A Tale of Fire and Water: Bellandur Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Bellandur Lake, is located in the densely populated city of Bangalore. Once a healthy lifeline for its surrounding residents, both human and non-human, on the evening of 16th February 2017, Bellandur Lake caught fire.

But, how can that be? Water extinguishes not fuels fire, right?

Previously, Bellandur Lake was one of the oldest and largest lakes in Bangalore, enabling its neighbouring human residents to cultivate paddy, grow vegetables, and fish (over 400 fishing families used to live in this neighbourhood), and offering its non-human residents a home.

Rapid urbanisation has propelled Bangalore into India’s outsourcing and IT hub of 10 million people. About 40% of the city’s untreated sewage flows into Bellandur Lake every day; that is approximately 400-500 million litres. Residential and commercial activities in the region have resulted in increasing the silt deposition in the lake and have caused loss of underground water recharge. Urbanisation has changed the characteristics of the Lake from being a natural ecologically healthy Lake to an artificial reservoir of domestic sewage and industrial effluents. Now, this once bountiful lake finds its waters littered with a mixture of domestic and industrial waste.

With the banks of the lake becoming a convenient site for rubbish dumping and cooking oil entering the lake from untreated domestic sewage, the combined effect has been a lake that catches fire.

Four main locations where sewage enters Bellandur Lake. Source: Citizen Matters.
Fire on Bellandur Lake. Source: India Times.

Additionally, detergents present in the domestic sewage result in the formation of a foamy froth which has become a matter of concern for people residing in the Bellandur area. During the monsoon season, when large volumes of rainwater mixed with the sewage enter the lake, this foam forms at a greater rate. This froth, which may appear a sight to behold, has a pungent smell and causes irritation on contact with skin.

Snowy froth which floats up from Bellandur Lake into the surrounding area. Photo: Debasish Ghosh.

Bellandur Lake burns to be seen.

Evidentially, 30 years on unplanned urbanisation have taken their toll. Bellandur Lake exists as just one example of humanity’s struggle to protect its environment. A struggle faced on a global scale.

This once clean lake which offered both sources of income and recreation, is now toxic. Pollution has led to disappearance of native fish species in the lake. Wildlife which used to inhabit the area, kingfishers, kites, cobras, parakeets, and monitor lizards are now gone. With more and more residential areas springing up along the shores, more species will sadly disappear. The original habitat is in the process of being destroyed.

Kingfishers now found on the outskirts of Bangalore. Source: The Hindu.

But solutions are difficult to find.

Bellandur Lake does not completely come under one civic body. As a result, the Lake falls under the authority of multiple agencies and civic bodies, this has resulted in a lack of accountability.

Protests against the destruction of Bellandur Lake and its surroundings have been held for over 20 years. A group of people including lake and environment activists and residents are trying to preserve the Lake. Citizen Groups have been created to discuss and create awareness about the plight of Bellandur Lake. Bellandur Lake Citizen Group, for example, would like more lake oversight handed to private citizens.

The rejuvenation of Bellandur-Varthur lake involves, de-silting, treatment of wastewater through constructed wetlands and algae ponds, re-establishing inter-connectivity among lakes, banning alterations in the topography, and maintaining 30 m buffer zone around the lake etc. Yet efforts to desilting the south side are undone by there being no prevention of raw sewage water flowing into the lake on the north side.

If we do not make a conscious effort to protect our water bodies, we will lose them.

Water is a prime natural resource, a basic need for entire living systems on this planet. A precious natural asset.  

We must try our best to save these waters.


Velachery Lake: The centrality of water to sustainable urban development

By Lucy Gibson

“It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster…is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith, 2006:1)

While Neil Smith wrote these lines in respect to Hurricane Katrina, a similar perspective can be taken for the increasing occurrences of flooding in Chennai. Reflecting on the 2015 flood events, Sud (2015) noted that “climate change is not the only guilty party”. Certainly, climate change is one factor, but the scale of the disaster in Chennai was magnified by rapid urbanisation and a disregard for the importance of water bodies in town planning. For example, over 273 hectares of the Pallikarni marshland are now covered in buildings, the floodplain of the Adyar river is now Chennai’s international airport, and Chennai’s famous Information Technology and Knowledge Corridors sit atop wetlands and marshlands. Areas which would normally act as sinks for flood water are rapidly decreasing.

Velachery Lake is another example which shows that urban planning must consider the importance of water bodies for a more sustainable future.

Velachery is a growing residential area in southern Chennai. The growth of the neighbourhood can largely be attributed to the growth of the IT sector. However, this dramatic increase in the size of the urban population and consequent spatial expansion of residential areas have fundamentally changed the physical landscape for Velachery.

Historically, Velachery Lake was spread over 250 acres. Today, its water spread area has been reduced drastically by 80.5% with residential and industrial complexes now occupying the area. Due to its low-lying location, rainwater from neighbouring areas drain into Velachery Lake; however, every November, Velachery is flooded by monsoon rains. The reduced water storage capacity of Velachery Lake is a significant contributor to this flooding.

The encroachment of Velachery Lake (original size shown in yellow). Graphic: M. Iqbal Shaikh

The decline in the geographical size, physical, chemical, and biotic properties of water bodies have affected urban ecosystems, biodiversity, and the aesthetics of the landscape. Additionally, the occurrence of flood disaster during the monsoon seasons in Chennai must be correlated with the spatial allocation of water bodies. Approximately 650 water bodies have been destroyed in Chennai; compared to the city’s 2,847km of urban roads, there are only 855 km of storm drains.

Flooding in the Velachery area. Photo: ANI

Moreover, the master plans created by Chennai Metropolitan Area’s urban planners reveals the perceived insignificance of water bodies to the area’s urban development.

In fact, the area allocated for water bodies is negligible; while the area allocated for residential and institutional spaces increased by 23.27% from 1971 to 2009, the proposed Master Plan of 2026 makes no mention of the spaces covered by water bodies.

Additionally, Velachery Lake has suffered from the dumping of garbage and untreated sewage water into its waters, further reducing the storage capacity of the lake and polluting its waters. In 2018 the Chennai Corporation put a hold on the proposal for boat rides and other tourist facilities due to the high level of contamination of the water. With about 2,000 families living in the southern bund, and pipelines directed to the lake, the waste, high in organic matter, directly increased the chemical and biological oxygen demand in the receiving waters. The higher the chemical and biological oxygen demand, the greater the potential for damage to biological life living in the water.

Yet, there is great potential and urgent need to protect Velachery Lake from further encroachment and pollution, improve its the current conditions and safeguard the water body, and other water bodies, for future use. As of August 2020, to prevent the outbreak of any vector-borne disease the Chennai Corporation has started cleaning water hyacinth from the lake using an aquatic weed-cutting boat that helps cut underwater weeds, clear silt, and remove garbage. This work is currently being carried out on Velachery Chinna Eri, one of the two areas making up Velachery Lake

Weeds being removed from Velachery Lake. Photo: The Hindu

Urban water bodies are important natural resources. They act as flood moderators, serves as drinking water sources and recreation centres, but only if preserved properly. Water sector planning needs to be an integral component of metropolitan planning for the benefit of the future.

Without this, sustainable urban development will remain a distant thought.


Memories of a “thodu”

Of a childhood around a stream from the Manimala River in Kottayam, Kerala.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Conceptual representation based on data from Google Earth, of a small segment of the Manimala River flowing through Kottayam.

What must it be like to live in a place where our lives don’t seem too far removed from the beauty of nature? Where visiting a lake or a stream, and playing on its shores are not restricted to an occasional weekend trip, but is an after-school routine?

Years ago, I had found a friend in Haritha Balakrishnan, a singer and software engineer, during a visit to Kochi from my hometown, Chennai. On her laptop, I had come across a video of herself and her childhood friends playing on the banks of a stream, near her home in the outskirts of Kottayam; strutting along the shallow banks, pretending that it was a ramp. It seemed that all they had to do was, step out of their houses, and walk a small distance, to make this pure and serene pocket of nature theirs for a few hours daily. But these few hours, I was told, defined large parts of their memories of home. 

While she casually scrolled past it, the image of this evidently sustainable symbiosis of nature and life, never left my mind.

So, what must it really feel like to have nature commemorate moments of life and make even the ordinary parts seem extraordinary? It shouldn’t take much to respect it, and in return experience its kindness in severalfold, should it?

Haritha Balakrishnan’s narration of her memories around the stream near her home in Kottayam, inspires more such questions:

The beautiful village Haritha talks about is Vizhikkathodu, located in the outskirts of Kottayam, in Kerala. The thodu that is so precious to her, branches from the 91 Km long Manimala River; an important water way of Central Travancore.The river originates in the Muthavara Hills in the district of Idukki, and flows through Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, before it empties itself into the Vembanad Lake in the village of Kainakary in Alappuzha. In Kottayam, the Manimala river extends from Vaipur to Mundakayam. 

Course of the Manimala River in Kerala

Modern-day India continues to be home to hundreds of such rivers, lakes, and innumerable ponds and other smaller waterbodies; and yet, only some like Haritha, might have had memorable experiences around waterbodies on a daily basis, and may even continue to have them; while some others might have to watch these waterbodies being taken over by encroachment, draught, etc., and be faced with the choice of either fighting to protect them or simply hoping for a miracle. For the rest, these stories on life around waterbodies might seem as distant as a fairytale. Irrespective, we all yearn for a piece of it.

We welcome you to share your experiences around waterbodies and your aspirations for the forgotten waterbodies near you! Please write to lakesofindia@gmail.com.


Traces of the lost waterbodies

City of Chennai and the legend of the vanishing waterbodies

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Historically, waterbodies have marked the beginnings of many important civilizations. From the mentions of Mylapore as a great Pallava port, our pre colonial history as a fishing village, to the recently proposed archeological excavations on the Eastern banks of the Kosasthalaiyar; all confirm that Chennai and its outskirts were once such a bed, rich in culture, natural resources, and biodiversity. In modern urban environments, water bodies continue to play a primary role in helping the society sustain, by maintaining the ground water recharge, balancing the ecosystem, controlling temperature, and preventing floods. Thus, they continue to hold prominence amongst the factors that guarantee a healthy society.

However, in a bid to increase the urban area since 2000, an unbelievable degree of sprawl and encroachment have drastically modified the serene blue and green landscape of waterbodies and greenery in Chennai. This style of urbanization, that seems like an impulsive course of a real-time “Mine Sweeper” game, sweeps through the landscape radially from the coast to the inland; diminishing, and deteriorating waterbodies along the way through burgeoning blocks of buildings. Unlike the game, the consequences are experienced long after.

These severe modifications are reflected today in the impaired absorption capacity of waterbodies, the deteriorated quality of water, disturbed aquatic biodiversity, and the devastations caused by floods and droughts. It has also resulted in a majority of water bodies permanently disappearing from the landscape of the city; some leaving traces of their long-lost existence right under our feet. We experience them as residential, institutional, commercial, and recreational establishments, or even as roads and empty plots, that are annually under the threat of flooding. 

When waterbodies disappear due to encroachment, many at times, these encroachments or their surroundings face issues arising from poor drainage. One such encroachment can be observed in the video above, focusing on a location close to the Eastern limit of Chennai. Today, the consequences of the encroachment are reflected in a small way on stretch of land used as make-shift playground in this location; that annually transforms into a marsh between the months of September and December.

These anomalies in our urban landscapes, are the traces that remain of some of Chennai’s lost waterbodies, and they serve today, as reminders of the prominence that these waterbodies might have had in ensuring the sustainability of the city and the wellbeing of the users, had they been saved. 


Lost, but hopeful.

Buckingham Canal, Chennai.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

 The story of Chennai’s resilience and survival, has time and again, proved to be a reflection of mankind’s role in the existing natural and man-made physiographic features. Be it the monsoon flooding of areas built on lakes and marsh lands, or the weakening of the intensity of natural disasters by the strategic positions of natural and man-made waterbodies; our efforts in conserving, as well as in modifying the city’s landscape, has always played an important role. 

When it comes to surface drainage, the Greater Madras Area’s coastal physiography consisting of beaches, dunes, backwaters and lagoons, plays an important role through the aid of four main rivers:  the Araniar in the North, followed by Kosasthalaiyar River, Cooum River, and Adyar River in the South; all, largely flowing West-East. Meeting the Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, and Adyar Rivers is the Buckingham Canal, that runs parallel to the coast. Within the city, the Canal meets the Cooum River near the Central Jail, and continues South, before it intersects the Adyar River near the Greenways Railway Bridge.

This man-made Buckingham Canal, and the promises resting on its potential have existed for about two-hundred-years now. After the Canal was built in 1897, it served as an important water route and improved the connectivity of Madras to the other nearby trade centers. During the World War II, it is said that the boat traffic in the Canal, was at its peak. Today, although far from this narrative and largely seen as a lost space in the urban fabric of the city, the Buckingham Canal is still relevant through the role it plays in acting as a buffer against several natural disasters. It has been acknowledged that the intensity of devastations in the city, during the Tsunami of 2004 and the floods of 2015, were reduced by the Canal’s course, running parallel and within 5 Km of the coast throughout its entire length. 

Two of the four-parts, that make the Buckingham Canal one of the longest canals in the country, are steeped in rich history. The Northern part known as the Cochrane Canal, was originally a river called the “North River”, that was seen as a noteworthy geographical feature by the British. In the early 18thcentury, the stretch between this shallow river and the beach, was marked by six block houses which were said to have been built to delineate the northern boundary of the city. The same can be seen in the Wheeler map of 1733.

In talking about the course of this now-forgotten-river, historian and author S Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered says “…In fact, the course of the river was, almost throughout its passage, parallel to the sea – that is to the West of the Fort and about two kilometers from the coast. But in its last stage it changed course; at the south west corner of the present General Hospital grounds it bent back sharply on itself, then travelled northeast for about 800 yards to join the silted mouth of the Triplicane river.” Maps of the city, before the early 19thcentury, document this course of the North River.

A boundary map published in May 1794 by Laurie and Whittle shows the North River flowing parallel to the East coast,
before meeting the Triplicane River.

Source: http://www.davidrumsey.com

In this River, as detailed by author W Francis in Gazetteer of South India Volume 1, the first portion of the Buckingham Canal was built beginning in 1806, by Cochrane and his private enterprise. By 1837, the construction was taken over by the government. But, up until the great famine of 1876, only a small progress, costing about 5 lakh Indian Rupees had taken place. In 1876-78, the Great Famine of Madras, which is often seen as one of the darkest periods in the city’s history, became a driving factor that encouraged the completion of the second-part of the undertaking as famine relief work by the Duke of Buckingham. This today, is the 8 Km long stretch of the Canal linking the Cooum and Adyar Rivers. This stretch was later connected to the Cochrane Canal in the North and the South Coast Canal in the South. At the end of the construction, around 90 lakh Indian Rupees was spent on the Canal.

The Buckingham Canal in 1961.
Source: The Hindu archive.

The finished Canal, as envisioned, was a navigable water system interlinking other streams. It spanned over an expanse of 420 Km, with a 163 Km long stretch in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Andhra Pradesh. In its intact state, the Canal is said to have had a capacity of up to 5,600 cubic feet per second. However, after about a hundred years, a rapid decline in the purpose and maintenance of the Canal, transformed what could have been a solution to the extreme and alternating conditions of drought and heavy rainfalls in the city; into a squalid, incidental buffer reserved for natural calamities. 

Yet, as long as one can look at the Buckingham Canal, and can’t help but believe in all that it can be, not all hope is lost: On one hand, its indispensable positioning on the city’s map and its undeniable potential, have constantly placed it as a key feature in many urban development projects, since the beginning of this century. On the other hand, a common man’s hopes for the Canal, gives us, the people, the right and the responsibility of reviving it, one small step at a time. 

Let’s all do our best!


Gift of a Big Blue Heart

The Badrakali Lake, Warangal.

Sushmitta Renganathan

Representation of the natural form taken by Badrakali Lake.

If one looks up the city of “Warangal” today, Google Maps might show a stereo-typical green-grey landscape of a developing Indian city, cut through by roadways and national highways. But unlike the rest, at the center of Warangal is a clear blue heart that seems to be persisting amidst the bustle and growth of the city. Rightly guarded by three geologically significant granite hillocks, centuries-old temples, and a few small water bodies in its vicinity, is this heart shaped historic treasure called the “Badrakali Lake”.

View from the Badrakali Temple shows the North and North West bounds of the Badrakali Lake being defined by the Hanamkonda, Padmakshi, and, Shyampet Hillocks.

Said to have been constructed over a thousand years ago, the Badrakali Lake is a testimony to the Kakatiyan Dynasty’s time tested ‘Temple-Tank-Town’ system of urban development. While for a modern-day visitor, this Lake and its surroundings may seem like an unexpected reveal by the city, or even a surreal vision contrasting with those of the urban vicissitudes; For the people of Warangal, however, the Badrakali Lake continues to be a life-sustaining source of pride, identity, culture, livelihood, biodiversity, and so much more.

As the water levels lower, the uniqueness of the granite rock boulders along the shores come into view. The Badrakali Temple is a distant audience in this picture.

 This might even be attributed to what seems like an unwritten agreement dictated by the terrain, that leaves the shallow shores along the South, and South West of the lake to a growing marsh and its many nesting birds and mammals; While marking the North, North East, and West bounds of the Lake as centers of historical and cultural heritage. The chief elements include the Badrakali Temple, Padmakshi Temple, Rudra Temple, and Hanumadgiri Temple.

The Padmakshi Temple Pond as seen a day after a temple festival.

The nature of this set up turns the Badrakali Lake and its surrounding water bodies into indispensable sites of social significance. During festivals like the Bathukama Pooja, and Shakambari festival, the serenity of the Lake shifts to accommodate the festive spirit of the people. It watches on as an honorary spectator, passively voicing out its concerns through the discarded decorations and colorful pots, spilling from the mud roads to the shores the next day. This perennial cycle of activities, does not disrupt the purpose of the lake which continues to be the most important source of drinking water to the city. However, in the summer of 2018, a record low in the water levels of the lake was reported.

The Badrakali Lake and the role it plays in bolstering the historical, social, cultural, biological, and geological significance of the city, makes it a valuable gem not only in Warangal’s urban fabric, but also in that of our nation’s. For over a thousand years, the Badrakali Lake has stood true to its purpose of creation by mankind. The responsibility of sustaining this gift, however, has always rested on more than just nature’s shoulders. Exactly as this historic marvel was conserved and passed on to us, it is now our responsibility to preserve its glory and carry it forward for at least another thousand years.

Lakes of Hyderabad

Guest Contribution: Students of St. Michael’s School (Alwal)

Kushi Shah, VI A

Sanhita, VII A

Rimaa Saai

Bhavya Shree V., VII F

We thank the St. Michael’s School and it’s teaching staff for supporting this effort!

Volunteer for India and her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind

E.F.I’s Koladi Lake Restoration had a surprise guest

Environmentalist Foundation of India (E.F.I) thanks Hon. Min. Thiru K. Pandiarajan for visiting and encouraging E.F.I’ s ongoing Koladi Lake restoration efforts.

A collaborative conservation effort between the Tiruvallur District Collectorate and E.F.I under Project Mummari. We thank Tmt. Mageswari Ravikumar, IAS (Tiruvallur District Collector) and the Tiruvallur Dist. for the administrative support.

We thank the Rotary Club of Madras for funding this restoration.

Exciting conservation plans for this lake in store, so do stay tuned!
Volunteer for India and her environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind.

The Alleri Restoration: Lake in an industrial zone revived

The Alleri Lake restoration in a GIF

Located within the M.E.P.Z, the Alleri is an important water body located between the larger Kadaperi and Thiruneermalai lakes. Over the years, due to urbanization and industrialization, the lake witnessed massive pollution thereby leading to loss of habitat characteristics and freshwater quality. Through a collaborative conservation effort between
M.E.P.Z, DXC Technology and
the Environmentalist Foundation of India (E.F.I),
the lake has now been scientifically revived.

The lake post restoration was inaugurated by H.E, the governor of TamilNadu Thiru. Banwarilal Purohit on the 8th of February. An effort aimed at dedicating the lake back to nature. 

To know more about this lake restoration, read here!

Volunteer for India & her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind

HUDA’s effort for Green Hyderabad

On 26th July 2004, at 10 AM Hon’ble CM of Andhra Pradesh, Dr Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy launched the “ONE DAY TWO LAKH plantation” program at Gandiguda Reserve forest in the outskirts of Hyderabad city. (With all the green drives taken in the last eight years, there is no space left inside the city to take up such large area for plantation!) . In a short time the 10000 children who had been mobilized there for the plantation program planted the 30000 healthy one-to-two meter tall seedlings of useful species like Neem, Amla, tamarind etc in the already leveled, ploughed and prepared 30 hectares of denuded reserve forest land.

In a concerted, co-ordinated operation, acting on a cue over the walkie-talkie, another 20000 teen-aged school and college students stationed in the neighboring Mansoorabad, Shamirpet, Agapalli, Madhapur, Kondamandugu and Ravalkol degraded reserve forests planted the remaining healthy 1,80,000 seedlings to make it a ONE DAY TWO LAKH plantation program.

This would certainly be a world record for the number of plantations taken up in a single day by any organization. As if to shower blessings on the efforts taken by HUDA and the children, heavens sent its greetings as heavy cloudburst, after four hours, giving sufficient time for the young green ambassadors to scamper to the shelter of their schools! The rains before and after the plantation, with a window of dry spell for ten hours during the actual plantation program was seen by many as a sign of the heavenly intervention to support HUDA’s effort to Green Hyderabad.

For a more detailed report on the lake improvement efforts, take a look at this report!

We at E.F.I congratulates Shri. Asok Kumar ji from the National Water Mission and HUDA on it’s wonderful efforts to conserve Hyderabad’s environment and also for sharing this article with us!

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Volunteer for India & her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind.