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What Hyderabad's heritage water bodies have to do with the city's flooding woes

It was Chennai last year, Bengaluru earlier this year and Hyderabad just recently.

No, we are not talking about the biggest exporter of IT in south India but listing the cities which bore the brunt of monsoons due to sheer negligence and inability to protect the already existing eco systems.

Take the case of Hyderabad, the crown jewel of Telangana and the bone of contention in the acrimonious bifurcation with Andhra Pradesh. Steady erosion of lakes and indiscriminate encroachment of its water bodies with blatant disregard to rules, have left it vulnerable to heavy flooding in case of excess rainfall puncturing its claims of being a global city. Ironically, the Hitec city, home to some of the biggest companies in the world including Facebook and Google, was among the worst affected areas.

 What Hyderabads heritage water bodies have to do with the citys flooding woes

This September, heavy rains caused severe flooding in Hyderabad. Image from PTI

The recent rains share a tale similar to many of our ‘metros’— severe flooding of residential areas, streets resembling streams with boats on standby and in case of Hyderabad, high-end villas costing upwards of Rs 2.5 crores, flooding with knee level water.

As the city grew unbounded from the early '90s, the land use changed from agriculture to urbanisation without taking into account the hydrology of the area. Encroaching upon accumulation points resulted in streams getting disrupted, and building in buffer zones was the final nail in the coffin. When the land category changed, the understanding of the revenue and irrigation department resulted in areas adjoining nalas, catchment areas and full tank levels being filled up with malls, convention centers and gated communities. That the city has received scant rainfall in the past five years added to the indiscriminate building spree.

To understand the plight of water bodies in the city, it is important to know that Hyderabad has a chain link system in its eco bodies where the lakes and tanks were created in such a way that the outflow from one lake became the inflow for another lake, the excess water from the last source flows into the Moosi river which is a tributary of River Krishna. The system was used by the Qutb Shahis and the Nizams, which ensured that each lake had its own checks and balances against the vagaries of nature. Dr Lubna Sarwath, co-convenor of Save Our Urban Lakes (Soul), a citizen’s initiative to save the cities lakes, laments, “We got everything on a platter, all we had to do was maintain the structure of the eco system intact but we failed abysmally to do that. There is a complete lack of good faith and proper application of mind and methodology on part of the babudom.”

The inundation this year was caused by multiple factors — the foremost is that the silt deposited in the water bodies, which reduces the holding capacity of the lake, wasn’t cleared. The perimeters of the lakes are full of landfills further constricting them and the inflow channel of almost every lake is choked with construction debris and solid waste. The pre-monsoon checks to clear the catchment areas or inlets are buried under official commissions and omissions.

Indeed, the lackadaisical attitude of those responsible is evident in the fact that the GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) website, does not even have a list of water bodies on its exhaustive page, one has to go to the HMDA site to get access to them! Also, there are huge discrepancies in the methodology of listing lakes by HMDA which has two lists — notified and identified. Notified is the point of first entry which after authentication makes it to the identified list. While the former has 2857 lakes, the latter has only 1586 with many lakes are missing from either or all the lists. Dr Anant Mariginti, director of Hyderabad Urban Lab, says government agencies do not have the necessary data to tackle the challenges. He says, “The last time substantial urban planning data for Hyderabad was created, was in the 1960s and that data holds very little relevance today. Crucial records relating to water bodies have gone missing in hundreds of cases. What can anyone do without accurate data?”

A warning sign was raised a couple of years ago when the licenses of the fishing community living near the lakes were revoked and never issued again. Due to the alarming increase in pollution and complete absence of dissolved oxygen the only surviving aquatic life was the carcinogen-filled catfish which resulted in the loss of livelihood to fishermen and had an immense socio-ecological impact. A simple example speaks volumes about the threats lakes in the city faces. Located in the heart of the IT hub in Hitec city is the Durgam Cheruvu built by the Qutbshahi kings and known as the Secret Lake as it was nestled between hillocks. What could have been a great tourism destination — like the water parks in Malaysia — is now a stinking mess filled with hyacinth and sewage, with the lake losing 35 acres in the past decade and half. The unique ecology of the city ensured that the excess water from Durgam Cheruvu flowed into the downstream Malka Cheruvu but landfills and constructions have cut them off from each other. Official apathy combined with complete disregard for rules ensured that the lake today is a stinking simmering mess.

Land fills inside the Mir Alam Tank. Photos courtesy the writer

Land fills inside the Mir Alam Tank. Photos courtesy the writer

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Two glaring examples of heritage water bodies showcase us the extent of negligence:

  1. The Mir Alam Tank, built in 1806, was the principal source of water to Hyderabad before Osman Sagar and Himayath Sagar, spread over 700 acres. Folklore says that the Nawabs of the city used to carry its water, famed for its sweetness. Today, though it is the chief source of water supply to the popular zoo nearby, the zoo officials prefer to buy drinking water from outside because of the high levels of contamination. The two existing water bodies in the zoo premises also lie unused. Interestingly an RTI reply in 2014 showed that 6.9 crores were spent on a ‘beautification drive’ including creating walkways and illumination while the lake remains covered in hyacinth (as Google maps clearly show). The ground water remains critically polluted with industrial waste and sewage and the total areas has now shrunk to 300 acres. The sewage treatment plant is currently dysfunctional.
  2. Hussain Sagar, the mother of all lakes in Hyderabad with its trademark Buddha statue, was built in the 16th century. Old timers in the city tell tales of swimming and catching fish but now an overwhelming stench ensures that visitors flee while driving around its bund, known as Tank Bund. To quote an excerpt from The Glimpses of The Nizam’s Dominions, by A Claude Campbell, published by CB Burrows, c/o William Watson & Co., Bombay & London, 1898, “The Bund is liberally lighted at night time, and the traveller who arrives at Hyderabad after nightfall cannot fail to be struck by the brilliant manifestation of civilisation, which present themselves by the gay appearances of this promenade.” It further adds, “The lake is principally fed by a canal, about 36 miles in length, which runs from the Moosi river higher up than Hyderabad. There are several pleasure boats, both sailing and rowing, upon this charming sheet of water.” Such charming anecdotes are relegated to the past with the lake choking currently on waste and sewage. A report on the Hussain Sagar Lake submitted by the special committee appointed by the Supreme Court in both 2005 and 2010, clearly mentions the encroached area — a multiplex, memorials for the former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Chief Minister NTR apart from the parking spaces, an MMTS railway stations, food courts and promenades. Even the Kirloskar committee suggested de-silting and (removing) nala encroachments but no action was even taken. From 6,160 acres originally, it is now a third of its former size. The historic lake is today a dumping ground for Ganesh idols during Ganesh Chaturthi and with many of the aesthetic 21 original vents damaged, cleaning up the lake is a task as big as cleaning up the Ganga.

While the recently flooding has had the government making the right noises with the CM’s son and KTR, Minister for Information Technology, Municipal Administration & Urban Development even giving orders on Twitter, the demolition drive is strictly symbolic with the bigger culprits obtaining stay orders. With the government occupied with the state festival Bathukamma (a festival of flowers in Telangana) and reorganising districts afterwards, it seems unlikely that Hyderabad will witness action as in Bengaluru any time soon.

So, can we save the historic city of Hyderabad, currently in its 425th year of existence, for future generations? Yes, says Dr Lubna and rattles off her recommendations, “Firstly we need to, geo-spatially map watershed area of Moosi river — depicting the chain-linked lakes that drain into the river — in terms of lake boundaries, inflow and outflow channels to ascertain its synchronisation with the actuals on ground, and this is the most opportune time. Secondly, sanctity of catchment of every lake needs to be upheld. Decentralised ward wise handling of industrial, sewage and solid waste is imperative.”

Simple measures like ensuring water treatment at religious centers like masjids and temples will also take pressure off the existing drainage system. An important demand is also the GO 33 passed in 2012 to be adopted, it categorised buffer zones for all lakes more than 10 hectares as 30 metres, and for those less than 10 hectares as 9 metres, and for fencing to be done outside of buffer zone.

Dr Maringanti advocates starting from clearing up obstructions to smaller streams and nalas. However, he adds, “There is a problem at the implementation level as the officials and local people are both not paying attention to detail. You cannot protect water bodies without changing this.” He adds, “While reclaiming land has been happening since time immemorial, the reckless pace of it is unsettling.”

Indeed, with the heat-island concept increasingly applicable in our metros, one would hope that measures be taken to improve the eco system or simply pray that the rain gods disappear in action!

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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2016 08:55:02 IST