Reinvigorating Water Bodies & Promoting Water-Based Tourism

Avinash Mishra

It is known that the construction and development of new water bodies are crucial for handling the present day watercrises, but even rejuvenation of existing water bodies can also potentially render solutions to several water-related problems. Moreover, water-based tourism can play an important role in proper maintenance of water bodies, writes Avinash Mishra, Adviser, Water and Land Resources and Tourism, NITI Aayog and Arunima Chandra, Young Professional, Water and Land Resources and Tourism, NITI Aayog.

Water bodies have a natural capacity to restore themselves, but excessive anthropogenic activities in the catchment areas adversely affect that natural capacity. Hence, now the water bodies are not able to self-rejuvenate and need human intervention for de-siltation, waste removal, and clearance of obstruction at inlets & outlets. Rejuvenation of existing water bodies can be an answer to various woes associated with groundwater recharge, drinking water availability, conjunctive use of surface & groundwater, disaster prevention & management, increase in water use efficiency in all sectors, and holistic preservation of ecosystems. Once rejuvenated, several water bodies have the immense unharnessed potential for water-based tourism including seasonal adventure sports and activities such as rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, cliff diving, boating, sailing, jet-skiing, development of thermal baths, etc.

For the promotion of water-based tourism, the district administration and the Panchayats need to carefully select the water bodies which can bear the stress of tourism. Ponds, lakes, and portions of rivers, seas, and oceans can all be developed to provide different kinds of tourist activities, however, all these water bodies require different methodologies and investments for maintenance. The project implementers need to be mindful of the fact that development of water-based tourism would affect the water body and its marine life to a certain extent and it is solely their responsibility that this effect is minimized to negligible levels. The waterbody chosen for such activities should not be located in a highly sensitive ecological zone. Detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) and need-based social impact assessment would have to be carried out for the entire ecological zone. The primary need for water-based tourism activities is that it should be safe for tourists, which means:

  •  There should be enough quantity of water which can support under-water or surface water sports and boating.
  •  It should be clean and non-toxic.
  •  It should not be a natural habitat of dangerous lifethreatening aquatic predators. The health of the waterbody, and its capacity to provide water-based tourism, need to be considered simultaneously.

For ponds, lakes and portions of rivers, in-situ measures of water body cleaning such as de-silting, de-weeding, bioremediation, aeration, bio-manipulation or any other successfully tested eco-technologies suitable to the local condition, may be applied. Any dumping of solid waste and discharge of industrial effluents/toxic waste would have to be stopped and strictly monitored. Cent percent of the liquid waste discharged into the water body would need to be treated.

For ponds and lakes, use of phytorid beds, construction of a three-well system, plantation of water hyacinth, etc., can help. The BOD and COD levels of the water will have to be brought down to the standards laid down. For example, as per Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), ponds and lakes should be restored at least to the bathing quality. But for portions of rivers, seas or oceans, the task is all the more difficult and at a much grander scale.

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The urban local bodies (ULBs) will have to ensure 100 percent coverage of sewer network in the adjacent areas of the water body, and interception of liquid waste from other unsewered parts of the city as well as treatment of 100 percent sewage and faecal matter, so that there is zero discharge of untreated liquid waste, as per the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Removal of encroachments, catchment area treatment, stormwater drain management, creation of silt traps and sedimentation basins, creation of buffer perimeter around the water body, waste management, maintenance of water quality, etc., would be crucial elements of operation and maintenance.

Rejuvenation of water bodies and development of waterbased tourism, in isolation, would not help much. The region needs to provide up to the mark tourist facilities and tourist safety so as to sustain water-based tourism. It also needs to diversify tourist activities to cater to the interests of different tourists.

Whenever a tourist arrives at a new location, his first enquiry about that place is the ‘things to do there’. Tourists want a variety of attractions to better plan their vacations. And if revenue is to be generated from tourism, it is important that the tourist stays at one location at least for one day, so that he spends money on lodging, food, transportation, and other facilities. Alone water-based tourism would not be enough to hold the interest of the tourist for more than a few hours.

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The number of domestic and foreign tourists that Goa is able to attract, is not merely by virtue of its beaches and water sports but also a myriad of activities such as hiking, island hopping, river cruise, gambling, clubbing, yoga and spa retreats, historical tours, food, music, exquisite sea-facing resorts, etc. Tourism of Rishikesh is based on River Ganga, but apart from being a ‘spiritual centre’, it emerged as a go-to place even for non-religious tourists because of the diversification of tourism of Rishikesh and its expansion into the domain of water sports, trekking and forest camping. With the improvement in connecting roads and sanitation conditions, the establishment of restaurant chains and hotel chains, and drastic increment in means of public transportation, among others, tourism of Rishikesh observed a massive boom in the last two decades.

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So the development of other tourist attractions like the riverfront, picnic spots, museums, etc., along with the associated infrastructure of good transportation facilities, good quality roads, good hotels, good food, etc., would be important also because not all tourists enjoy water-based tourism. So there should be something of interest for as many kinds of tourists as possible.

Development of associated infrastructure, tourist facilities, and other tourist spots would be expensive, so depending on the size of the project, the local administration may decide to develop the entire project on its own through dovetailing of existing schemes, seeking external assistance, and engaging technical experts and NGOs on contractual basis. Or the governments may decide to partially develop through schemes, and partially through public-private partnership (PPP), or develop the project entirely under PPP. But before the implementation of the project, the technical and financial feasibility study must be conducted along with EIA, which would provide the correct recommendation. Compromise on the health of the water body and surrounding ecosystem, as against, the benefits of the water-based tourism would have to be compared under a cost-benefit analysis.

If water-based tourism is developed, then for its maintenance, certain other activities carried out in that ecosystem would have to be controlled lest a repetition of Badhkal lake ecological disaster could happen because of unscrupulous mining or any other similar hazardous activity.

If tourism is to be developed in relatively unexplored and lesser developed areas, such as Aspirational Districts, the scale of the project would increase massively since even the basic infrastructure is lacking in most parts of these districts. Projects implemented by the government department or under PPP mode, through external assistance of multilateral institutions. The project would have to be developed in tandem with the forest laws and the rights of the forest dwellers/resident tribal population dependent on forests. It also needs to be studied first as to the reasons why even though some Aspirational Districts have certain tourist attractions which witness a decent inflow of tourists, yet they are not able to earn enough revenue from tourism for their development. For example, Gaya district in Bihar has been a popular destination for tourists traversing the Buddhist Circuit in India for many decades now. Yet it is among the most backward regions of India and is an Aspirational District.

Tourist places of religious importance require additional efforts for maintenance of water bodies. Water bodies which form part of religious festivities such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Aarti of Rivers, etc., must have special planning for waste management and specific budget allocation for post-festival restoration works. Construction of separate tanks may be considered for festivals that require immersion of any materials into the water body.

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It is probably better for the governments to understand and accept upfront that regardless of whether the tourism is developed by the government department solely or under PPP, the government will remain in deficit and should not aim for profits. Water-based tourism demands highly cost-intensive upkeep, so most of the revenue earned from tourist activities might have to be re-invested for operation and maintenance. But, development of tourism would potentially lead to the development of the entire region, which is one of the most vital responsibilities of the government. Initiation of tourism would spur economic activity in the area which would cause a chain reaction of sprouting of accommodations, food outlets, and other facilities for tourists, directly and indirectly generating employment. So in the long run, the development of tourism is a beneficial proposal if done properly at the right scale.

The post-pandemic world would see a dramatic shift in tourism practices. Now the assessment of carrying capacity of the tourist destination would have to factor in the aspect of social/physical distancing of people. Until the vaccination of coronavirus reaches the public, governments can conduct free rapid antigen tests at the entry points of the district/block where tourism is being developed. Governments will also have to strictly monitor that the tourist destinations, and lodging, food, and transportation facilities, are compliant with the safety standards as per the requirement of unlocking in the country. The potential of water-based tourism in India is massive but we consumers have to be attentive and respectful of the environmental concerns. Only responsible tourism can pave the way to a healthy co-existence.

[Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NITI Aayog, Government of India.]