Somanahalli Lake in Kanakapura, Bangalore has been painstakingly restored to its past glory. The transformation of the lake, led by common people, local communities and local government bodies in coordination, has ensured that the lake ecosystem has an opportunity to thrive for years to come. To understand the work that went into this transformation, Karthik Rangappa interviewed Smt. Revathi Kamath, a landscaper for the past 20 years, and the individual who spearheaded the project. Here’s her account of how she went about the revival project, her experience and the challenges she faced.
Karthik - How did you come across Somanahalli lake and the problems around it?
Revathi Kamath (RK) - It was a chance encounter. I remember being involved with tree planting activities in Somanahalli and it was then I came across multiple instances of land encroachment and one day in conversation with the people in the area, I learnt that there was a lake nearby. I was curious because I felt it was an opportunity for me to plant trees and help conserve the lake bund. And then, Govardhan, a local resident, informed me that the lake we were speaking about sprawls over 28 acres! When I initially visited the lake, I was disappointed to see what had happened to it. The lake was dry and the surrounding bund areas were also in a terrible state. I remember fondly making up my mind to try and fix the lake bund area during a visit at around 9 pm.
I estimated that about 5000-10000 trees can be accommodated in the region based on 30 years of experience as a landscaper. A drone survey of the region helped us understand some of the challenges. Firstly, the lake bund area was covered with weeds and unwanted plants. Secondly, people in the region used the area for excretion. And finally, the land was inaccessible due to the presence of snakes and other rodents. We started clearing the area with about 4 JCBs. I personally spent 4-5 hours every day and oversaw the cleaning of the area. The local Panchayat members along with the President were very supportive. And with their help, we also reclaimed about 5 acres of encroached land in the area. In total, we had about 7 acres of lake bund area cleaned and levelled for us to plant trees.
We then started planting trees. I chose saplings that were anywhere between 10-15ft in height and included different native varieties such as Jamun, peepal, jackfruit, cotton, Indian almond, and Thora-mathi (commonly known as Terminalia, scientific name - Terminalia arjuna). The purpose of choosing these varieties was to ensure that birds are attracted to the area and the produce of these trees would eventually become a source of income for all the nearby villagers. We also spoke to the forest department and inquired about the spacing between trees. When we were planting trees in the area, local communities spoke about the lake and how it was about 80-90 years ago. They mentioned that the lake water was used for cooking, drinking and other household purposes, but now it was polluted and the villagers around were forced to depend on other sources of water. I was heartbroken. And this is when I decided that along with planting trees in the area, I will also help restore the lake.
Karthik - Can you speak about how the lake restoration activity started and your involvement with that phase of the project?
RK - With our initial survey of the lake, we noted that the lake bed needed levelling. Encroachment and sand extraction had led to an uneven lake bed. Further, out of the 28 acres of the lake in the region, 16 acres were empty and polluted through human activities. With the help of JCB’s, we started to level the lake bed. This activity went on for about a month. The excess soil and sand we obtained while levelling the lake bed was used to create two small islands. One island with about 5000 loads and another island with 7000 loads of soil.
Now that the work around the lake bed was complete, we started to ideate on how to fill up the lake with water. And during one conversation, I learnt that there is a canal nearby that was 60ft wide and 3.5Km long. The canal connected rainwater from Kanakpura road to this lake. The canal was blocked and thus water never reached the lake for years altogether. With the help of Panchayat in the region, we started clearing the 3.5 km stretch of the canal to the lake. A few days later, two bouts of rainfall arrived. The excess rainwater from Kanakpura road found its way to Somanahalli lake through the canal. One of the most cherishable moments of my life. Naturally, the lake filled up, water birds arrived and the islands consequently were a new home to these birds.
The restoration of the bund area and the lake was only possible due to the support I received from a lot of people. Today, as a result, the wells and borewells in the area are recharged. And the trees have now grown up to 20ft.
Karthik - Can you describe the background work you needed to do for the tree plantation and the lake revival projects
RK - My experience as a landscaper helped with the preparations. I have primarily worked across Bangalore and have interacted with people and the labor force with multiple projects. Through years of work, I learnt to gauge the work required, cost and optimization for any project quite quickly. And when I started this project, I used all my learning. I was able to identify soil, sourcing the saplings, JCB work that was required and the levelling needed to be carried out, which was most of the background work I did.
Karthik - You have spoken at length about the lake revival project. Can you share a little bit about how you ensured the tree planting activity was a success and various milestones you watched out for?
RK - I think the answer to the question lies in details. I maintained and reviewed all the finer details of the project myself, particularly the finances. I was physically present at the project site frequently. I know of instances when I have returned from the project site at even 10 pm in the night. Despite having to manage time, I always ensured that I was at the site to monitor and review the project progress. My experience again came in handy to identify the milestones of the project. Clearing and levelling of the land bund area, depth of the pits to be dug for the saplings, precautions, and guarding the trees against the cattle movement in the region were some of the major milestones.
To ensure that the sapling planted survived we implemented unconventional solutions as well. For example - to guard the trees from cattle movement, we tied thorny leaves to the tree. I was aware that the saplings we planted needed to be cared for at least 3 years. The saplings should be monitored to ensure that it is not bent and the soil is supplemented with fertilizers early on in the planting process. We were also mindful to guard the saplings from termites too. I have seen multiple instances where people and organizations have planted saplings, but these saplings were not cared for and eventually the saplings die. My advice to every organization planting saplings is to monitor the areas where you have planted the saplings and ensure that the trees are cared for.
Karthik - Can you share a little bit about the stakeholders involved in the lake revival project? Could be the local community, government, people who financed? How did you manage it?
RK - As I noted earlier, people in the Somanahalli lake region are not money minded. When we asked them to release the land which was encroached upon, they were happy to help out. The local government bodies supported us. The local communities also came forward with help and inputs. I am doubtful if this is the case in other areas of Bangalore. So I agree that there is work needed to manage stakeholders during these kinds of projects in areas where people are greedy, but for this particular project, it was not an issue.
Karthik - How long did the project take to complete and your thoughts now that the project is complete.
RK - The initial stages of the project which included levelling, reclamation of encroached lands, canal clearance, and formation of islands were complete within 3-4 months. As I mentioned, monitoring of the area and the sapling were important and crucial to the success of the project. It has been about 1.5 years since the start of the project, and in my mind, the project is still not complete. I am now focused on taking care of the trees that are in the area and ensuring that they are well fertilized and are growing. I am also of the opinion that 15000-20000 more trees can be planted along the canal we cleaned.
How does the lake look like now?
Karthik - was there a hurdle which was more difficult than the others for this particular project or for future implementation of projects like these?
RK - Finances. I can arrange for everything else through my experience - the laborers, equipment, local support and even solve the local political issues. But I feel the money being sanctioned at the right time is a challenge.
Karthik - What are some of the learning you would like to share for people taking up activities to revive similar lakes?
RK - There were a lot of learnings but I would like to list a few that can help people trying to replicate this across other lakes. It is important to survey the area and consult with the local communities to understand the scope of work. A detailed project plan and a fixed budget helps guide the project in the right direction. And in most cases, a review of the history of the dried-up lakes can help understand the reasons why the lake has dried up or encroached upon.
I would also like to highlight the importance of identifying the root cause. Let me explain. When reviewing the history of any dried up lake, it is critical that we identify the source of water for the lake in the past. We know that rainfall patterns have changed, but not drastically enough to dry up lakes by itself. Hence, we must identify why the lake has dried and if man-made reasons are responsible. Identifying this very root-cause helps implement long-term solutions.
Karthik - Last question - One piece of advice for the ones trying to save the ecology and environment around us.
RK - Firstly, honesty is important when starting out these projects. Honesty should be backed up with dedication.
Secondly, the foundation of any project is very critical. And even more so for activities like lake revival and tree planting. For example, if you are planting saplings and do not ensure the roots are strong and sturdy, the trees are susceptible to winds and natural forces. There are instances when rains arrive and trees fall, and in most cases, it is due to a weak foundation and lack of initial planning while planting saplings. I would like to request all the organizations and individuals planting saplings to please consider planting taller saplings. Taller saplings require deeper pits and deeper pits ensure that the roots of the saplings are sturdy. Sturdy roots protect the tree later in its life from natural forces.
And finally, any individual or organization taking up restoration projects such as this one, please make sure to monitor the project frequently for at least 2-3 years to ensure success.
Few more pictures of the lake taken recently