The first major source of water for the city is bone dry

To borrow an expression used by S. Vishwanath, founder of the Rainwater Club, the reservoir in Hessarghatta is “correctly” described as the “once-upon-a-time water lifeline of Bangalore”.

For, once upon a time, situated on the swarming Arkavati, the Hessarghatta reservoir used to be a potent source of drinking water for the city. “A bund was probably built in 1532 on the river, creating the Hessarghatta tank. This served as an irrigation tank for centuries.

It was comprehensively deepened and extended in 1894 to become a store for the water needed by the city of Bangalore. For the first time, the city reached out for water beyond its tanks — Dharmambudhi, Sampangi, Ulsoor and Sankey — and local wells, to what was seen as a more reliable source — a river,” explains ‘Ooru Neeru: the Water Walk', a blog maintained by the Bangalore City Project.

With the help of a brick aqueduct, water was channelled to the reservoir at Soldevanahalli. “Bangalore was the first to use steam engines to pump water from Soldevanahalli to Chimney Hills. From there, it flowed to Malleswaram and then to the rest of the city,” said Vishwanath.

Principally managed by the then dewan K. Sheshadri Iyer and M.C. Hutchins, the then chief engineer of Mysore, this water supply scheme came to be called the Chamarajendra Water Works. “The scheme worked brilliantly between 1894 and 1935, serving as a substantial source of water for about 45 years,” said Vishwanath. According to D.K. Subramanian's essay ‘Bangalore city's water supply — a study', quoted in Ooru Neeru, Chamarajendra Water Works was meant to deliver 55 l of water per person per day to a population of around 2,50,000.

With recurring failure of monsoons in the subsequent years, the reservoir began to dry up. Last seen full in 1994, the reservoir has now dried up completely, with the erstwhile Hessarghatta lake and the Arkavati burning dry as well.

Loss for everyone

The impact of this is manifold: cultivators at Hessarghatta have been rendered jobless and, residents say, it has resulted in serious losses to water-allied industries set up near the lake.

Besides, the city has lost a credible source of water, making Bangalore heavily dependent on the Cauvery.

An ingenuous water supply scheme has given way to borewells being dug in search of water to quench the thirst of nearby residential areas.

“Right now there are about 20 borewells in the lake. We run 13 to 15 of them and pump the water to Soldevanahalli. From there, it goes to areas like Dasarahalli, Bagalgunte Defence Colony and Bhuvaneshwarinagar,” said Kempaiah, assistant executive engineer, BWSSB.

But with more borewells, groundwater is on the decline. “Earlier, we used to get water if we dug up to 8 ft. Today, even at 1,100 ft, one may not find water here,” said S.T. Basavaraj, a retired HMT employee and a long-time resident of the area.

Seeking a recovery

There have been several attempts to recover what has been lost. But, while some methods are not feasible, others are just not being explored.

There is a proposal to bring water from the Hemavati to fill up Hessarghatta lake. “[But this] only transfers the onus of reviving the lake on another river. The Hemavati is about 55 km from Hessarghatta. For a distance of about 35 km, it needs to be pumped and this would mean heavy expenditure. It is not feasible. What will happen when the Hemavati also dries up?” asked Basavaraj.

He advocates a simple, yet systematic approach to rejuvenating the lake. “Serious efforts to increase the green cover in the area must be made. The locals must be educated on the importance of conserving forests. Additionally, a participative framework needs to be developed between the government and the people. Both of us are responsible for Arkavati's plight and we have to sit together to find a solution,” he added.

Vishwanath recommends efforts to recharge groundwater, removal of silt from nearby tanks, channels to hold rainwater and a complete change in agricultural practices in the area.