Restoration of small lakes through cooperative management: A suitable strategy for poverty-laden areas in developing countries?
Lake Rupa is a small, subtropical, shallow lake with a surface area of 100 ha situated 600 m a.s.l. in Central Himalaya, Nepal. This degraded lake was studied between 2000 and 2006, with the goal of determining whether or not it could be restored by a community-based cooperative of local people living in its catchment. Main threats to the lake, its aquatic life and its very existence include encroachment by excessive aquatic vegetation, sedimentation, and low in-lake concentrations of dissolved oxygen (DO). Small lakes (≤ 500 ha) are relatively prone to the process of ‘succession and climax’, although they also can be of social, environmental and ecological importance. Thus, their disappearance could spark social chaos and disorder in areas already having to cope with other rapid environmental changes. This means that credible mechanisms for revitalizing or protecting small lakes are an important goal. Accordingly, a lake cooperative of 329 households living in close vicinity to Lake Rupa was formed in 2002, by prioritizing traditional fishers, women and other deprived community members with the goals of respecting the citizenry and equity. Following the cooperative's campaigns directed at weed removal and fish stocking, encroachment of vegetation on the lake margins was halted, its aquatic weeds became under control, and its fisheries improved. In addition to the cooperative's restoration activities, several water quality parameters, including water transparency and DO and chlorophyll-a concentrations, were monitored on a monthly basis. The measured water transparency was inconsistent, exhibiting large variations between 2000 and 2003. Relatively low, but consistent, values, however, were measured after 2004. The results imply that the removal of weeds, and sufficient nutrients and solar radiation are subsequently available to the lake's phytoplankton communities. Supporting this notion is that the chlorophyll-a concentration spiked to 205 µg L−1 in November 2006, the water transparency became consistent, and the DO concentration increased to >3.8 mg L−1 during the critical months (March–May) after 2004. These water quality indicators indicated improvement in the degraded Lake Rupa, suggesting that the establishment of cooperatives such as that highlighted in this study could be a powerful and sustainable mechanism for restoring degraded lakes in similar socioeconomic settings by maintaining equity, by connecting communities with their resources, and by facilitating integrity, equity, citizenry and social justice.