Three men paddled out into Hunasina Lake on a recent September afternoon in Hassan, Karnataka, all of them nestled like eggs in a raft that looked like an upturned umbrella, wobbling as though it wasn’t quite sure it could carry the load. They stopped as the raft began to bob against a wall of water hyacinth, a weed that spreads over lake surfaces in much of south India, feeding on sewage that seeps into the water. One man lassoed a chunk of weeds with a rope that was tied to the digging arm of a huge orange construction vehicle on the opposite bank. Once the knot was pulled tight, the man operating the machine swung its arm, tugging a tuft of weeds across the lake like a tube tied to the back of a boat.
Hunasina Lake covers about 215 acres around Hassan. It’s wide enough that catching sight of the opposite shore might require some squinting, but its surface is dominated by weeds where there should be water. Purple moorhens flit and splash in small gray pools not yet consumed by the hyacinth, and though people do fish there, in many respects Hunasina Lake is a lake in name only.
SS Pasha stood on its shore that day and talked about how the Hasiru Bhoomi Trust, of which he is a past president, is hoping to change that within a year. Pasha wears glasses with frames that are hardly visible, perched on a face framed by a white beard. He’s lived in Hassan all his life, and the Hasiru Bhoomi Trust — started in 2017 — is a local organisation that’s restoring the city’s water bodies not just so the water is clean enough for washing clothes, but so the area’s lakes can provide extra food and cash to nearby poorer communities in need of both.
Restoring lakes (also called tanks) with an eye toward filling wallets and bellies could be crucial in helping people across south India build livelihoods in a region where drought is already common and is likely to become moreso. It’s worked before, from around 850-1280 CE, when the Chola Kingdom spread across south India by carving out local tanks to help people provide for themselves during a time when rainfall was either torrential or absent, in a way not so different from now.
Hunasina Lake's 215 acres can look almost pristine in places, though much of it is covered in weeds.
Tanks in south India are full of sediment and surrounded by animals and plants, all of which can be turned into “additional income,” according to the authors of a paper on how the Chola used manmade lakes to weather changes in climate, which was published in a 2017 edition of The Anthropocene Review. People make pots from the silt, catch fish to eat or sell, and forage for fruit. Restoring those lakes, wrote the authors, can provide “environmental capital suited to sustaining long-term agricultural and societal resilience.”
Much of the Chola’s terrain was rural, but their use of lakes may serve as a model for modern cities as large as Bengaluru or Chennai, both of which are already buckling under the twin pressures of drought and booming population. Revitalising lakes could provide a way for struggling families to build a life in these places even as rainfall becomes more erratic. But that would mean thinking of lakes as more than a natural respite for people who spend their weekdays tapping at laptops in office buildings.
The life of water
Some of what a lake can provide is obvious: water to bathe in, water in which to wash clothes, and fish caught to eat or sell.
“If you go to all these lakes, you’ll see fish being sold on the roadside,” said Harini Nagendra, a sustainability professor at Azim Premji University who explores the intersection of cities and nature. “Not everyone is going to go buy fish that is neatly packaged from a mall.”
But it’s what surrounds the lake that shows just how many ways people can use a body of water.
Fruit and nut-bearing trees can be plucked to eat or sell, and nuts can be turned into oils. Some of the trees can be chopped down and sold as firewood, and fibrous weeds can be pulled from the water and woven into slippers. Potters use silt from the bottom of healthy lakes to mold pots or idols to sell around holidays and festivals. Herders can graze their cattle on the grass that grows along the water’s edge. At Bellandur Lake in Bengaluru, people also collect grasses to sell as fodder to nearby zoos, according to Hita Unnikrishnan, an expert in urban ecology at the University of Sheffield who studies the sociology and ecology of Bengaluru’s lakes. Migrants coming to Bengaluru may find daily wage work in other peoples’ homes or get jobs cleaning up facilities within IT parks, but they often need something else to get by.
“A lot of that is sustained by the lakes,” Hita said.
Depriving communities of the lakes around them hurts women in particular, according to Harini and Hita. Women can use the surrounding trees for some privacy when they need it, and because grazing is traditionally a man’s job while women feed cattle kept in stalls, if there is no land on which to graze, that means more work for women.
Three men paddle into Hunasina Lake to tie rope to water hyacinth before it's yanked from the water.
A quick Facebook search is all anyone needs to see that there are plenty of lake restoration efforts across south Indian cities, but the goals of these groups can differ from the hopes of people who might need the lakes simply to survive. One of the first things that happens during an urban lake restoration effort, according to Hita, is time restrictions that block anyone from being around the water in the middle of the day or after dark, catering to people who take morning or evening strolls before or after their commutes.
“You’re creating a restrictive atmosphere for anyone who wants to use the lake for something that is not walking or jogging,” she said.
Opening up these water bodies to more than recreation would involve a fight against the balance of power. Middle and upper class urbanites will almost always have more political weight than poorer communities, and anti-commercialisation laws meant to stop businesses from setting up shop along the water also stop people from making a bit of cash by selling, for example, fresh mango juice to walkers who might like some.
Governments and businesses could solve some of this by generating demand for lake-related products. Officials could give out fishing licenses to communities of fishermen who already live around these tanks, or, as Harini suggested, companies such as Fabindia could sell mats woven from the fibers of lake reeds.
Officials should also involve communities that live around the lake in the process of revitalising it, Hita said. If they did, lake development in Bengaluru, Chennai, and other south Indian cities might look a lot like what’s happening in and around Hassan.
Past and future economies
The Hasiru Bhoomi Trust is not a part of the government, but in Hassan they’ve stepped into a governing sort of role, though they only have 27 members. According to Venkatesh Murthy, who runs a local newspaper and is one of those 27, they have brought small tanks back to life around the city by going to nearby communities again and again, asking them to organise around restoration.
“We told them to believe in this, not to believe in bore wells,” Pasha said.
Water hyacinth spreads out across much of the surface of Hunasina Lake.
He and other group members sat in an SUV on that same day in September as the road curved past the first lake they’d targeted, a three-acre tank only a short drive from the heart of Hassan that was dry and choked with weeds when they began. He pointed to the open-air convention hall nearby, where they’d had a bunch of meetings with 100-150 people before anyone even touched the lake. Now, right next door, construction workers are building a community center with the money others have made from farming and fishing. The Hasiru Bhoomi Trust estimates that around 5,000 fish -- mostly common carp -- live in the lake, and on its banks grow coconut, jackfruit and jamun trees. People grow rice, potatoes and maize, according to Pasha, and the water is clean enough to drink. Children can splash around without their parents worrying about what the water might to do their bodies.
At Hunasina Lake, the 215-acre body of water that the group says will be clear of hyacinth in a year, Pasha is thinking of boosting a much larger economy. The group wants to build islands out on the lake, providing habitat for migratory birds that Pasha thinks could start something of a tourism industry in Hassan. Once the weeds are ripped out, the lake will be wide enough for tourists to row boats along its placid surface. They’ll have to work with the government for all this to happen, because it’s way too much for volunteers, but doing so could set a blueprint for how cities can fight drought and build their economies at the same time, a renewed use of knowledge that the Chola implemented across south India some 1000 years before.
Colin Daileda is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru who has written about climate change for Thomson Reuters, and on other subjects for The Atlantic, Roads and Kingdoms, Mashable, and others.
All photos by Colin Daileda.