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India’s Lake of Toxic Foam Is So Polluted It Sometimes Catches Fire

Despite its tropical climate, parts of Bangalore city in southern India have been experiencing what looks like snow. Except, it’s not actually snow, but a toxic foam from a severely polluted lake!

The 9,000-acre Bellandur lake is the largest one in the city, and also the most polluted. Decades’ worth of untreated chemical waste and sewage in the lake get churned into a white froth that’s as thick as shaving foam, every time it rains. This froth contains effluents like grease, oil, and detergents that sometimes catch fire, leading to one of the rarest sights in the world – a flaming lake.  

Many local residents are unnerved by the unnatural phenomenon. “Every time it rains and the water flows, the froth raises and navigating this stretch becomes risky,” said Visruth, who lives 30 meters away from the lake. “Due to the froth, visibility is reduced and the area also smells bad. Cars and bikes that pass this area get covered with froth.”

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

And for Mohammed Attaulla Khan, who grew up around the lake, the sight of it burning in May this year was unforgettable. “It’s not every day that a lake catches fire,” he said. “This should make people wake up and realise that we have a serious problem.”

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

T.V. Ramachandra, one of the city’s leading environmental scientists, submitted a report to authorities in June, following the bizarre fire. His report explained how “sustained inflow of untreated sewage and effluents” were being churned into froth during heavy rainfall and winds. And he described how something small like a burning cigarette tossed into the lake could cause the foam to ignite.

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

Unfortunately, local authorities haven’t been able to do much about the situation. With the population swelling at insane rates (nearly doubling to 10 million in the past two decades), local agencies haven’t been able to manage the pollution that came along with the growth. “Because regulatory agencies are weak and don’t have much power or staff, all the polluters are taking advantage,” Ramachandra said. “For the last four decades, we are paying the price.”

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

Bangalore, once hailed as the ‘City of a Thousand Lakes’, is now being referred to as ‘a land of a thousand sewage tanks’. And Bellandur lake is at a greater disadvantage, lying at the southern end of a chain of lakes. It is said to receive over 130 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage from homes and industries all over the city, per day. The foam on the lake this monsoon was reported to be thicker and smellier than previous years. When the winds blew the froth into the streets, obstructing visibility and the flow of traffic.

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

The foam is also affecting the health of those who come into contact with it. When Ramachandra and his students from the Indian Institute of Science spent an afternoon collecting samples of the foam, they came away with severe rashes. Locals who live close to the lake report headaches, dizziness, and stomach ailments – all of which can be traced back to the polluted waters of the lake.

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Photo: Debasish Ghosh

According to State environment officer Siddaramaiah, the government has issued notices to the concerned municipal agencies to develop an action plan to combat the issue of the chemical froth. And Mayor N Manjunatha Reddy said he’s summoned stormwater drains engineers to visit the area to come up with a solution. “We will ask them about the process of setting up sewage treatment plants to divert sewage from these stormwater drains,” he said.

 

But residents say they have no faith in the government’s efforts. The sewage board needs $156 million to set up new treatment plants in Bellandur, and local authorities cannot afford that kind of money. And even if they could, researchers don’t think it would be of much use because other upstream lakes would continue to flow south, neutralizing the positive impact.

 

“We need to change course, but it’s like trying to turn the Titanic around,” said Nagesh Aras, a software engineer and environmental activist. “There’s an iceberg ahead, but the captain hasn’t even seen it. And that’s the tragedy with the fires. We’re trying to explain that they’re just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sources: BBC, New Indian Express, One India

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