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The Lake Man's crusade for sustainable waters

November 23, 2023
tags:#India, #water pollution, #conservation, #activism, #Waste Management
by:Suhail Bhat, Sameer Mushtaq
By the year 2030, Anand Malligavad, known as the "Lake Man of India," hopes to build a global movement to propagate his innovative lake restoration approach to nations across the world.

Amid global environmental challenges and water constraints, a beacon of hope emerges for India's lakes. Anand Malligavad, known as the "Lake Man of India," has committed his life to the rejuvenation of local lakes, successfully reviving numerous reservoirs. "I am not an activist. I am a change-maker," he claimed. 

Hailing from Karamudia village in the Koppal district of the arid region of north Karnataka, Malligavad's roots lie in an area resembling Rajasthan's landscape, marked by scarce rainfall and enduring droughts.

But prolonged droughts did not deter him from finding comfort in lakes. "Growing up where rain is rare teaches you to appreciate every drop," he told FairPlanet. His school, situated right above a lakebed, became a testament to the resilience of nature. "It was more than a building; it was a glimpse into the delicate dance of lakes," he said.

A "Zero water city"

After earning his degree in mechanical engineering and relocating nearly 300 kilometers from his village to Bangalore, the capital city of the Indian state of Karnataka often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India, in 1996, Malligavad embarked on a corporate career in 2003 with a focus on automotive and aerospace engineering. He rose quickly through the ranks of his company, Sansera  Engineering Limted.

Reflecting on his corporate achievements, Malligavad said, "I realised that my heart was still with the lakes, and that I was concerned about the potential effects of their absence on the people of my city. Although I was unsure of what needed to be done, I felt compelled to act."

He said he was shocked when he stumbled upon an article in 2015 predicting that Bangalore would transform into a "zero-water" city by 2025. "This revelation was the turning point that led me to transition from the corporate world to full-time engagement in lake rejuvenation," he shared.

Malligavad realised that urgent action was needed as Bangalore only had 450 lakes remaining out of its original 1850, raising the imminent risk of the city becoming a "zero water city" by 2025.

According to him, the sharp decline in Bangalore's lake count, which stood at 600 approximately 20 years ago, presented the harsh reality he had to confront. He noted that only 10 per cent of these natural wonders boast clean water, while the remainder have deteriorated into toxic cesspools harmful to groundwater and the ecosystem.

He added that a buildup of sewage, silt and muck stopped the vital aquifer recharge process and tainted local groundwater with heavy metals including arsenic. "The lakes, once lifelines for drinking water and agriculture, had fallen victim to urbanisation with the conversion of fertile lands into concrete structures," he said.

This is where the Indian Lake Man intervened, changing the focus from government-driven projects to a movement led by the people. He envisioned a scenario in which NGOs, businesses and local communities collaborated to rejuvenate these ecosystems.

"My mission was to raise awareness among the villages, engaging welfare associations and local residents who would become custodians of the lakes in their vicinity," he said. Reducing expenses, ensuring sustainability and reintroducing conventional techniques were the primary goals of this cooperative approach.

Through historical research, he uncovered the methods employed by the Chola, a medieval South Indian dynasty that ruled parts of South India from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Over their more than 400-year rule over a substantial area, the dynasty constructed lakes, reservoirs and irrigation canals. Thousands of lakes were built during that period to harvest and store rainwater for agricultural purposes.

Their concept of connecting cascading lakes through waterways, known as the ridge-to-river concept, resonated deeply with Malligavad.

He started regenerating lakes using cost-effective and efficient methods, diverging from the government's expensive and time-consuming techniques. By avoiding pricy construction materials like concrete and steel, he completed the restoration of lakes, regardless of their size, in just 100 days.

Early success

One of his early success stories was the revitalisation project of Lake Kyalasanhalli, which was initiated in 2017 and made possible by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding from his corporate job. With community collaboration, the 36-acre lake was transformed into a natural biological ecosystem abundant with indigenous fruits and traditional flora.

Seven years later, Lake Kyalasanhalli has achieved self-sufficiency, maintaining its biological ecosystem without external intervention, thanks to intentional planting and care for native flora during the rejuvenation project.

As a result, biodiversity has improved, oxygen levels have increased and the environment has stabilised. The flourishing bird habitat and recreational opportunities now demonstrate a robust, sustainable ecosystem, which reduces the necessity for ongoing interventions.

Additionally, the creation of separate lagoons for the disposal of plastic and human waste has helped regulate nutrient inflow, reduced pollution and facilitated the decomposition of organic matter through the action of beneficial microbes. 

A comprehensive strategy was used to rejuvenate the local ecology. Collaborating with the local community, a small forest featuring native trees and medicinal plants was established along the lake. Also, to promote natural growth post-restoration, native fish species that originally inhabited the lake were introduced to it.

Finally, in order to complete the ecological restoration, the natural inlets were reopened, allowing water to flow from the catchment areas.

After balancing his corporate career with lake rejuvenation from 2017 to 2019, Malligavad made a bold move in 2019 by quitting his steady job to dedicate himself full-time to lake rehabilitation. Collaborating with nearly eight states, he has successfully restored over 80 lakes in India, including more than 33 lakes in Bangalore.

By 2030, he hopes to have created a worldwide movement that will introduce his paradigm to every nation.

Adopting a simple yet creative approach, Malligavad goes beyond traditional desilting methods. He completely empties lakes, ensuring that no sewage, whether treated or untreated, enters the water body. This process allows 85 per cent of the lake to naturally fill with rainwater, although it may take a bit longer to yield results in drought-stricken regions.

The remaining 15 per cent is dedicated to a greywater wetland area, which serves as a catchment for sewage inlets, separated from the rainwater area by earthen bunds. The barriers segregate the two zones, capturing sewage, plastic waste and other pollutants through a system of distinct lagoons.

The collected plastic waste is recycled, and the biomass is then funneled to dump sites in collaboration with local municipalities. Lakes can naturally regenerate when natural biological sewage treatment takes the place of chemicals, electricity, concrete and steel, he said.

Setting realistic goals

Throughout this journey, Malligavad has faced numerous challenges. The continuous influx of waste and sewage into lakes remains a persistent struggle, and he acknowledges that complete cessation is often unrealistic.

Encroachments pose another serious challenge, often backed by powerful interests seeking rapid financial gains. As metropolitan areas expand, the demand for property rises, and encroachers may view opportunities for real estate development near lakes.

With the assistance of like-minded individuals living around the lakes, whom he refers to as 'non-encroachers,' Malligavad has successfully cleared 75–80 acres of encroachments. These encroachments often involved unauthorised construction of homes, buildings, or settlements, violating environmental laws and land use plans. He estimates that only 10 per cent of the population engages in encroachment, while the remaining 90 per cent actively contribute to the lake rejuvenation process.

"It is a complicated battle, though, because strong mafias occasionally stand in my way beacuse of their vested interest in exploiting urban land," he lamented.

The resistance from the land mafia stems from the fact that Malligavad's efforts make it more challenging for them to convert water bodies into lucrative plots of land, which hinders their ability to develop homes and buildings in cities facing space constraints.

More than 10,000 government workers in Odisha and Uttar Pradesh have undergone Malligavad's training in ecologically self-sustaining lake restoration so far, with him also offering project advice to support their efforts.

Drawing strength from the community, Malligavad aims to inspire them with the historical significance of the lakes and the health risks associated with contaminated bodies of water. His goals include building alliances among like-minded individuals and fostering partnerships with workplaces, educational institutions, colleges, private businesses and governmental bodies.

Malligavad envisions a nationwide movement toward lake revitalisation by 2025, with the goal of having at least 100 individuals actively contributing to the cause. He further noted that hundreds of private companies have expressed interest in funding lake rejuvenation through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding as a result of his work.

Meanwhile, Malligavad's reputation for success in Bangalore has spread, which led to his appointment as an advisor to revival programs in nine Indian states.

Appreciating his skills, the state government of Karnataka has entrusted Malligavad with the responsibility of developing a comprehensive plan for the revitalisation of rural lakes and other bodies of water.

Image by Vivek Sharma.

Article written by:
Suhail Bhat Picture
Suhail Bhat
Sameer Mushtaq
Sameer Mushtaq
Embed from Getty Images
Hailing from Karamudia village in the Koppal district of the arid region of north Karnataka, Malligavad's roots lie in an area resembling Rajasthan's landscape, marked by scarce rainfall and enduring droughts.
Embed from Getty Images
"I realised that my heart was still with the lakes, and that I was concerned about the potential effects of their absence on the people of my city. Although I was unsure of what needed to be done, I felt compelled to act.”
Embed from Getty Images
Malligavad was shocked when he stumbled upon an article in 2015 predicting that Bangalore would transform into a "zero-water" city by 2025.