Natural ecosystems are critical for human well being. This much is well understood. Benefits to humans from nature are collectively termed as ecosystem services. These include a range of goods and services, from wild fruits and medicines to biodiversity, natural beauty and aesthetics. The most important ecosystem services though are those that we barely perceive – the formation of soil for example, or reduction of pollutants from air or water passing through a forest, or the recycling of nutrients. My thoughts about that which is unseen come from a recent report I read. An expert opinion on rejuvenating Sukhatal. Sukha-tal (or dry lake) is a small ephemeral lake just upstream of Naini tal, the lake that gives Nainital town its name. CEDAR has invested considerable efforts in raising awareness about Sukhatal which appears to be the main source of subsurface recharge to lake Nainital. The soils in the lake bed of Sukhatal are highly permeable, and below the lake are several faults and fractures. Rainwater fills Sukhatal but then rapidly seeps through the permeable soils into the aquifer below. The combinations of rocks and fractures below Sukhatal allow water from this aquifer to gradually seep into Naini lake – or Naini tal. This subterranean seepage of water in the rainless months keeps Nainital full and maintains its beauty for tourists. Sukhatal’s own beauty is unremarkable. Once it is dry, a few weeks after the last rains of monsoon, it becomes a bare piece of land – a wasted flat space ripe for encroachment – some of which has occurred. It was this neglect that CEDAR focussed on through its work these past few years. However, a recent plan commissioned by the administration brings a new threat. The plan calls for the rejuvenation of Sukhatal. This rejuvenation will be through beautification. Walkways and tourist attractions are to be built around the lake and a geo-synthetic clay liner will prevent water from seeping through the lake bed. This may make Sukhatal more attractive to tourists, but what will it do to the town of Nainital? Nainital depends on its lake not just for tourism - but its very existence. All water supply to the town directly or indirectly emanates from Naini lake. Removing the most important source of sub-surface recharge can immeasurably damage Naini lake and the economy of the town. It is imperative to understand this linkage between these two lakes. Changing Sukhatal will change Nainital. Enhancing Sukhatal’s beauty is all very well, but making the lake bed impermeable will destroy the soul of Sukhatal. And this can then strip away the beauty of Nainital and reveal the ugliness that lies just below the surface. Beauty is only skin deep wrote Sir Thomas Overbury some four hundred years ago. A proverb that has come to mean that a pleasing appearance is not a guide to ones character or inherent quality. The superficiality of beauty can be extended beyond humans - to nature and natural environments as well. Sukhatals importance lies in the ecosystem function it provides to Nainital. Let not that be damaged in the name of beuatification.
- Dr. Rajesh Thadani
Picture courtesy : Vishal Singh