Illegal salt mining
Impact on wetland ecosystem of Sambhar Lake
- Situated about 80 km southwest of Jaipur, in east-central Rajasthan.
- It is the largest inland salt lake in India. It represents the depression of the Aravalli Range.
- The lake’s salt supply was worked by the Mughal dynasty (1526–1857) and it was later owned jointly by the Jaipur and Jodhpur princely states.
- Ramsar Site: It is a wetland of ‘international importance’ under the Ramsar Convention, declared in 1990.
- Production of Salt: It is known for the production of brine/salt and also houses one of the largest salt manufacturing units in the country.
- It receives water from six rivers, namely Samaod, Khari, Mantha, Khandela, Medtha, and Roopangarh.
- The area occupied by this lake differs from season to season, so roughly it is between 190 and 230 sq km.
- Also, being an extensive saline wetland, the depth of the lake also fluctuates from season to season. During peak summers (dry time), the depth measures as low as 60 cm but during the monsoons, it goes up to 3 m.
- The vegetation present in the catchment area is mostly xerophytic type.
- Flamingoes, pelicans and the waterfowls are commonly sighted at the Sambhar Lake
- In 2019, almost 22,000 migratory birds died at the Lake due to avian botulism, a neuromuscular illness. Kentish plovers, tufted ducks, northern shovelers, pied avocets, little ringed plovers, stilts and gadwalls, among 36 species.
- Before 2020’s winter season, the Rajasthan government decided to build temporary shelters for migratory birds near the Lake.
- Rampant illegal salt mining and a shrinking wetland. Salt pans were proliferating and illegal borewells dotted the area, causing a massive degradation of the famous lake.
- A salt mine is a mine from which halite, commonly known as rock salt, is extracted from evaporite formations. Illegal salt making and its impacts on Sambhar Lake’s ecology
- Unrestrained salt production threatens the very existence of Sambhar Lake, which was declared a wetland of international importance in 1990 by the Ramsar Secretariat for being a unique migratory bird habitat and wetland ecosystem
- The entire stretch is lined with salt refineries, all allegedly manufacturing salt with stolen brine from the lake
- Bad monsoon for several years and a dry lake surface has further led to the salt manufacturers exploiting groundwater by digging illegal borewells in the land that belongs to Sambhar Salts Ltd
- The road to Nawa witnesses’ heavy traffic of tractors ferrying clay from Sambhar that the salt manufacturers use to make ‘kyars’ or brine retaining pits. Nawa, on the northern side of Sambhar Lake, is controlled by private salt manufacturers. It is notorious for the many illegal borewells that over-extract brine.
- The salt pans encroach upon the lake, and pipelines transport the brine, with unauthorised electric cables, across several kilometres, connecting the lake bed to villages.
- Salt production in Sambhar is nothing new. It has taken place for centuries, but in a traditionally sustainable manner, providing livelihood to the local community.
- The Mughals, the British, and now Sambhar Salts Ltd (a subsidiary of Hindustan Salts Ltd, a public sector company) have all controlled salt production. But today, there is a mushrooming of illegal salt mining and that is grievously threatening the wetland ecosystem.
National Green Tribunal direction
- Some action against illegal borewells was initiated. Last year, 288 borewells, 32 submersible pumps, and 14 hectares of encroachment were cleared.
- Cleared 8 sq.km. of pipelines and electric cables, and keep monitoring the area.
- Sambhar Lake’s future is totally dependent on the seasonal rivers that flow into it during the monsoon. But now this water is being sucked away before it reaches the lake
- The farmers in the 7,560 sq.km. catchment area of the lake have built surface embankments across the rivers, obstructing their downstream flow into the lake.
- They have sunk tubewells along the rivers and laid pipelines to transport water to their fields, choking the rivers and ultimately threatening the wetland ecosystem.
- Excess water extraction has lowered groundwater levels by over 60 meters in the area.
- Several dams and smaller anicuts blocking the natural drainage to ensure availability of irrigation water barely contribute to the lake. Hence, deprive of recharge from subsurface flows, the lake is dying.
- Pipelines have been dug to illegally extract water from the lake to manufacture salt and the situation is worsening every year. It would soon reach a point where the existence of the Sambhar Lake itself (would be) under threat.
- Presence of salt-tolerant algae makes the lake one of the most important wintering areas for flamingos in country, after the Rann of Kachchh.
- Both Phoeniconaias minor and Phoenicopterus roseus, settle here during winters. But their number has fallen drastically in the past two decades because of overextraction of subsurface brine from the lake and pollution caused by illegal salt-making units.
- Sambhar Lake should be clearly demarcated and its uses defined taking all stakeholders into consideration
- Sustainability will come only when there is optimum use. There is a habitat here for birds. Until the forest department is given an identified area for the habitat, they cannot make it sustainable.
- Need scientific management as an ecosystem