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The alarming case of the dead fish

Red tape, environmental pollution or malicious poisoning… What is killing fish in Rawal Lake?

The alarming case of the dead fish

Scores of dead fish were found bloating in Rawal Lake a few days ago. Soon after the first sighting, Younas Enterprises that have the fishing rights, alleged that someone had poisoned the water to ruin their business.

Acting on the contractor’s complaint, the police have registered a first information report (FIR) against unidentified person(s) and have started an investigation. Since marine life in Rawal Lake is within the jurisdiction of Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration, it too, has sprung into action.

ICT Director Qaiser Khattak says that the capital city administration has established 10 security checkposts around the dam. Five officials from fisheries department, Small Dams Organization, and Police Department will monitor the dam, working in shifts. Ten officials from the Fisheries Department will be on boat patrol to monitor the activities of tourists, particularly those using boats.

A departmental inquiry has also been initiated to probe into the causes of fish mortality, although this is not the first event of the kind. Every year, since 2004, there are reports of large-scale fish mortality. However, the police and the fisheries authorities have so far failed to identify the causes or take effective preventive measures.

 

The first such incident was reported on June 19, 2004, when some small fish were found floating dead on the periphery of Rawal Lake. Since the lake was a drinking water source for Rawalpindi city and cantonment, the report was a huge cause for concern.

Two days later, the chief commissioner convened an emergency meeting attended by officials of Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA), the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Rawalpindi Contentment Board, the Capital Development Authority (CDA), the district health officer, the ICT director, the project director Small Dams and the Islamabad Fisheries Department.

According to a Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) report, the WASA managing director informed the meeting that water samples taken from the lake had been analysed at various laboratories and found safe for marine life. The WASA site laboratory had attributed the fish mortality to low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels (below 3mg/litre), and a sudden rise in water temperature.

The DHO informed the meeting that samples of water and fish carcasses tested at the National Institute of Health (NIH) for toxic chemical including arsenic and cyanide had revealed that these toxins were either below detection limits or well within permissible limits.

The meeting concluded on the note that all departments should coordinate with one another, monitor the situation and work closely in case of mishap.

However, there were similar reports over the following years. Nobody accepted the responsibility, apparently due to lack of coordination between the departments, involved. The issue was not pursued beyond the convening of these meetings.

 

Two years ago, the Fisheries Department awarded fishing rights to Bahadur Sher Afridi of Younas Enterprises. In 2017, when dead fish were reported, the contractor raised the issue at various platforms and claimed financial loss.

“This time the number of dead fish is low as compared to the previous year,” Imtiaz Ali Janjua, the Fisheries Department deputy director tells TNS. The police has sent samples of water and fish carcasses to the National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) for forensic tests.

“The causes will be determined once the reports are received,” he adds.

Janjua says the protection and monitoring of the dam water is the responsibility of the Small Dams Department as they get revenue from water sales to the WASA and others. “Our duty is limited to checking illegal fishing,” he says.

Requesting anonymity an official of the Small Dam Department says that the number of dead fish is inversely proportional to the volume of water in the dam. In 2017, the volume level was about 20,000 acre-feet and in 2018, 22,000 acre-feet. This year the volume is 28,000 acre-feet and the mortality rate a lot lower compared to previous years.

He says the contractor was sharing old photos with the administration and the media.

Muhammad Latif Mir, deputy director the Fisheries Department, observes, “Only one type of fish, the silver carp, die in these incidents. It is a very sensitive fish species and remains close to the water surface as dissolved oxygen levels drop in July and August.”

Mir says, untreated poultry waste thrown in the lake was polluting the water.

According to a Pak-EPA report, there are more than 170 poultry farms (about 360 poultry sheds) in the catchment area. There are some basic arrangements for disposal of poultry waste but those are unlikely to prevent or significantly delay the inflow of pollutants to the lake.

Aurangzaib of Younas Enterprises says that fish only died around the point and where Crush Nullah flowed into the lake. “Had the fish died due to a low oxygen level, they would have died in other parts of the dam as well?”

He adds that the stream from Bani Gala splits into two parts before entering Rawal Dam. “If it is pollution that is killing the fish, why do the fish on Mallpur Dam not die in such large numbers?” he asks.

 

Junaid Ahmed, the Rawal Dam sub-divisional officer (SDO), says, “The Small Dams Department is responsible for operations, and maintenance of Rawal Dam. However, our department is working with the Fisheries Department to solve this issue”.

He adds that the WASA had installed four filtration plants and had been monitoring water quality before and after processing. “Their reports were satisfactory”.

According to the Forensic Toxicology Analysis Report of the Punjab Forensic Science Agency, one sealed jar containing four fish was sent to them on July 27, 2018. Screening test for arsenic and mercury of these fish and qualitative identification test for drugs and pesticides were performed using gas chromatography mass spectrometry technique. The report stated that permethrin and cypermethrin were detected in one fish.

To a question regarding the NARC and forensic reports, Deputy Director Imtiaz Janjua says, no poisonous material or unnatural activity was detected. He adds the contractor was misleading the public and the media.

Qaiser Khattak, the ICT Director, also says that the contractor was spreading false information. He adds that the fishing contract had expired in February 2019 and the contractor wanted to build pressure on the administration to extend his lease.

Saiqa Imran, a senior officer at Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), says that the public body had conducted a study and found no poison or toxic material in the water. “Pollution and weather were the likely causes of such incidents.”

Dr Imtiaz, an environmentalist at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) says that water supplied in the twin cities as well as elsewhere in Pakistan was polluted. “It is the same as a slow poison.”

To a question regarding fish mortality in Rawal Dam, he says that if it was because of polluted water, it will also harm human life.

Imtiaz Ahmed, the investigation officer of the FIRs registered at Secretariat police station, says that the samples of water and fish were sent to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency for tests. “No one was identified in the FIR as a suspect. As such, no arrest have been made”.

However, he adds that the police were investigating the matter and interviewing local residents.

Arif Abbasi, the Rawalpindi Development Authority and WASA chairman, says that the WASA was monitoring water quality on a daily basis. “Water supplied to Rawalpindi was safe for drinking”.

Shehzad Yousafzai

Shehzad Yousafzai is a freelance journalist based at Islamabad. He is an investigative journalist writing on environment, marginalized community, governance and rule of law. He tweets at @TheShehzad

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