Water, water, everywhere

Despite the many beautiful lakes, Udaipur’s water crisis is baffling. Increasing tourism and pollution make the city dependent on external sources for water supply.
Pichola lake attracts maximum tourists. Pichola lake attracts maximum tourists.

The city of Udaipur is all about its lakes. If Pichola gets the maximum tourist footfall, the scenic beauty of Fateh Sagar invites solitude lovers. The Udai Sagar lake in the east, which remained the first line of defence for the city, now meets the industrial need for water. 

The city and its lakes, however, are now  finding it difficult to deal with the rise in population and toilets. From the in-house supply from lakes and stepwells, the city has shifted to long-distance and expensive water transfers to quench its thirst due to rising demand, less water inflow in the lakes and pollution.

The rise in tourism industry has given rise to more in-migration and also, more hotels to cater to the tourists. On one hand, the water demand has increased and on the other, more toilets mean greater sewage discharge into the same lakes which supply water. 

The glorious past

Udaipur gets an annual rainfall of 640 mm. Besides this, the city gets the runoff from the surrounding hills that the city planners had decided to catch and store in several lakes and tanks which feed the irrigation channels over several hectares. Since all these lakes are interconnected, overflow from one goes to the next, making it the best example in rainwater harvesting and management.

Pichola, the main attraction of the city, was built by a nomad named Cheetar, who used to trade in grains. It is said that his ox, Peelo, carrying the money from a recent deal, got stuck in a swamp. Cheetar decided to build a lake at the spot using half the money Peelo was carrying. Thus the lake, with 96 square km area, was built in 1387 and was named after both Peelo and Cheetar to be called Pichola1

In the mid-16th century, the beauty of the Pichola lake mesmerised Maharana Udai Singh, the then ruler of Mewar, who decided to build his new capital on its banks. Surrounded by Aravali hills, the site provided natural defence against the forces of Akbar, who had captured Chittorgarh, the then capital of Mewar. 

Udai Singh got a dam built on the Berach river to ensure adequate supply of water for irrigation. The reservoir was named Udai Sagar and became the first line of defence against any attack from the east. 

Fateh Sagar was built in 1687 to collect the runoff from the surrounding hills for irrigation in the villages around it. The irrigation supply, however, has now been stopped and the water is used for domestic purposes in the Udaipur city.   

Pollution and tourism

The very lakes that draw tourists to the city of Udaipur are feeling the pressure of the increase in population. 

The pollution levels can be understood through bio indicators like blThe sorry state of Swaroop Sagar lake.ooming blue-green algae, water hyacinth and reduction in fish population. Dr Madhu Sudan Sharma, retired professor from M. L. Sukhadia University, has been doing zoological studies on Udaipur lakes since 1973.

“The level of water pollution in Udaipur lakes is such that they don’t host diverse species. Only the tolerant ones survive. For instance, carp fish varieties like rohu (Labeo Rohita), katla (Catla Catla) and mrigal (Cirrhina Mrigala), which were in abundance earlier, are now rare. Mahseer (Naziritor) has completely disappeared. Instead, we have fish varieties which possess accessory respiratory organs besides the gills like sanwal (Opheocephalus), singada (Mystus Seenghala) and singi (Heteropneutes Fossilis),” he says.

A recent study compared the water quality at Pichola, Udai Sagar and Gorana dam (a reservoir 25 km upstream of the city). The water quality index (WQI) of Udai Sagar was found to be 180 while Pichola registered the index at 120 and Gorana, 55. Water with WQI upto 50 is considered to be of good quality.

Dissolved oxygen (DO) was 3.1-3.6 mg/l in Udai Sagar, 4.5-5.4 in Pichola while Gorana dam had the DO of 7.6-8.8 mg/l. “Less oxygen means the water is more polluted as the oxygen is being used for the decomposition of organic matter like nitrates and phosphates,” says Dr Sharma. Gorana also exhibits greater diversity of species with Shannon Wiener diversity index of 1.42 as compared to 1.37 of Pichola lake and 1.31 of Udai Sagar. Things, however, have improved from the days when around 1,000 toilets used to directly drain on these lakes.

Thanks to the civil society organisations which built pressure on the authorities through several litigations over the years, a 24 km sewerage line was laid in the area around Pichola lake. The sewage now finds its way to Ahar river, which flows through the city. The new sewage treatment plant set up by the Hindustan Zinc Limited under corporate social responsibility in 2014 treats 20 Million Litre per Day (MLD) while the rest ends up in Udai Sagar lake. “There’s a plan to expand the capacity to 40 MLD and further expansion of the sewerage network, but it will take some time,” says Sanjeev Sharma, executive engineer with Udaipur Improvement Trust (UIT).

Rejuvenation plan has loopholes 

The Centre sanctioned a fund of Rs 125 crore in 2008 for the rejuvenation of Udaipur lakes. Not everybody, however, is happy with the results. “The leakage in the old sewerage network is contaminating the groundwater which we have confirmed through regular tests. The authorities accepted these results after a long time and instead of taking any corrective actions, just marked the water sources red. The leakage continues,” says Tej Razdan, secretary of Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti, which filed PILs and enlisted public support to clean the lakes.

Dr Sharma, who was also a member in a government committee formed to conserve lakes, says most of the money meant for restoration has been spent on beautification. “New ghats were constructed, gardens raised and fountains installed. These are just cosmetic changes which don’t clean water but are easier to accomplish than pollution control. This is why officials prefer these,” he says.

Unsustainable projects

The water supply projects also remain unsustainable. After the introduction of individual home-based tap water supply in 1960s, the traditional water sources like stepwells, dugwells and small tanks fell into disuse. 

Udaipur became dependent on external water sources in 1971 when Dewas-I project wAyadh or Ahar river, along which an ancient civilisation prospered, now carries Udaipur's sewage.as undertaken to divert water from Aravalli hills to Udaipur valley. However, rising population and tourist inflow disturbed the water balance again and the extended drought from 1985 to 1988 led to drastic policy change.

Irrigation supply from Pichola and Fateh Sagar was stopped and the foundation stone laid for the Mansi-Wakal lift water project in 1989 to divert water from Sabarmati basin to Udaipur. This invited a long-drawn protest by local villagers whose land was to be submerged by two medium-sized dams. “The main contention was that Udaipur was trying to fill its lakes to attract tourists and for industrial use. The same water sustained our fields,” says social activist Ganesh Purohit, who led the protest at that time. 

Though the protest could not go beyond 2001, it forced the authorities to include drinking water supply scheme for the affected villages in the plan which was originally meant only for urban and industrial sectors.

Meanwhile, a pipeline had been laid in 1995 to fetch water from Jaisamand lake, which lies 45 km south east of Udaipur. By 2012, Dewas-II project was completed to supply 400 million cubic feet water to the city.  But it still does not seem to be enough. “We get the water supply on alternate days. Thankfully, the water from these projects is not being put in lakes first otherwise the whole supply would have been contaminated,” says Dr Sharma.

More transfer, less conservation

Dr Razdan feels Udaipur has become a parasite on surrounding areas. “There has not been a single project to augment water supply. All of these are to transfer water from one place to another. On the other hand, local lakes are consistently facing problems of encroachments. There are plans to build a ring road around Pichola lake which will further reduce its area. The watershed management and afforestation efforts in catchment areas of the lakes remain on paper,” he adds. 

Executive engineer of Urban Improvement Trust (UIT), Sanjeev Sharma, however, highlights the work done on feeder canals which carry water to the lakes. “After 2009, when the lakes dried up, we carried out desilting and dredging of around 14 km of these feeder canals. A few encroachments were also removed. The result is for everyone to see as substantial water inflow starts just after first rain,” he says.

The answer lies within

Besides the lakes, Udaipur also had a substantial network of around 100 bawris (stepwells) which sustaineThe stepwell filled with water near Ayurveda Hospital.d the city for centuries. “In fact, these bawris and wells were the main water source while lakes were used for irrigation purposes. Now, these have turned into garbage dumps,” says Ganesh Purohit.

Maaji ki bawri and the unnamed stepwell near Ayurveda Hospital in the walled city are full of rainwater these days which remain unused. Local shopkeepers say that municipal corporation used to supply water from these bawris for domestic use till five to six years back but now sewage from nearby houses is being thrown in these structures making the water unfit for consumption.

Like the strange predicament of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the lovely city of Udaipur too has water everywhere, but not a drop fit for drinking.

Footnotes

1. Ranawat Ishwar Singh, ‘Water Resources of Mewar in 16th and 17th century: A critical study’, Pratap Shodh Pratishthan, Udaipur.

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