Bidar has at least three karez water systems, which uses deep underground channels to tap and distribute ground water.

How a 15th century water system in Bidar could quench its thirst during droughtImages: Nitin B and Govindan Kutty
Features Water Sunday, May 13, 2018 - 12:04

"This is it," says Naganath Patil, as he points to a well, covered with a large grill on top of it, surrounded by ancient stones and bearing seemingly archaic carvings.

This is the end of the historic 'karez' system in Naubad village at the outskirts of Bidar city in Karnataka, nested between farms and situated next to a temple. 

Karez is a water harnessing system that originated in Persia and uses deep underground channels to tap and distribute ground water. 

The system taps into natural water sources and diverts and transports the water to the nearest human settlement.

The karez system in Bidar dates back to more than half a millennium to the 15th and 16th centuries when the area was under the control of the Bahmani Sultanate.

"The water stops here and the excess is used for agriculture in the farms," Naganath explains.

Naganath is an activist with Team Yuva, a city-based NGO, and is just one of many people who have actively worked to map and restore the karez system since it was discovered, along with the Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation (IHCNF) in partnership with the district administration and the Deccan Heritage Foundation.

History 

Bidar is reported to have three karezes across the city, out of which work is ongoing to restore two of them - the Naubad karez and the Jamuna Mori karez.

"The Naubad karez was first documented in the 1920s by Gulam Yazdani, an archaeologist, but rediscovered a few years ago, following which it has been fully mapped and brought to the public," explains V Govindan Kutty, an Assistant Professor in Geography, at the Government College, Chittur.

The rehabilitation project was initiated by the Karnataka urban infrastructure Development Finance Corporation (KUIDFC) and IHCNF was appointed as the technical consultant. Govindan Kutty at that time was an employee of the IHCNF. 

"We came across the system in 2012 as we were surveying the area looking for projects. Extensive research was conducted. In 2013, we submitted a proposal to the Karnataka government, which was also later appreciated by archaeologist KK Mohammed," he adds. 

KK Mohammed and Govindon Kutty during an inspection

Govindan says that the Karnataka government, along with the IHCNF, then began work on restoring the karez. Experts from the International Center on Qanats and Historic Hydraulic Structures (ICQHS) were also roped in.

"We then took the help of water expert C Kunjambu from Kasargod in Kerala and showed him the tunnels, which were then deemed restorable. In May 2015, we began the cleaning process and started training people on the scientific methods to carry out the process," Govindan narrates. 

Within a few months, the change was visible. Water began flowing in September 2015, three years after it had stopped due to severe drought.

"In December that year, it got dry again and we continued the cleaning process. During the summer in 2016, there were good rains and the karez has not dried since, providing water to locals. All this was done using simple techniques," the assistant professor says.

A unique system 

The Naubad karez, unlike traditional water systems, doesn't transport water from a higher altitude to a lower one.

"The mother well is at a lower elevation, while the mouth is at a higher elevation. The builders created an inner flow and the tunnel itself is not a perfect slope. There are depressions in between the vent, where water is stored, to ensure that erosion doesn't take place," Govindan says.

This means that the water rises with each depression it fills, progressing forward slowly, before brimming at the end. 

"We assume that the karez was built as there was a plan to develop a settlement in Naubad. During those days, the water could be used for irrigation as well as drinking. The plan may have failed probably due to political turmoil or may have had another fort like the Bidar fort," Govindan says.

"There are two more systems in Bidar. At close to 7 km, the Shukla Tirtha karez is the longest one. On the other hand, the Jamuna karez actually originates within a lake. Seepage from the lake enters the karez channel below and carries it towards the city. It is also connected with the Shulka theerth karez’s channel to ensure it never dries up." he adds. 

The Bidar karez is also unique as it is estimated to be the first such system built in India, by just modifying the naturally available laterite geology in the region.

"In places like Bijapur and Aurangabad, the system is more complex and uses terracotta pipelines, whereas in Bidar, the natural geology with porous rocks helped," Govindan says.

Keeping the Karez clean

A big challenge that the activists involved in the restoration face is garbage that is strewn on the roads or into open drains could potentially seep into the system and pollute the water.

To tackle this, the Deccan Heritage Foundation (DHF) has teamed up with an NGO, Saahas.

"We have distributed blue colour bags to around 400 houses in the area and we run awareness campaigns on segregating dry waste and wet waste. On alternate days, we send a vehicle to collect the garbage and bring it back here," says Devappa, Assistant Programme Coordinator of the 'Swachh Sundar Namma Bidar.'

However, residents still continue to fail while segregating waste, due to which the NGO has set up a shed and manually go through the waste once again.

"While the recyclable waste is converted to compost and used for agriculture, the non-recyclable waste is sold to a cement company to use as fuel in their factories," Devappa explains.

A big blow 

The project is currently stagnating as the present administration has not shown much interest.

Another big blow came with the death of 36-year-old Anurag Tewari, an IAS officer who was found dead under mysterious conditions near a guest house in Lucknow in May last year.

Anurag earned the title of the 'water man of Bidar' after he took personal interest and rejuvenated several lakes and tanks in 2016 as Bidar Deputy Commissioner, when the district was faced with a severe drought.

Anuraj Tewari

He had earlier worked as the Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies Commissioner.

"When Anurag sir was there, he was very enthusiastic about this project and would personally monitor it from time to time. Since he left, things have not really been the same," Naganath explains.

Govindan agrees, stating, "He extended great support and was interested in geo-hydrology and a lot of silt and waste was removed from the karez during his tenure. Team Yuva used to identify them, we used to inspect them and then they would be cleaned."

The activists now plan to approach the present administration with their representations and hope for the best.

An awareness campaign for school students in Bidar

Future plans

Govindan says that he is preparing a watershed-based conservation, which would be submitted to the state government by August.

"A scientific report is being compiled. The first thing to do is to clean the debris and ensure that the tunnel doesn't get damaged. If it gets damaged, it can result in a huge collapse and loss of lives. It has to be done slowly," he says. 

"Recharge zones have also been identified to ensure that water doesn't get wasted and is present in the wells throughout the year. We're also talking to the local community to help us out," he adds. 

There are also other issues to be addressed, like the promotion of natural local vegetation like agave, tamarind, mango and other local trees that use surface water. 

"If we just take a few steps and ensure that the restoration is carried out properly, Bidar will never face a drought," Govindan remarks.

 

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