Could We Look To The Past To Ease Water Stress?
Waterways and natural bodies of water are essential not only to life itself but how many people in the modern world live and do business within it.
It is not only important from an idealistic perspective to protect waterways, preserve nature and ensure that rivers and seas are safe for people and animals alike, but easing water stress is essential, if not outright mandatory for many businesses to continue functioning at all.
Most people, either consciously or otherwise are aware of this, which is why companies will prioritise their business water suppliers, particularly in industries where water is required for more than employees.
With climate change causing greater stress on water infrastructure than at any other point in history after the Industrial Revolution, authorities and businesses alike are working on methods to preserve important water reserves and reuse as much water as possible.
However, alongside advanced technology and improved governance to avoid devastating leaks and wasteful use of existing water sources, could there potentially be lessons to be learned from historical irrigation techniques to not only preserve but revitalise water sources?
An Indian mechanical engineer believed so strongly that this was the case that he staked his career on it.
The Lake Man
The story of Anand Malligavad begins in a way that blends near-tragedy with farce.
Mr Malligavad was a mechanical engineer and self-described “techie” who worked at car parts manufacturer Sansera Engineering at an office based in Bengaluru (the official name of Bangalore), the third biggest city in India.
Whilst taking a break from the office and walking by one of Bengaluru’s many lakes, he slipped and fell in, and whilst struggling to safety, he noticed that the worst part of the experience was not nearly drowning but the utterly foul stench of the water.
After being soaked in a mix of plastic debris, construction detritus and sewage, he hurried back home, only to be turned away by a guard due to the way he smelled.
Mr Malligavad, who was already campaigning to save and secure Bengaluru’s waterways, which had dwindled from 280 in 1960 to less than 80 by the mid-2010s, decided to take action.
The very next day, he made a bold proposal to his paymasters that if they funded his work, he would restore the 36-acre lake he fell in.
As he had no experience, no qualifications in water management or the complex ecosystems at play, Sansera turned down his proposal initially, but he would not be thwarted.
After six months of studying ecology and lake management, he managed to win a corporate social responsibility grant after an effective pitch, which gave him just under £100,000 to use to restore the lake.
Given that water infrastructure projects often cost millions of pounds, this was not a lot of money, but with the help of hundreds of workers, a dozen excavators and careful study of maintenance-free methods of managing the waterways, he managed the unthinkable in just 45 days.
He removed the plastic and waste, created five islands with the mud dredged up and opened the blocked channels of the lake, which would pay dividends after the monsoon season six months later.
The water was clean, was filled much higher and this filtered down into groundwater reserves.
After clearing three more lakes alongside his day job, he resigned and became a full-time lake conservationist, and in the seven years since that first lake in Bengaluru has restored 35 more lakes and the communities surrounding and dependent on them.
This added 106 gallons of water capacity to the city and raised the height of the groundwater level by as much as eight feet.
Mr Malligavad is determined to do more, and try to restore as many historic lakes as possible in a region that had over 1800 historically.
All of this has given him a reputation as “The Lake Man of India”, but are there lessons to be learned in his methods and methodology outside of South India?
The Chola Dynasty Method
Mr Malligavad’s methodology is highly inspired by the Chola dynasty dating as far back as the third century BC and reaching its height in the middle of the ninth century AD before falling apart in 1279.
During this time, they constructed a self-sustaining network of irrigation lakes using a series of carved stones to trap sludge and silt, meaning that the lake did not need as much external treatment to keep healthy.
The Chola dynasty used other methods as well, including separate lagoon channels for filtering silt and rubbish away from the parts of sewage that could be used as fertiliser.
There was also a method described as “ridges to river”, which used a series of cascading mud walls that carried excess water to other lakes in lower areas to ensure they were also well-supplied, with the flow providing water for farmland along the way.
As well as this, there is a focus on wider biodiversity, planting trees native to the region along the lakeside to create a symbiotic system that helps preserve water during times of water stress and avoid problems that can come from flash flooding by providing natural defences.
The lakes themselves and the surrounding area do not bake in the same way, which allows water to be quickly absorbed back into the ground even during monsoon seasons.
The lakes also have species native to the region returned to the now-clean water to create a thriving, teeming ecosystem.
The process is very intensive and region-specific, even if it typically gets results in just a few months at a much lower cost than other methods.
It requires community engagement at a local level with people directly served by the lake needing to buy into the rejuvenation, it also involves dealing with administrative complexities and problems surrounding land ownership.
However, these are not unsolvable issues and the benefits are huge, not only in the direct local area but other parts of the water ecosystem.
As Mr Malligavad noted when discussing the infamous toxic foam emitted from certain lakes, the water bodies are interconnected, and cleaning the larger lakes involves taking care of all of the watercourses and bodies that feed into them.