Water Heroes: Restoring lakes to tackle drought

Water Heroes: Restoring lakes to tackle drought

When taps run dry

Argan Lake

This summer has been scary for many of us, even in places where water was never scarce all these years. With wells drying up, lakes touching their rock-bottom and people struggling for drinking water, it was no surprise that people woke up to the situation.

Belagavi is a region blessed with bountiful rains and good harvests. But for the past few years, many areas have turned dry, with unpredictable, scanty rains; increased demand for water and poor management of water sources.

Responding to the situation, Brigadier Govind Kalwad, station commandant of Belgaum Cantonment and members of Pyaas Foundation led by Madhav Prabhu, in separate initiatives, have initiated lake rejuvenation efforts in Belagavi city and its surrounding areas.

Argan Lake near Belagavi Race Course is a group of five lakes, one cascading into the other after the first one fills to the brim. There are several tales that narrate how the lake got its name. Brig Kalwad explains, “The British used to hunt ducks here using airguns, and that is how the lake got its name.”

However, according to Brig (Retd) Mohan Pattar, who was associated with the rejuvenation work, the name is derived from the word ‘Hourgun’ which refers apparently to an ‘Hour Gun’ that was fired back in British times to tell the hour. 

Men in uniform join hands

The rejuvenation of Argan Lake is a story of collective efforts by hundreds of soldiers of the Maratha Light Infantry. Once decided, it took around three to four months to study and plan the restoration work. Interestingly, they utilised the money collected in the Military Vinayak temple’s donation boxes, which is generally used for public welfare works.

After the soldiers cleared the lakes, an earthmover was hired in January 2018 for desilting. The lake near Vinayak mandir was desilted first. By September 2018, all five lakes were desilted. The mud extracted was used to create an embankment. Saplings were planted along the embankments to prevent soil erosion. Gooseberry, tamarind, guava and coconut trees were planted. Initially, there was no water in the lakes to support the newly planted saplings. So, hard, untreated wastewater was redirected to the lake.

As the lakes replenished and the vegetation improved, birds started congregating in this place. “Egrets, herons, kingfishers, ibis, hornbills, spot-billed ducks, cormorants are regularly spotted here,” says Brig Pattar. Birds like the spot-billed ducks visit the lakes every morning. The best season to spot them is from late August to January.

Due to these efforts, the groundwater table in the surrounding areas has increased from 12 to 15 feet. After the lake started brimming with water, 2.5 lakh fish seedlings were let into the lakes. Now 300 kg of fish is harvested ever year from these lakes. Gradually, this place has emerged as a tourist attraction as well.  

Prajakta Desai and Laxmi Chougula, students of a nearby college, are all praise for the newly rejuvenated Argan Lake. They are elated that Belagavi now has a serene lake where they can walk and spend time in the midst of nature. The girls are also avid birdwatchers and capture the birds on their cameras.

Hopes amidst scarcity

Another successful initiative in this region is the rejuvenation the Bailwad lake in Bailhongal, a hot and arid zone which is prone to drought. The lake bed is made up of hard rocks and rubbles. Around two months ago, Pyaas foundation began desilting and added a layer of compressed black soil to prevent the loss of water. For two months, the volunteers worked hard to remove the rocks and bring the water body to shape. 

Ramanagouda Mudakanagoudar, the headmaster of a school at Bailwad said that the lake was lying dry for several years since it was difficult to remove the rocks. Now the villagers see a ray hope and say that this will motivate them to restore other water bodies as well.

In fact, Pyaas foundation had initiated projects to restore water bodies much earlier. In the summer of 2018, they started desilting work at Bhavihal lake, situated in drought-prone Kittur, at the behest of the villagers. “We approached the team after learning about their work in the nearby Aralikatti village,” said the villagers. 

Bhavihal is fully dependent on rainwater and there was no proper water storage facility. The village lake is strategically placed between Bhavihal, Sampgaon, Yaragoppa and Nagnur villages and was a source of water to around 16,000 people and some 2000 cattle.

Pyaas foundation took up this task but didn’t have sufficient funds to revive the lake that was spread across eight acres. Eventually, a donor came forward to support their venture. They got an approach road built with support from the villagers. Once the work began, it suddenly started raining in Bhavihal. They were forced to stop the work as water started collecting in the lake. 

The Pyaas team then dug a pond in the vicinity and diverted the water to the pond. This slowed down the process considerably. Soon monsoon arrived and the work had to be stopped for eight months. The rejuvenation work restarted in April 2019. After the desilting work, water capacity of the lake has doubled and the height of the embankments on all sides have been raised to over 20 feet. Around the same time, Bhavihal lake was selected for lift irrigation by the state government. 

The foundation collaborated with AKP Foundries, Belagavi to rejuvenate Macche lake near Belagavi city. Pyaas foundation through its initiative to supply water to water-starved villages started supplying water to this village in 2016. In fact, this was the first village to get tanker water under the Pyaas’s project. Incidentally, Macche is the second-largest gram panchayat in the state.

Macche Lake is spread across nearly 10 acres and was famous for the huge number of fish it produced, and hence got its name. The embankments of the lake were broken as builders took soil from it. The surface was uneven and there was silt and plastic all over. 

The task was daunting as the rejuvenation work had to be completed before the advent of monsoon. The entire lake was dug up to three feet removing almost all the silt. The minor irrigation department was kept in the loop and the work was carried out as per the department’s directions. Soon the project was complete. They hit a live stream of water in the lake in peak summer.

Shankar Navgekar, a member of the library committee in Macche remembers swimming in the lake when he was young. Now when he sees the lake brimming with water, he sees a ray of hope.

Considering both short-term and long-term impacts, these efforts are bound to encourage people to do their bit towards restoring water bodies in their neighbourhoods.