World

India’s ‘Lake Man’ Relies on Ancient Methods to Ease a Water Crisis

After Anand Malligavad tumbled into a lake, he thought he might die. Not from drowning, but the stench.

Like hundreds of other lakes in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, the one Mr. Malligavad suddenly found himself in was a receptacle for sewage, plastic debris and construction waste. His unplanned dip happened in 2017, when Mr. Malligavad, a mechanical engineer, was on a stroll with friends near his office.

Walking back home, he smelled so bad that a guard refused him entry into his own residential enclave. The next day, Mr. Malligavad made an unlikely pitch to his company: He would restore the 36-acre lake if it funded the project.

To his bosses at Sansera Engineering, one of the largest automotive components manufacturers in India, the proposal seemed miscalculated, even foolish. That Mr. Malligavad had no knowledge of lake management made it only more unconvincing.

“They laughed at me,” said Mr. Malligavad, 43. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”

Mr. Malligavad standing in the clean waters of Kyalasanahalli Lake, his first reclamation project, in July. Its waters were once filthy.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

But he persisted, and his efforts spurred a remarkable career transition for Mr. Malligavad, who is now one of the foremost authorities on lake conservation in India, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

As he began his project, Mr. Malligavad turned to the knowledge left behind in records from the Chola dynasty that, starting about 1,500 years ago, ruled the surrounding Deccan Plateau for five centuries and built a sprawling, self-sustaining network of irrigation lakes.

After four months of studying the Chola methods — including how to trap silt and sludge using carved stones, which need no maintenance — he won a $100,000 corporate social responsibility grant from his company for the cleanup project.

Silt being removed at Hebbagodi Lake, in Bengaluru, in July.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

“Until I finished, they had no hope it would actually work,” he said.

In 45 days, using a dozen excavators and hundreds of workers, Mr. Malligavad removed enormous amounts of muck, waste and plastic from Kyalasanahalli Lake. He opened its blocked channels, created five islands with the excavated mud and waited for the rains.

Six months later, after the monsoon season, he was boating in the clean water of the lake, amid ducks and migratory birds, with the same friends who had helped pull him out of the once-filthy spot.

“When I saw the lake, I felt younger, and I wanted to jump into it,” Mr. Malligavad said. “That is what motivates me to keep going.”

Kyalasanahalli Lake is now pristine. “When I saw the lake, I felt younger, and I wanted to jump into it,” Mr. Malligavad said.Credit…Anand Malligavad

And he has.

In the seven years since that first success, Mr. Malligavad has restored 35 lakes in Bengaluru with a combined surface area of about 800 acres and a water-holding capacity of about 106 million gallons. Thanks in part to his efforts, the groundwater level in the region over that time period has also increased by about eight feet, according to the Groundwater Directorate, a government body.

For centuries, Bengaluru, also known as Bangalore, was famous across India for a system of man-made lakes that provided water for agriculture and drinking to millions of its residents.

But over the last three decades, the city has become the center of India’s high-tech industry, growing from some four million people in the 1990s to about 13 million today. Villages were turned into electronic cities, and the lakes, still critical sources for water, were filled in for bus terminals or a cricket stadium. As demand for housing grew, high-rise apartments rose up on and covered over the canals leading to remaining lakes.

Another current reclamation project: Chikkathoguru Lake in Bengaluru.CreditCredit…Anand Malligavad

As a result, the city lost capacity to absorb rainwater. Out of the historical 1,850 lakes in Bengaluru, Mr. Malligavad said, only about 465 are left, and just 10 percent of those have clean water, with the rest choked with litter.

Bengaluru is now facing a water shortage of about 172 million gallons per day, a figure likely to double by the end of 2030. The growing water crisis is a direct result of dried up and choked lakes, experts say. They also contribute to the area’s frequent floods.

But Mr. Malligavad is determined to do what he can, aided by time-tested Chola techniques like creating separate lagoons alongside the lakes, where silt and garbage can be separated from sewage, with the human waste later used as fertilizer. And using a Chola method called “ridges to river,” he constructs mud walls in a cascading shape that transport excess water during rainfalls to lakes in lower areas before it ends up in a river. Along the way, the flow supports agriculture.

At one of his recent Bengaluru reclamation projects, largely funded by nonprofits, Mr. Malligavad’s team was separating plastic litter from water in a canal flowing into Maragondanahalli Lake.

Separating plastic litter from water in a canal flowing into Maragondanahalli Lake in Bengaluru, in July.CreditCredit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

“Just 15 years ago we used to drink water from this lake,” said Praveen V.K, who runs a car-washing facility on the lake’s edge.

Now, it is in the process of being rejuvenated, with Mr. Malligavad’s team adding a tiled walkway on the lake’s edge. Inviting people to stroll by the water, he said, inspires them to care more about the lake’s health.

While his dedication to saving Bengaluru’s lakes has drawn Mr. Malligavad national renown, it has also put him at odds with landowners, powerful builders and ordinary people who illegally encroach on lakes to build houses.

On a recent morning, accompanied by a New York Times reporter, Mr. Malligavad sat with a dozen workers, educating them about the natural ways of cleaning wastewater, when a band of men armed with machetes and bamboo sticks ordered him to desist.

Mr. Malligavad with some members of his lake reclamation team this summer at a project in Bengaluru.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

“We will kill you, if you don’t stop,” one young man threatened Mr. Malligavad. Within seconds, they surrounded the conservationist and began punching him.

“If you kill me, you will not get a glass of drinking water in a few years,” Mr. Malligavad told the attackers. Soon, the crowd dispersed.

Mr. Malligavad had set a target of reclaiming 45 Bengaluru lakes by 2025, but now expects to reach that target early next year.

His success has made him a much-in-demand conservation expert across India, which has about 18 percent of the world’s population but just 4 percent of its water resources. According to the World Bank, groundwater consumption is roughly one-quarter of all global usage, surpassing that of United States and China combined.

He has been offered adviser posts on water conservation efforts in many states across India. In the north, the Uttar Pradesh government has given him responsibility for reviving hundreds of lakes, as has the government in Odisha, where he has already revived around a dozen lakes.

As a boy in the village of Karamudi in Karnataka State, of which Bengaluru is the capital, Mr. Malligavad grew up by a lake. With his school on the edge of another, he said he spent more time on the water than almost anywhere else. “From festival prayers to drinking water, everything revolved around a lake,” he said.

Water-purifying plants in a canal in Bengaluru.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

He earned a mechanical engineering degree and joined Sansera, before quitting in 2019 to focus full time on lake reclamations, which has made him a minor celebrity.

On a recent evening, Mr. Malligavad was walking on Church Street, an upscale market in Bengaluru popular for its roadside cafes and bookstores, when a group of college students recognized him.

“Lake man, you are doing an amazing job,” Kartika M., a college student, told Mr. Malligavad. “We want all our lakes back.”

High-rise office and apartment buildings near a revived lake in Bengaluru, where Mr. Malligavad’s successes have made him a minor celebrity.Credit…Priyadarshini Ravichandran for The New York Times

While water has been the primary focus of his environmental efforts, some take place on dry land, too.

Early on a recent morning, he was visiting a landfill which, working with a local nonprofit, he had covered with layers of mud and silt from nearby lakes. With 60,000 saplings now planted in neat rows, the goal is converting the area into a thick forest.

“This is a lung space for south Bengaluru,” Mr. Malligavad said. “The land was of no use, we converted it into a forest.”

Another of his success stories can be seen just a few hundred yards down from the landfill, in a lake saved from a builder who wanted to construct a multistory apartment building on it.

Once a repository of sewage and garbage, the lake now welcomes hundreds of migratory birds and nourishes several varieties of native plant species and Ayurvedic plants.

“This is now the purpose of my life,” Mr. Malligavad said. “I want to reclaim a hundred thousand lakes before I die.”

To him, the why is obvious.

“You can find alternatives to milk,” he said, “but what will you do without water?”

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