The revenge of the lakes in Hyderabad

Over the past week, floods in Hyderabad have killed 33 people and destroyed property. Swathi Vadlamudi and Syed Mohammed report on how a burgeoning population and rapid infrastructural development have put tremendous pressure on the water bodies of the city, reducing their area, quantity and quality

October 24, 2020 01:15 am | Updated 10:11 am IST

The bund of Gurram Cheruvu, which connects Barkas to Balapur, succumbed to pressure that led to flooding of Hafiz Baba Nagar in Hyderabad.

The bund of Gurram Cheruvu, which connects Barkas to Balapur, succumbed to pressure that led to flooding of Hafiz Baba Nagar in Hyderabad.

Mohammed Abdul Quddus Qureshi’s body was found at the Nagole sewage treatment plant along the Musi river, 13 km from his home in Alinagar, even as the steady downpour in Hyderabad continued. His decaying body had floated across three police commissionerate jurisdictions before being fished out. He was laid to rest in a cemetery in Chanchalguda, a neighbourhood in the Old City, near the fresh graves of four of his family members. They were also swept away by the waters of the overflowing Palle Cheruvu lake, part of the Umda Sagar lake basin. Of the nine members of the family who were swept away in the deluge of October 13, only one, Mohammed Abdul Taher Qureshi, survived ; three remain missing. The family’s loss accounts for a chunk of the 33 deaths recorded in Hyderabad.

Taher Qureshi was trying to move the eight members of the single-storey house across the rising waters to safety in his brother’s three-storey building. But the torrent was so strong that it was as if the chabutra , on which they were standing, dissolved in it like salt.

The breach of Gurram Cheruvu lake, at Balapur in Hyderabad

The breach of Gurram Cheruvu lake, at Balapur in Hyderabad


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“I heard a wall collapse and in no time, water came in with full force onto the road and consumed the ground floor of the building. I buried two grandchildren and two daughters-in-law. My brother’s body, which was found in Nagole, had decomposed. The bodies of three others have still not been found,” says Abdul, his voice quivering.

A short distance from Alinagar, along National Highway 44, the floodwater from the Appa Cheruvu lake close by, devoured siblings Tanima and Amer, and a cousin, Taher. Their bodies were found a day later. The body of Ayaan, an eight-year-old boy, was also retrieved . The family of four along with their cousin were at home when the water swirled over the wall, sweeping away the house and its inhabitants.

In a separate incident, also on NH 44, Moaawia Youssef, a Sudanese student, who was on his way to the airport along with his cab driver, was last seen on October 14. While the cab driver was eventually traced, the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport Police confirmed that the National Disaster Response Force teams have thus far been unsuccessful in tracing the student.

Also read | How lake encroachments and official inaction led to floods in Hyderabad

Unprecedented flooding

The downpour had more devastation in store, and the restive Gurram Cheruvu lake, also part of the Umda Sagar lake basin , served as its vassal. On October 18, its bund that serves as a road connecting Barkas (a corruption of the word ‘barracks’) to Balapur succumbed to water pressure. What followed was an unprecedented flooding of neighbourhoods south of the bund.

A view of the Ali Nagar area after the floods.

A view of the Ali Nagar area after the floods.


Ravi, a caretaker of a dairy farm, recalls the roar with which the water broke the bund. “Around 1 a.m., it rose up to 12 feet, broke our walls and took away cash and furniture. I rushed to save my mother. It is a miracle that we — our four buffaloes, 15 sheep and four horses — are safe. The water then went towards Hafiz Baba Nagar,” he says.

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The scenes from Hafiz Baba Nagar are telling of the loss and devastation. Dozens here are left with nothing but the damp clothes on their backs. “The water smashed the wall of my house, and portions of the roof collapsed. The washing machine, fridge, and our clothes were all swept away. I will have to rebuild my life from scratch,” says Mohammed Salman, an optical fibre cable trencher, and the owner of a home in B Block.

On October 14, after night-long rain, the daily rainfall recorded at the weather monitoring station of the India Meteorological Department at Begumpet was 19.2 cm. It was the second highest in the recorded history of rainfall in a single day at this station since 1891. The water drowned the roads and inundated homes worth crores of rupees in upmarket localities such as Manikonda, Gachibowli, Rajendranagar and Madhapur on the western part of the city, the hub of the IT industry.


On the other hand, data from the automatic weather stations, installed by the Telangana State Development Planning Society, showed the highest for the day at 33 cm, recorded at the Singapore Township in Pocharam, in the eastern part of the city. A week later, the Irrigation Department Principal Secretary, Rajat Kumar, noted that 185 lakes overflowed on account of the rains . Of these, Appa Cheruvu, Palle Cheruvu and Gurram Cheruvu were described as those that breached.

The sisterhood of lakes

In Telangana’s natural terrain, lakes exist in sororities. The State’s undulating topography allowed the existence of a reported one lakh chain-linked lakes/ponds, locally known as Kuntas and Cheruvus, in Hyderabad and its peripheries in the pre-independence era. Surplus water from each lake flowed down to the next water body in the basin, completing a chain link. The system worked well for the region in the Deccan Plateau where canal irrigation was not an option. Owing to the linkages, flooding could be avoided during monsoons, and there would be enough water impounded for summer crops. The rulers recognised this fact, and through their diktats, maintained the lakes’ health. They also added new lakes, constructed strong bunds and drains to control the flows, and maintained and developed them.


After independence, the lakes came under the centralised command of the Irrigation Department, alienating the users from their water bodies. Since the 1970s, the pace of urbanisation has picked up, substituting the traditional value of subsistence placed on the land with that of real estate. As the city spread, traditional vocations such as agriculture and fishing vanished. Concrete jungles took over within no time.

Also read | A choked Gurram Cheruvu leaves Hyderabad’s Old City flooded

A unique aspect of the Asafjahi rule was its grant of titles to farmers in the lake beds so that when water receded in summer, the alluvial soil offered them bounty crop. No activity apart from farming was allowed on the lake bed.

With urbanisation fast catching up, and infrastructure creation not apace with it, lakes became the handy receptacles of the city’s sewage. Builders laid sewage lines up to the nearest lake, or connected them to the storm water drain network wherever it existed. The capital region is so replete with such interconnections between sewage lines and storm water drains that ‘dry flows’ is a standardised term for sewage flow into drains during the dry season. As a fallout, eutrophication soon set into the lakes, making the lakes rich with weed and poor in water-holding capacity and biodiversity. The fish died. The water became unfit for any kind of consumption. Slowly, but surely, the lake shrunk in area, quantity and quality.

Tonnes of earth being poured on the bund of the Palle Cheruvu Lake which, officials said, had breached and flooded areas including Alinagar.

Tonnes of earth being poured on the bund of the Palle Cheruvu Lake which, officials said, had breached and flooded areas including Alinagar.


Farmers and their descendants who had titles inside the lake beds sold the exposed land. Wherever the l akes became veritable sewage repositories , the urban poor settled in those areas. And where the waters were still pristine enough to proffer a ‘lake view’, the plots were sold at premium rates. Gigantic infrastructure development projects taken up by the successive governments, including the Outer Ring Road, Hyderabad Metro Rail, and the Strategic Road Development Plan, to name a few, tampered with the topography of the capital region and altered the hydrology of the lake basins. The role of land sharks, who many a time are the political leaders themselves, cannot be understated, in filling the foreshore areas of the lake bed with debris and raising structures within the full tank level.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that there is not one lake in the limits of Greater Hyderabad which has been exempted from this fate, including the famed Hussain Sagar lake. The status of the lakes in the municipalities/corporations surrounding the State capital is worse.

Shrinking water bodies

From one lakh, the water bodies have drastically come down to 185 within the Greater Hyderabad capital region, and to 3,132 within the limits of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) as enumerated by its Lake Protection Committee till date. Of the 185 lakes in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), for 75, the surplus weirs and courses are completely closed.

Also read | Lake encroachments led to flooding

According to a report on the disappearing water bodies of Hyderabad, by the Society for Participatory Development, submitted to the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, in 2017, the city had l ost 3,245 hectares of water bodies in the previous 12 years.

The Lake Protection Committee was constituted in 2010 upon the High Court’s directions responding to a PIL. It is headed by the HMDA Commissioner, and has members from departments such as GHMC, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, Irrigation, Panchayat Raj, Environment and Forests, and five district administrations under the HMDA’s purview. The Committee had been inept in terms of enforcement. It has limited itself to counting lakes alone. It has failed to fulfil its mandate of identifying lakes, demarcating boundaries and buffer zones for them, fencing them with FTL (Full Tank Level) stones, and preserving them by preventing and removing encroachments. Of the 3,132 water bodies, all formalities have been completed with respect to only 224. This number has remained unchanged for the past one year. Even where the FTL boundaries are notified, encroachments within have remained untouched, owing to several sociopolitical dynamics.


The decay of Gurram Cheruvu

Palle Cheruvu and Gurram Cheruvu are part of the Umda Sagar lake’s watershed area as per the Survey of India’s topology sheets. Gurram Cheruvu receives its inflows from Pedda Cheruvu of the same basin, which in turn is downstream of the Burhan Khan lake. There is one more unnotified water body, the Shukur lake, in the same line, emptying into Gurram Cheruvu.

The Burhan Khan lake, which is uppermost in the hydrological chain, is a huge water body with an FTL of 132 acres, of which 130 acres were intact till 2013 when it was surveyed. The government, however, had given plots for a housing colony for the poor in the lake bed, while on the other side came up a gated community, partially encroaching on the lake. A temple is now seen under construction in the foreshore area near the weir, dumped heavily with debris. During the recent floods, the lake began to submerge the colony of the poor.

While the Pedda Cheruvu and Shukur Sagar lake are relatively unhindered, rampant construction on the surplus course of both have choked the inlet of the Gurram Cheruvu. This has inundated colonies at the lake’s mouth when a deluge of inflows arrived from upstream due to copious rains.

Also read | Lakes in GHMC’s East Zone swell

On the northern edge, the Gurram Cheruvu’s main sluice was buried under heavy encroachment encouraged by local leaders and their henchmen. Truckloads of debris were allegedly dumped into the lake and levelled using heavy machinery, about which a police complaint had already been lodged by the Tehsildar in the Chandrayangutta Police Station, but to no avail. When the lake brimmed after two decades, officials were caught in a cleft stick, as Hafiz Baba Nagar residents settled downstream demanded diversion of the water. Meanwhile, the lake’s backwater had drowned the Barkas locality neck deep.

Instead of clearing the encroachment, and opening the sluice, officials tried to widen the weir portion, weakening the bund. It breached at midnight, and all hell broke loose.

People walk through floodwaters near Gurram Cheruvu.

People walk through floodwaters near Gurram Cheruvu.


The decay of this lake began not more than two decades ago. “Our uncle had agriculture under the lake. We grew paddy and vegetables, and he would distribute the crop after storing some for our needs. When the bullocks got sick, we the cousins would carry the plough along in the field,” recalls Aslam Bin Haji Al Baghdadi, 25, a resident of the area. Now, there is no farming or fishing here. The water is filled with water hyacinth weed.

A sewage receptacle

Water hyacinth defines the other lake of doom, the Palle Cheruvu, too. This lake is privately owned, just like its source lake, the Umda Sagar. Umda Sagar receives its inflows from Jalapalli Lake of the same basin. Reports about encroachments into the Jalapalli Lake appeared in the media, while the HMDA is yet to notify the centuries-old tank.

Also read | Flood-hit people pour out their woes to Central team

Palle Cheruvu tells the story of how a water body surrounded by burgeoning residential colonies has become a sewage receptacle. When Umda Sagar upstream started overflowing, the surplus water entered Palle Cheruvu, which had only one small drain, two feet wide. While the Irrigation Department maintains that the lake had breached, local people say that the lake topped over the bund and gushed on to the road and the surrounding areas on the night when Qureshi lost eight members of his family. Post the tragedy, irrigation officials were seen dumping tonnes of earth on the bund in order to raise its height.

“The outflow channel of Palle Cheruvu meets the surplus channels of two more lakes, the Salkam Cheruvu and the Surram Cheruvu, from the same basin. Together with the Gurram Cheruvu outflow, it becomes a massive stream roaring towards the Musi River during floods. But the channel is now occupied by structures, severely restricting the flow,” says Lubna Sarwat from Save Our Urban Lakes.

Gurram Cheruvu and Palle Cheruvu are both in the HMDA’s list of notified lakes. In the Umda Sagar basin, 14 of the 28 lakes had totally disappeared between 1978 and 2017, while three were in the process of disappearing, as per the study report submitted to IISc, Bengaluru. The area under water spread had reduced from 236 hectares to 134 acres.

A 2017 research paper on remote sensing study by ICRISAT and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala records the shrinkage of water bodies in the city and its surrounding areas over 16 years. In 2005, lakes recorded a total acreage of 12,535 ha. In 2016, this reduced to 2,283 ha. This means that all the floodwater that would otherwise have been impounded in these lakes, enriching the ground water, quenching thirst and feeding biodiversity of the basin is now let berserk either into the surrounding lakes, or into low-lying areas, inundating homes and killing the residents.

Also read | Bandlaguda Jagir residents living on the edge

A long-term action plan needed

But the authorities are still to learn their lessons. There is no single authority dealing with the lakes in the city. GHMC has a separate wing for lakes, and takes its own decisions about their development. One measure receiving criticism is the laying of walking tracks around the water bodies, by filling the boundary paths. The corporation has tried engineering solutions for inundation, such as constructing box-type RCC storm water drains from areas of flooding up to the nearest lake, but this has given rise to another problem by impounding more water than the lake can hold.

Two studies — one by Kirloskar Consultancy in 2002 for the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad and the other by the Voyants Consultancy in 2008 for GHMC — recommended widening and improving storm water drains, and diverting sewage.

The Voyants’ Master Plan divided the entire GHMC area into 16 hydraulic zones and identified 173 major drains, 391-km long, which needed decongestion and widening immediately. Its implementation necessitates the acquisition of 28,800 properties encroaching on the drains, an insurmountable task. Only about 35 km of the drains could be cleared till 2016 when the city experienced inundation yet again in several areas, forcing the government to consider the proposals seriously.

Also read | Sailors turned saviours on Hyderabad’s night of deluge

Ananth Maringanti, an environmentalist from Hyderabad Urban Labs, says, “It is time to seriously consider long-term definitive action, rather than resorting to drastic measures. The city has pushed its most deprived to the edges of the water bodies, and the socioeconomic dimensions involved in displacing them cannot be ignored.”

The devastation of the past few weeks forced the government to announce a ₹550 crore relief package. On October 19, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao said that ₹1 lakh would be given to those whose houses were fully damaged. Owners of partially damaged houses would be given ₹50,000. Another ₹10,000 would be given to households in low-lying areas who were hit hard by the flood.

Upstream of the Gurram Cheruvu bund, where Sayeed Colony, Ali Gulshan Colony and Hamshan Colony remained flooded for several days, Ali Bin Abdallah claims that calls made to political leaders remained unanswered. Till October 20, he alleged, neither senior officers of the GHMC nor of the revenue department arrived to assess losses.

Also read | Where is the rainwater supposed to go?

It was voluntary organisations that began to plug the perceived yawning gap in relief work. NGOs rescued victims and provided them with immediate relief in the form of food and clothing. WhatsApp groups and places of worship turned into relief war rooms. GPS coordinates of where essential supplies were needed the most were posted, with students and professionals working at the grassroots delivering them to those in need.“Providing relief began soon after rains hit the city and was crucial in plugging some gaps. To avoid duplication of work, a few organisations have come together to chalk out a strategy,” says activist S.Q. Masood.

Caught in a difficult situation, the State government is blaming the problems on the unprecedented rainfall in a single day. As per a study by the department of Civil Engineering, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus, extreme daily rainfall in the city will be a recurring phenomenon in future too. The study has postulated that in 2040, 2045, 2068, 2088 and 2098, the city may experience intense rainfall in a day ranging between 27 cm and 69 cm. How the city prepares to mitigate the potential damage that it will bring is to be seen.

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