Driving around Chennai with Arun Krishnamurthy can make a person realise they’re living in a kind of dual reality, one in which cars, roads and buildings exist atop a shadow world of water that has been built over and pushed out of sight. He points to buildings behind which a pond is shriveling. A few more seconds down the street and he jabs toward the opposite side of the road, where he says an out-of-sight river runs just behind a row of shops. Pass a bridge, and he mentions a canal that isn’t too far away.
Raised in the suburbs of Chennai, Arun is the founder of the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), a nonprofit group dedicated to revitalising lakes throughout the country. His mop of black hair threatened to droop over his eyes on a recent, unseasonably cool September day as he sat behind the wheel of his green-brown SUV, a “diesel-chugging” vehicle he doesn’t love but says is necessary to transport people and materials. As the diesel machine rolled by one of Chennai’s many temple ponds, he looked out the driver-side window and said, “There used to be a time when this was a source of water and it was very well taken care of.” In a sense, the group he founded is trying to reacquaint people with the water around them by working toward a return to that time, which has roots hundreds of years in the past.
Around 850-1280 CE, the Chola Kingdom widened their territory across much of south India. They did this during a time when rainfall patterns were changing, known as the “Medieval Warm Period.” Rain drenched the earth at times, and sometimes it seemed as though it would never come again, not unlike today. Civilisations throughout history have struggled to deal with the rain’s whims, but the Chola figured out they could control their fickle water supply by building tanks (manmade lakes) throughout their terrain, expanding a technique practiced by other south Indian kingdoms, according to a 2017 paper published in The Anthropocene Review.
Reservoirs gave the Chola thousands of local water sources. People drank from these tanks, picked fruit from trees along their banks, and caught fish to eat or sell. According to Soorya Vennila, an expert on participatory water management at Anna University in Chennai, one member of each Chola family tended their local reservoir, which ensured that no one forgot the importance of water.
“They felt a kind of ownership,” she said. “They felt a belonging to the water body.”
It may not look like much now, but this Chennai tank is empty and ready to collect rainwater.
In major south Indian cities such as Bengaluru and Chennai, that kind of water consciousness has eroded with time and modernisation. EFI has just 14 employees, but they travel around India to take on what Arun calls “low-hanging fruit,” simple lake restoration projects where — crucially — the surrounding community wants to bring back their local body of water. Doing this in cities can help neighborhoods deal with drought or flood by providing water in a dry time and space for floodwater to flow when the rain is overwhelming — a strategy the Chola used. This would require people to better understand their relationship with the water around them, though that’s not a relationship city life encourages.
Water near and far
It’s a little difficult to imagine in 2019, but cities in south India relied on local water bodies for hundreds of years. Bengaluru isn’t known as the “city of lakes” for nothing, although you would be forgiven for being puzzled by that nickname if you’ve only just moved there.
Things began to change in the 1800s, when the British decided to tap distant reservoirs and rivers to supply Bengaluru and Chennai, beginning a process that turned drinking water into a far-off resource that arrived through a process the average citizen had little reason to think about. Though the British are long gone, their infrastructure still influences how these cities get their water. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has added to its network of Cauvery River pipes several times since first building them in 1974, and is right now laying down even more in an attempt to satisfy the city’s ever-growing population. The march of technology has continued in other ways, such as in Chennai, which is now home to desalination plants that suck water from the Bay of Bengal and make it drinkable (though it results in a sludgy byproduct, and desalination experts say these plants use a lot of electricity and aren’t very efficient).
Supplying cities with outside water is necessary, various water experts say, because even revitalised lakes in Bengaluru and Chennai wouldn’t be able to hydrate the millions of people that live in these cities. But lakes and tanks could provide a buffer in times of drought, and help replenish groundwater levels that are plummeting as people drill deeper and deeper borewells. The presence of manmade lakes can also help people who live in these places understand where their water comes from and the necessity of keeping it clean.
“A lot of thought and money is invested in [technology],” said Hita Unnikrishnan, an urban ecology expert at the University of Sheffield who has studied the natural and social environments that surround Bengaluru’s lakes. “But what are we actually doing? We’re taking away the resilience of our cities.”
Chennai now has to endure what seems like near-constant drought, and mild panic seems to bubble up each summer in Bengaluru as news articles guess at how much groundwater is left to slurp from under the city. When rain does fall, neither city has enough tanks to absorb all the water rushing off concrete and rivering down the street.
Arun isn’t happy it’s come to this, but he thinks all these natural disasters are much better at convincing people to pay attention to the water around them than he or his organisation ever could be.
Solutions close to home
It’s not that Arun doesn’t believe people can convince others to care about lakes and the environment in general. He certainly seems to be trying.
A quick YouTube search pulls up several talks he’s given about conservation, lake restoration, and the importance of getting young people interested in environmentalism. EFI encourages interested community members to help with restoration work, getting volunteers to plant saplings or clear beaches, and in Chennai they’ve led bicycle tours of urban lakes to get residents familiar with the water hidden behind all the buildings. The group has paid for murals of herons, apes, deer, lions, eagles, and other animals along the city’s thoroughfares, hoping the paintings will make commuters consider their natural environment, though he thinks the environment itself is the best messenger.
“Whatever be your innovative campaigns, and whoever you use -- the biggest of the biggest movie star or the harshest of the harshest policy -- all of this is not going to stand a chance without nature emphasising it,” Arun said. “When nature does it through flood or a drought, the reach or the acceptance of reality is a lot more,” he added.
A heron stands feet-deep in a Chennai tank that recently had its banks reinforced by the Environmentalist Foundation of India.
Parts of north Karnataka have begun to invest in the Chola’s methods of water storage after enduring droughts that outside sources of water have been unable to quell, according to Solomon Benjamin, an urban planning expert at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M). They’ve started rebuilding and repairing manmade lakes, and connecting these reservoirs to systems that collect rainwater.
“This is not because of any romanticism of the old, but out of sheer necessity,” he said.
Disaster can give communities a reason to reconnect with old methods of water storage that have worked in the past, and apartment complexes within cities might do well to adapt in a similar way.
“There are some apartments in Chennai where they have a very good rainwater harvesting system that stores a lot of water in the ground and they don’t have any problems during this summer drought,” said Jothiganesh Shanmugasundaram, a coauthor of the 2017 paper in The Anthropocene Review. “The neighboring apartments without such a sophisticated rainwater harvesting system are suffering.”
If apartment buildings or other communities don’t have their own water, it’s easy for outsiders to take advantage of their desperation. Tankers drain groundwater and spike their prices when they sell it to apartment-dwellers who have little choice but to pay. According to Solomon, government officials can use droughts and floods as an excuse to take power from citizens who might better understand how to deal with the disaster, barging in with bureaucratic fixes that they claim will bring order and stability in a time of distress.
“[Locals] are robbed of that power on grounds of, ‘oh, this is an emergency,’” he said.
That “emergency” power can last years, giving officials time to negotiate contracts for technical fixes to a disaster while ignoring the deteriorating local tanks that could provide a quicker, cheaper way to lessen the damage from a flood or the desperation of a drought. These technologies — new pipes to bring in water, new pumps to push excess water out — can warp the hydrology of the area and make people dependent solely on a water supply they can’t control.
As rainfall over south India becomes more erratic, communities of all kinds have a choice: to remember the benefits of manmade reservoirs across the Deccan, or to continue tapping rivers and plundering groundwater, hoping the rain never lets either source run dry.
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.