said the solution is sewage treatment and regular monitoring of streams feeding the lake.
But the government is struggling to keep up with Bangalore’s rapid urbanization. Large-scale sewage treatment plants won’t be in place until 2020. Bellandur and other lakes in the city—manmade and constructed for irrigation in the 16th century—are nearly all polluted. But managing waterbodies is complicated by a tangle of oversight among five state and local agencies. (Learn how India planted 50 million trees in one day.)
One of those overseeing agencies, the Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority, was created in 2015 to monitor illegal activities, including by other government bodies. But Seema Garg, its chief executive officer, said her agency is understaffed and she has no police personnel to round up lawbreakers.
Garg said the lake authority is overseeing the creation of 150 acres of wetlands near Bellandur’s inlets before the summer monsoon as a stop-gap measure before sewage treatment plants are built in two years. Even India’s federal environmental body is now involved, demanding answers from local government on the slow pace of clean-up after last February’s fire.
Sharachchandra Lele studies the governance of Bangalore’s lakes, also for the Ashoka Trust. He is a member of an executive committee comprising scientists, government officials, and residents that oversees Bellandur Lake. That group has documented the presence of heavy metals and a decline in native fish species. The committee’s last report recommended a list of short-term and long-term goals to improve the lake’s water quality. Since it was published in November 2016, Lele said the government has met only one short-term goal—reducing invasive water hyacinth plants.
Lele also advises some perspective on Bellandur Lake and its very visible fires and foaming.
“If you look at it from the consequences of public health, the lake is not that crazy,” he said. “It’s not like lead in the pipelines of Flint, Michigan. We don’t use any lake water for drinking. So it becomes a public image issue.”
But that’s a tough sell to many residents living near the lake. (See how an India man saved his island.)
Hope for the Future
“The burning of the lake is a sum of apathy and politics,” said Seema Sharma.
From her floor-to-ceiling windows in a spacious apartment overlooking the lake, isolated pockets of white smoke indicated small fires in progress. Sharma, a manager at an analytics company, said she saw all three of the very large fires on the lake. But there are small ones along the lake banks every day, she added, along with a steady parade of trucks dumping garbage and debris. She said the sight is so depressing that she often keeps the curtains closed.
The view is not the only problem. A frequent stench floats up from the lake, once getting so bad that her husband initially thought someone in the family had not flushed the toilet. The smell lasted on-and-off for three weeks.
Sharma is also a member of the Bellandur Lake Citizen Group and said she’d like to see more lake oversight handed to private citizens. Bolstered with funds from nearby IT companies, she believes citizen groups could be more effective in cleaning and managing the lake.
Last August, she helped organize a lake festival, a chance for government officials and residents to connect with each other and learn more about Bellandur Lake. It was held about a half-mile from the shore. For those few hours looking at its waters, a safe distance from its smell and garbage, Sharma said she could see what the lake could be.
“We are putting up a fight because there is so much potential,” she said. “We live on the hope that something will change.”