Water wars

Saturday 8th June, 2019

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Water wars Bengalurus citizens are fighting hard to save their lakes and avoid a dystopian future, reports Nikita Puri tsalittle after 8 am on a Saturday and the morning crowd of walkers and joggers is gathered at Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. Unlike other days, instead of going around the lake, they line up to sign on as volunteers who want to reclaim Ulsoor. More people join them. A family of four, having already signed up earlier, is staring down an aisle leadingto one of the many islands that dot the 123.6-acre lake. We need at least 500 people for this aisle alone, says the elderly gentleman in the family. And we need lorries, lots and lots of lorries, says his granddaughter as she walks where no jogger has gone before: a massive pile of plastics, paper cups, bottles and clothes that seem to have blended to become one single frightening entity. Soon, more people join the family. We had arranged for 100 garbage bags with the intention of reusing them, but we had to go out and get more, says Dhruv Nagarkatti, secretary, Halasuru Residents Welfare Association. No one had expected about 800 people to turn up early on a weekend to pick up garbage. But they did, and they came with families and friends. Some even drove for close to an hour for this. Two young girls patiently await their turn as the adults slip on gloves and face masks before stepping onto the waterfront to pick up trash. Children are not allowed to go in there, so we'll pick up the garbage from the walking areas, says one of them, Nitya, 10. Behind them, lake conservationist Anand Malligavad divvies people up in teams and tells them how to best segregate waste. Jal hai toh jeevan hai (If theres water, theres life), he says, speaking into a microphone. Bengalurws perennial source of water and at times, a cause of conflict with Tamil Nadu is the Cauvery that flows about 140 km away. That is why its many lakes and tanks, builtin the 16th century by the Gowdas (Kempe Gowda 1 established the citys limits), are so crucial to the city. But in the last few decades, factors such as untreated sewage and chemical pollutants have threatened to wipe these water bodies out. According to government records, the city had 262 water bodies in 1960. Over the years, bus stands, housing societies and stadiums covered many of these up. Eventually, only 81 water bodies remained and of these only 34 are recognised as live lakes. Some of them burned because of pollutants. Others frothed up like deceptive snowflakes. SO much so that the frothing and burning lakes became the unfortunate marker that put Bengaluru on the global map. City of burning lakes: experts fear Bangalore will be uninhabitable by 2025, reported The Guardian in 2017. Headlines such as this one had become almost routine in both international and local media. This would keep me up at ~ W 3 SAGGERE RADHAKRISHNA nights, so I left my job to save the lakes, says Malligavad. A mechanical engineer, Malligavad was previously the head of corporate projects for Sansera Foundation, a non-profit from Bengaluru. Hes on a sabbatical for five years to focus on lake rejuvenation projects. The plan is to save 45 lakes by 2025, he says. And hes well on his, with help from companies such as | Hewlett-Packard. Hes already sal vaged three lakes Kyalasanahalli, | Gavi Kere and Vabasandra. rs ! Tcameto Bengaluru from Koppal (a dry, drought-prone area). So many others have come here and brought houses next to lakes. If we lose this, where will we all go? asks Malligavad. When B Muthuraman, the former vice-chairman of Tata Steel, moved to Bengaluru in 2014 tothe house he had built six years ago, he was taken aback. Kyalasanahalli, the 36-acre lake in front of his house, had turned into a playground and a dump yard. Malligavad stepped in and knocked on some 200 doors to drum up manpower and resources. He restored the lake in 45 days. This was two years ago and Malligavad hasnt stopped since. His phone hasnt stopped ringing either. A number of citizenled trusts have come up to revive the citys lakes, and theyre all looking for effective solutions to tackle the issues plaguing the water bodies in their areas. F rom diverting storm water drains and setting F up sewage treatment plants to fighting off encroachments, the needs of the lakes vary. And so dothe solutions from making islands with fast-growing Japanese Miyawaki mini-forests to setting up natural filtration systems using water hyacinths (they should cover not more than 1525 per cent of the waters surface). These are not issues we can solve in one day, and it isnt something we can do all by ourselves, says Nagarkatti, talking about how heart THIS [HEADLINES ABOUT BENGALURU'S DYING LAKES] WOULD KEEP ME UP AT NIGHTS, SO | LEFT MY JOB TO SAVE THE LAKES ANAND MALLIGAVAD Lake conservationist, Bengaluru Citizen-led initiatives to clean up the Ulsoor (left) and Konasandra (below) lakes in Bengaluru ening it was to see people come out in such force for Ulsoors cleanup drive. Ulsoor still has a long way to go as over the years, storm water drains and heavy rains have pushed in alien items such as motorcycle parts into it. But it now has local residents on its side, as also the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, the municipality body) and companies such as the Prestige Group. Move across Bengaluru and one hears tales of the citys almost glorious water reserves. People from neighbouring villages would come to help us work on the paddy fields, which thrived next to the village bund. There was always so much going on, recalls one citizen who grew up on the citys outskirts. But the water levels in these once rich reserves haven't reached over 10 feet in decades. As a result, the paddy fields have long gone, as have the people who once lived there. The apartments around Iblur Lake have come up only in the last eight-nine years. Many who live around here haven't seen the lake in its good days, says Naresh Sadasivan, a member of Iblur Lake Forum, a citizens group. The highway and the roads to these new apartments swallowed up parts of the 18-acre lake. Others were lost to encroachment or became sewage pits unchecked by the local Bangalore Development Authority, then the guardian of the lake. In 2016, citizens such as Sadasivan and Mukund Kumar, a data scientist and community activism leader, convinced the BBMP to take over as the lakes custodian. Following collaboration between citizen groups, civic authorities and a non-profit called United Way Bangalore, Iblur Lake has since come a long way. Last year, about 1,500 truckloads of sewage-turned-manure were removed from the lakebed. Now, as a sewage treatment plant gets set up and the monsoon arrives, Iblur can have a second chance at life. It is essential for citizens to be closely involved with such projects, believes Sadasivan, who is an entrepreneur. This is a lesson that people across the city are fast learning. Citizens taking a backseat (With respect to | lakes) hasmt worked for us so far, says Priya Ramasubban, a Chennai-born filmmaker who found herself staring at a marshy dumpyard masquerading as the 48acre Kaikondrahalli Lake in 2008. The sight of thousands of orange and black dragonflies hovering there made her want to do something to bring the lake back to life. What followed were hours of meetings with civic authorities and efforts to mobilise the support of residents to collect funds. And in 2011, MAPSAS, an acronym for Mahadevpura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti, was formed. The committee was envisioned to partner with civic authorities in maintaining the lakes in the area. Four years later, the Niti Aayog recognised this as one of two successful lake rejuvenation projects in India (the other being Mansagar in Rajasthan). Yet, the battle to maintain the lake continues with potential encroachers seeking to claim its buffer zone. Only a few weeks ago, in a first-of-its-kind order, the National Green Tribunal directed the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to prosecute the land-grabbers. This sets a good precedent as a tide of citizen-led bodies fights similar battles. The struggle to rescue and reclaim the lakes is long and arduous, but victories such as these are keeping Bengalureans going.