INTRO: Today, 22 March, is World Water Day. To mark the significance of the day, USHA LACHUNGPA, profiles the only brackish water lake of Sikkim, Gyam Tsona, used to be the largest such water body in Eastern Himalaya until human interference reduced this ocean-like lake into a desolate puddle. Can this water body be restored to its earlier proud size, she asks, while detailing why this was necessary…
‘Gyamtso’ in Tibetan means ‘Samunder’ or ocean. ‘Mi - Do’ is Fire–Stone or flint stone. Check out the Kongra La ‘finger-tip’ on any map of Sikkim and you will see under it a spot called Mirdo and a lake named Gyam Tsona or Gayum Chhona. In the cold desert of Sikkim this lake along with Tso Lhamo and Gurudongmar Tso are the only three big water bodies that together with Khangchung Tso of Tista Khangse (Glacier) form the sources of River Tista. Flintstones found in the area are used to adorn tops of chortens by the native Tibetan nomads or Dokpas.
When I first visited the lake 24 years ago in 1988, a giant wave of immense homesickness washed over me. It was the sight of this enormous lake with wave after wave lashing the shores leaving foam on its edges. 20 years of sleeping to the sounds of the sea in Amchi Mumbai echoed way up here on the roof of the world!
A brackish water lake in our cold desert; the only remnant of the prehistoric Tethys Sea in this part of our world! What a privilege that it sits right at the top of Sikkim, crowning our glory! We were conducting a waterbird census for the Asian Waterfowl Count as part of an international effort to estimate migratory birds. On July 19, 1988 this lake had over 200 ducks; mostly Northern Pintails (140), Common and Tufted Pochards, Wigeons and Common Teals, sporting exuberantly like so many children at a picnic. Many of the birds were so far out ‘at sea’ that it was impossible to identify, let alone count them. We returned with an approximate count to send to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), coordinating the national effort. We also counted ducks at Tso Lhamo and Gurudongmar in this cold desert and over the next few years covered almost all the lakes in Sikkim. (Results were published in the Proceedings of the International Salim Ali Centenary Seminar 1996. Salim Ali was the famed Indian ornithologist who wrote for us ‘Birds of Sikkim’ in 1962.)
Other ‘Lesser’ Lakes: In East Sikkim near the Kupup village the Bedang Tso whose name seems to have originated from ‘Phaedon’ (in Bhutia) or Monal Pheasant according to Late Mr. Chezung Lachungpa IFS had the highest number of migratory ducks. Khecheopalri has this prestige in West Sikkim. However maximum counts never exceeded 40-60 birds. Many people had seldom seen even these numbers and the reaction of our Forest Guard Naku Lepcha on seeing about 30 Brahminy Shelduck huddled in one corner of ‘Phaedon’ Tso was typical. ‘Dyammai thiyo’!
Best stop-over site for Karaang-Kuruung in Sikkim: This means Gyam Tsona alone in Sikkim holds the record for maximum visitation by these internationally protected feathered bipeds. Under the international Ramsar Convention to which India is signatory, we are committed to protecting them. Gyam Tsona, Sikkim’s only lake with noisy waves had put us on the Waterbird Map of the World. This is surprising because the giant lake is fed by a small spring from the Mirdo catchment above it. Due to the short summer the catchment is usually under snow or ice most of the year. Perhaps there was a glacier underneath.
Gyam Tsona: a Historical Perspective: During the course of fieldwork on alpine grasslands in this area, we were the few fortunates able to stay with the shepherds and yak herders called Dokpas. Today there are not many graziers left on the Tso Lhamo plateau. The oldest of them, Late Dongkung Nyima (who passed away recently on 16 February 2012 at a grand old 89 years) informed us that earlier when the borders were not sealed, there was a trade route via Mirdo through the Kongra La to Tibet. When traders returned from the plains laden with goods, there were no vehicles and all luggages had to be carried physically or on donkeys or mules by those who could afford them. The changes in altitude made many of them sick. Their animals also suffered. By the time they reached Gyam Tsona some of the poorer ones used to get the ‘shakes’ and die of exposure. There was no time and seldom any lamas for the deceased to be given time honored sky burials (where after the ceremonies were performed, Himalayan Griffon Vultures and Lammergeiers came to dispose off the remains). This was not possible en route so the bodies were laid to rest into the lake and the people hurried on past Mirdo and Kongra La into Tibet. The dead animals were also given similar farewells. The lake was so large, with heavy waves and loud noise that it could be heard right down to Lhechen, the temporary Dokpa settlement, and it was all so normal.
Present Scenario: Today this area on the International Border is restricted territory and hence not accessible to the casual visitor. This is perhaps the main reason that has protected the rare wildlife in this pocket of Sikkim. The Indian Army stationed in the area certainly deserves commendation for this unanticipated outcome of their presence. They along with the peaceful Dokpas who are bound by religion to respect life are the only humans of whom wildlife is not afraid. Wild sheep called Tibetan Argali wander close to the camps and in winters go together with the yak and sheep!
Alien Pack Hunters: On the other hand, an increasing army of stray and feral dogs is slowly replacing the globally threatened Snow Leopard, Lynx, Pallas’s Cat, Tibetan Wolf and Tibetan Fox, all ‘Schedule-1’ protected, as dominant predators. Proliferating and living off camp food waste, they roam the cold desert today in increasing numbers and were even seen swimming into the now shallow waters of Gyam Tsona after Brahminy Shelduck ducklings or digging out and killing Himalayan Marmots from their burrows, even chasing down yak calves.
One of the three Sources of River Tista: Earlier countless waterbirds used to fill the lake in summers. They used to fly in large formations. Some, probably Bar-headed Geese, would lay eggs around the lake. Water from Gyam Tsona would flow out through a small valley via Kampe to add to the Tista near Dongkung. During periods of heavy snowfall, the snow would melt in summer to form a small freshwater pond beside the Tso. While most of the migrants were shy and used the larger lake, Ruddy Shelduck were bolder and would also visit the small freshwater pond.
How our Ocean was dried: However, sometime in 1999, the small feeder spring coming down from Mirdo to Gyam Tsona was blocked using bulldozers and water diverted to the pond via a man-made channel lined with metal sheet. A couple of years later the metal sheeting was removed but the diversion to the ‘Duck Pond’ remained along with the signboards. Without the Mirdo spring, its only lifeline, Gyam Tsona slowly began drying up over the last decade. First to go was the outlet to the Tista; the entire valley is now dry. In 2004 we saw vehicle tracks on the bed of the lake; fierce winds that blew waves just a few years ago now raised sand from the dry bed and bent a few grasses. During a summer visit we actually walked on the sandy bed looking for human bones and found some old bovid and canid bones. It was difficult to understand the need to divert the flow away from the lake since freshwater was any way being sourced from the Mirdo spring using pumps into water tanks on trucks, and more water was being trucked up from the Tista itself.
Is this the end? The old prehistoric Tethys Sea remnant lake which survived millennia before mankind has now been shrunk from around 75 hac to virtually nothing. White rings around its old edges stand mute witness to the dying lake reminding us of foaming banks just over a decade ago. Was this a brackish water lake? Despite being fed by freshwater Mirdo springs? The officials of the Geological Survey of India and Mines and Geology Department of the Government of Sikkim were approached for suggestions. Studies on these aspects, water quality, sand cores, could go on and on, but right now they do not seem as urgent as reviving this dying heritage lake of Sikkim, which today no longer feeds the Tista with its water of life. This is a big blot on the conservation ethics Sikkim is famous for.
The solution seems as simple as removing the physical obstruction damming up the original channel and letting the spring into its original course. All that needs to be done is to put the water back into its natural channel. It took a just few years for the lake to dry up due to man’s action. If set right now, it would take perhaps a few decades fill up, given the small size of Mirdo spring and the high radiation in this rarified land. The freshwater pond was seasonal and would always remain so, sometimes with water, sometimes without. It would still be a natural feature of the area. There really would be no need to further chop up the already fragile landscape to try channeling water from Lungma snowfields. Only that much freshwater from Mirdo spring can be drawn daily as required, letting the life-giving liquid flow in its natural channel the rest of the time.
SAVE GYAM TSONA: Year 2003 was the United Nations International Year of Freshwater, and the theme to support it on World Environment Day was Water - Two Billion People are dying for It! It called on each of us to help safeguard the most precious source of life on Earth - WATER. It would perhaps be fitting if during this International Decade on Biodiversity 2010-2020 and United Nations World Water Day 2012 the very people who depend upon its water for their survival could give the dying Gyam Tsona, one of the sources of River Tista and Sikkim’s highest lake, a new lease of life.