Mukta Naik

Late in the 1980s birding enthusiasts in the city of Mysore, located 140 kms southwest of India’s IT capital Bangalore, noticed a sickly green coating grow over the surface of the lakes they frequented. Awareness about the ill effects of pollution was growing and they began to worry about their city. Particularly, they worried about the wetlands and water bodies that they saw as critical habitats for wildlife and birds. They were pained by the increasing amount of raw sewage that was finding its way into these waters as the city grew.

Urban water bodies in trouble

This isn’t anything new; it is the story of water bodies in cities across India. The mighty Ganga in Kanpur is a repository of industrial waste. Further downstream, India’s spiritual nerve centre Varanasi empties its sewage into the same holy waters that pilgrims dip into. If this is the fate of the Ganga, considered sacred by millions, what hope is there for other waters? Worse still, many urban water bodies have run dry and been built over. Rapid urbanisation and poor management of water resources has ensured that, in most Indian cities, access to clean water is a constant struggle.

Mysore, now home to nearly a million people, faces the same issues; with a few critical differences. Historically, Mysore was the capital of a significant kingdom. Like many great historic capital cities in the world, Mysore’s rulers built in a robust water supply and management system. The city’s significant water bodies like Lingambudi, Karanji and Kukkarhalli are large man-made lakes and reservoirs, built over time for the purposes of water storage for the city as well as to irrigate surrounding farmland. The city had this legacy of several existing lakes to build upon, though unfortunately today only five out of an original 30 lakes survive. More importantly, Mysore was a city small enough for concerted citizen action that brought enormous pressure on government authorities to act in time to save these precious resources for the city.

First victory: Consistent citizen pressure yields results

U N Ravikumar, a well-known environmentalist, has been at the forefront of this activism. He takes us back to that point in time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when this concerned group of citizens mulled over what they could do to save the water bodies in their city. Realising that protests were not going to take them far, they decided to act systematically, pressing the government to act by gathering authentic information and engaging in dialogue. “Mysore is a small city where things can happen,” Ravikumar says and one of their first targets was pushing the then Deputy Commissioner for protective action for the water bodies. “We advocated for an ecosystem-based approach, rejecting the big engineering approach that favours concrete paving that is prevalent around the country.” In 1999 and 2000, in what Ravikumar refers to as the “litmus test”, civic and environmental groups came together to advocate for the diversion of a planned Ring Road that was funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and would bifurcate the Lingambudi Lake. By conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment of the Ring Road project, citizen groups were able to bring the gross environmental violations to ADB’s notice and divert the course of the road.

With this early victory, activism related to Mysore’s lakes picked up speed. Many NGOs jumped into the fray. A Citizen Monitoring Committee was set up for Lingambudi Lake and a Citizen Agenda for Lakes was also drafted in 2001.

Case of Lake Karanji: Reviving not just the lake, but the entire ecosystem

However, activism is as much about opportunity as about effort and the next chance to make an impact came in 2010 in the context of another water body, Karanji Lake. Adjacent to the Mysore Zoo, Karanji offered the perfect opportunity to bring the wilderness into the city. Finding a receptive administration, citizen groups once again worked with the government to take a number of steps to restore the lake. Legal intervention was needed to ensure that water in the nalla (drain) joining the lake was treated. A constructed wetland was introduced at the point of entry that used bacterial culture to clean the water before it enters the main body of the lake. “Today, the lake is managed seasonally. Weeds are removed twice a year, fishing is done with special nets so that only fish above 2 kgs are captured and so on. It has taken a decade and half of effort, but we now have a good managed system supervised by a technical advisory committee,” Ravikumar says proudly. Water activist S Vishwanath describes Karanji as “the only urban lake in the country that has a sign that says ‘Beware of crocodiles’!”

Karanji Lake, a massive 90-hectare expanse of water, is located within Mysore City adjacent to the Mysore Zoo. Restoration efforts have been so successful that there are more species of birds outside the Zoo’s aviary than there are inside!

The movement has gained momentum of its own. Six lakes were restored last year, with a focus on protection, construction of wetlands and recreation of the tropical forest. Mysore’s water bodies now support a rich ecosystem home to between 160 to 220 species of birds, including many migratory ones. The city’s experience showcases an approach to lake conservation that does not stop at beautifying water bodies to create urban spaces, but takes into account the environmental ecosystem. “Revitalising urban water bodies using a purely engineered approach that emphasises beautification alone is aesthetically appealing, but gets boring after some time. We wanted to show an alternative that allows city dwellers to experience the real beauty of nature,” explains Ravikumar.

Communication essential to scaling lake conservation across cities

Mysore’s residents are very proud of their restored lakes that are clean and beautiful, educational in value and also open to all citizens regardless of class. Kukkarhalli Lake, for instance, is now a walker’s paradise. Ironically, many of these walkers are not really concerned about the ecosystem.

S Vishwanath strongly believes that effective and well-designed communication is an important next step. He is hopeful about the future because of the many transformative efforts related to urban water bodies in small and medium Indian cities like Bhuj, Coimbatore, Erode and in cities across Kerala. Activists do need specialised energy to go to the Courts and demand protection, but once that happens, he feels that a wider group of citizens can come in to become stakeholders and bring about change. “We need to bring in communication designers to send out a strong message, rope in school children and college goers, bring in community as volunteers to do things, bring in researchers to study these efforts, create a vibrant dialogue. For example, Karanji Lake should have signage that explains to visitors that what they see and experience is the end result of a series of events,” he says. Citizen engagement with urban water bodies is the key to sustainable water management, and a vital step ahead in ensuring water security and quality of life.

Banner photo by Nvvchar
Photo 1 by Steve Hicks
Photo 2 by International Rivers
Photo 3 by Nagesh Kamath

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Categories: Food Security, Livelihoods, Resilience, Water