Reviving a lifeline

Reviving a lifeline

Breathing FResh LIfe: (Clockwise from above) Hirehalla in Koppal district after one month of cleaning; volunteers clearing trash and weeds in the stream; earthmoving vehicles are used to accelerate the process.

Before sunrise, standing on a small bridge across Hirehalla, a tributary of River Tungabhadra in Koppal district, Gavimath pontiff Abhinava Gavisiddeshwara Swamy gestures toward banks. A dark slurry with floating bits of plastic, cloth and rubber slowly passes downstream. As he gestures, an earthmoving machine operator quickly gets into action to clear the trash. The pontiff enters the barren tributary and starts cleaning with his hands in another stretch, while enthusiastic youths follow him. The cleaning work goes for about eight hours.

He returns to the Mutt for discussions with water conservationists to bring life into the parched tributary. After the dusk, he visits villagers making presentations about what has polluted Hirehalla and about its rejuvenation. This silent ecological revolution in Koppal is creating ripples in neighbouring districts too.

Joining hands

The Namma Nade Hirehalla Punashchethanada Kade (our steps towards Hirehalla rejuvenation) campaign is perhaps, the determination of a group of young volunteers under the leadership of Gavimath to resuscitate a dead tributary. Recurring drought and a chronic shortage of water steeled the pontiff’s resolve, so also of people in the region.

Hirehalla Development and Water Conservation Trust has also been formed for the rejuvenation purpose. 

However, the initiative began on March 1 which opened the floodgates towards supporting the rejuvenation effort across the region.  

An earthen dam was constructed near Mudlapur village in 2002 where two rivulets Hirehalla and Veerapurhalla confluence. From there, the flows towards the south for about 24 kilometres and meets Tungabhadra river near Katralli-Dambralli village.

Ten villages lie to its right side while 11 to its left, besides Koppal town. In the past, Hirehalla met the water requirements of about 2.5 lakh people in these areas.

The first death knell for Hirehalla was sounded by Prosopis juliflora, a shrub from North America, which was planted for the first time in barren lands of the Hyderabad region in 1878. The shrub prevented the growth of other vegetation while affecting the surrounding water source.

Of the one crore litre water consumed daily by Koppal, about 40% is discharged into Hirehalla through drains after use. Hazardous industrial effluents are also directly released at Bhagyanagar. 

Hirehalla slowly choked due to illegal sand mining, fish and aquatic life disappeared, and the once-gurgling stream was reduced to a narrow cesspool.

Unscientific use of water and natural resources have turned the catchment area into a water-stressed dust bowl. Disruption of natural groundwater recharge mechanisms has disabled the tributary from replenishing itself. 

Tonnes of garbage and debris are strewn everywhere as a thin stream of visibly filthy water passes underneath near Koppal town. 

“As the size of the tributary shrunk, all types of trash and plastic wastes were dumped into it. At Madinur, Hirehalla’s width is 150 metre, while it reduces to 70 metres before it meets Tungabhadra river,” Water Conservationist, Shivanand Kalave says in his report on Hirehalla Rejuvenation Project. 

“We should realise the consequences of unsustainable extraction of groundwater and destruction of the catchment area that dried up the water body,” M B Patil, deputy director, Department of Agriculture, actively involved in the project, explains.

For him, the revival process is an attempt to improve the socio-economic lives of the people entwined with the water bodies. About 50 large excavators, 15-wheel loaders, 12-wheel dozers, 35 tractors, a tipper and a team of over 100 men have cleaned up a 21-kilometre area so far using the latest technology.

“The cleanup efforts were inevitable due to the virtual assault on the region’s natural systems,” explains Sanjay Kotabal, an auditor.

“We’ve removed weeds, toxic waste, algae and plastic that had lodged solidly in the bed. We will dredge the water of pollutants and debris dumped over the years. We are deepening and widening the stream,” he says.

There are plans to create a system to recharge shallow aquifers, inject wells to recharge deep aquifers and improve the water table in the catchment areas. There will be structures to hold the water for more time to allow percolation, leading to increased soil moisture. Two bunds of 20 feet high on both sides with pathways and check dams wherever necessary will be constructed to control soil erosion and to slow down the pace of rainwater flow on stream paths.

Water-recharge wells and injection wells will come up at scientifically identified locations so that groundwater is recharged in the catchment area. Riverfronts will be created by planting one lakh saplings on each side of the bank.

“The project will recharge over 10,000 borewells, lakes and wells. Backwaters of the Tungabhadra reservoir may be lifted and flowed to check dams and lakes in the neighbourhood if there is drought,” he says. 

The initiative will irrigate about 20,000 acres of dry land and end water woes in 30 drought-prone villages. The project will also reduce the siltation of the Tungabhadra river.

Preparations are in progress to ensure water will flow through the rivulet again the monsoon season.

Hopes ahead

“The attempt is providing people in the region a tipping point to bring back life into the tributary. Though it is a long-term process, it is a lasting solution to restore the ecosystem,” says the pontiff. The project has been taken up on the true spirit of inspiring bottom-up democratic change and community partnership.

It is surely a unique example in community ownership where villagers are responding to give a new lease of life to the tributary.

The tale of Hirehalla rejuvenation attempt is that of hope, commitment, and rigour. The initiative is turning out to be a mass movement. The attempt hopes to ensure people access to safe water and also create systems that ensure reliable supplies in the future.