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Disappearing Water Tanks, Need to save them

By: Nithin Sridhar
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Every year, our country faces water scarcity due to delayed monsoon and inadequate rainfall in certain places. This has resulted in deaths due to water scarcity and water-borne diseases.

Historically, tanks and lakes had been one of the important sources fulfilling water demands of population. Kautilya Arthashastra(1) (4th century B.C.) gives copious information regarding construction of dams, canals, management of canal water including leaving of tax.Rules for location of tanks are also detailed. According to Smriti"s(2), people who breached tanks, were given death penalty by drowning them in the tank water.

Earth dams as well as mansonry dams were constructed in very large numbers, in tens of thousands, from 2nd century to 17th century. The dams were constructed across the same river one below the other as well as across its tributaries.One such series of tanks in Mysore had no fewer than 1,200 inter dependent tanks. The total numbers of tanks in Mysore was 37,000, the largest of which had a surface of 40 sq.kms.(3) There were 43,000 tanks in Madras which were functioning in the 19th century and 10,000 tanks were in disrepair.(4)The area irrigated from these tanks exceeded 1.415 million hectares. In Madhya Pradesh there were 50,000 small private tanks which irrigated 2,62,600 hectares (5). About 3.25 million hectares of land were irrigated, before the British occupation of India.

After British came to India, between 1836 to 1866, irrigation works at deltas of Godavari, Cauvery, Krishna and Ganges were implemented. Canal systems wre built in Bengal and Bombay regions (6). By 1900 AD, total area irrigated (from all sources) were 13.4 million hectares, of which 4.5 million hectares was from productive and protective (irrigation) works and 3 million hectares was from minor works like tanks. Canals irrigated about 45% of area, well-irrigated 35% and tank irrigated 15% and others 5% of area (7).

These figures clearly show tanks, lakes and wells being important source of water supply. But in recent past they have been disappearing one by one. According to the Survey and Settlement Records of the Government prepared in early 1930s, there were 937 Lakes, Tanks and water bodies in the Bangalore. The area of the tank-bed of these water bodies was 26,468 acres. But today the area lost in the tank beds is a 2,500 acres according to a preliminary survey by the Survey and Settlement and the Revenue Department.

According to a report published in Times of India (5 July, 2009), there were 264 lakes in 1970; now they have been reduced to 84. Recently in January 2000, the Bangalore Development Authority breached a 32-acre lake, Arakere Tank bund to make a road. The Chikkamaranahalli tank, Malady tank, Miller tank all dried out. After the tanks dried out, they land was used for different construction and other purposes.Mr.Umesh, Assistant Executive Engineer, Lake Development Authority, Bangalore, in a radio programme on "Lake Restoration"(8), says- "There were 182 tanks in Bangalore. Only 81 of them have survived. As the city grows, the tanks disappear. A sports complex has replaced the Koramangala tank. What was once known as Chalaghatta Kere(tank) is now a golf course. The present day Kempegowda Bus Stand in Subhashnagar has replaced a huge tank. Whenever we attempt to build something, our eyes first all on tank space. People don"t prevent it because it is done for their convenience. Such demands and developments make tanks disappear".

Udaipur city, Rajasthan, is surrounded by the Aravalli hills and five lakes - Pichola, Fatehsagar, Rangsagar, Swaroopsagar and Dudh Talai. Of these, it has been estimated that the capacity of Pichola is reducing every year by 0.93 per cent, and that of Fatehsagar by 1.16 per cent. The Dal Lake (Shrinagar) has shrunk more than 15 km over the last 60 years.

Drying up of lakes and tanks is a major problem, as it affects the hydrological cycle. Small ponds are formed when rainfall gets collected in small pockets. This water not only provides water directly, but they also seep into the soil and hence increase the level of ground water table. Due to this, water could also be extracted using wells. But, nowadays, as grounds are being levelled due to urbanization, water is flowing as "run-off" instead of seeping into soil. This reduces the ground water table, inturn resulting in drying up of tanks.

Further, tanks are being polluted by letting sewage and industrial effluents into it. Solid domestic waste amounting to 20-25 tonnes per day is also dumped close to the lakes in Udaipur. According to a report prepared by Pradeep Shrivastav, Reader in the department of liminology, Barkatullah University, Bhopal, the bacterial load in the lakes (of Bhopal) has shot up 20 times between 1985 and 1993, pointing towards the degradation of water quality due to organic waste.

Some of the major causes for disappearing of tanks are: Unchecked extraction and blocking of inlet ducts, "Eutrophication" due to industrial effluents and agricultural wastes, "Siltation" of tank bed, drying of tanks for construction purpose, encroachment of dried tank lands, deforestation resulting in loosening of soil, dumping all garbage and sewage into the tanks,and growing of weeds in the tank making it useless. This has obviously lead to flooding of cities during heavy rains, scarcity for drinking water, water borne diseases, damage to aquatic life.

Hence, saving of the tanks and lakes must be utmost priority. Dying and contaminated tanks must be restored. Some of the restoration methods(9) that could be employed are:

1. Total elimination of external loading: It means that the channel feeding the lake is totally free from any sewage, sullage and dairy waste etc. All the unsewered systems should be properly sewered.
2. Aeration of lake water: Pumping of hypolimnic water to the surface, where it is aerated by contact with the atmosphere and transported back to the hypolimnion. This process is required for reducing oxygen depletion in the hypolimnion due to decomposition of organic matter.
3. The quality of the lake water should be monitored by measuring at fornightly intervals important parameters like DO, BOD, COD, oil and grease, turbidity etc.
4. Entry of materials containing nitrogen and phosphorus should be prevented. Unless eutrophication is arrested immediately the lake may end up as a marsh.

Apart from these, weeds and silt deposits from tanks should be removed, planned constructions should be implement, and rain-water harvesting should be practiced. Educating the public on the need to maintain a clean environment is also very important.

In this direction, Singapore can serve as an example for us. The Singapore government(10) has invested more than 5.0 billion Singapore dollars (3.45 billion US) to build water-related infrastructure over the past seven years, including four plants that recycle sewage water for homes and industries.

A 7,000-kilometre (4,340-mile) drainage network directs rainwater into 15 reservoirs.A 48-kilometre (29.76-mile) underground tunnel system will feed sewage water into the facility, capable of treating 800,000 cubic metres (176 million gallons) daily. Ravi Narayan, advisor to Argyam, opines: "Singapore once had problems with the Singapore River, which got mixed up with sewage. But they restored it. Much of it through governance, unlike policies here that change from one budget period to another,(11)"

It is high time, that people and government realize the gravity of situation and address the issue of dying tanks. Otherwise, the future generation will have to face large scale water scarcity.

Nithin Sridhar

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References & Notes:

1 Kautilya Arthashastra, edited by R.P.Kangle, (2.1.20-23)(3.9.33-34)

2 Manusmriti(9.274), Yagnavalkyasmriti(2.20.233), Vishnusmriti(5.15)

3 Sankey.R.(1896), Discussion on paper by Pennycuick,J. Diversion of Periyar.

4 Smith.R.B.(1856), Irrigation in Southern India.

5 Buckley.R.B.(1905), Irrigation works of India.

6 Buckley.R.B.(1905), Irrigation works of India

7 Report of Indian Irrigation Commision(1972)

8 Environmental Information System (ENVIS), Government of India

9 Meenambhal.T(2002), Pollution of Ooty Lake and Restoration, Lake2002(Symposium On Conservation, Restoration and Management of Aquatic Ecosystem)

10 Singapore Becomes a Model for Water Technology and Reuse(July 8, 2009), Agence France Presse.

11 Times of India(5 July, 2009)

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