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Hyderabad Blues Again - Story of a Water Warrior

About the blog

Madhukar Swayambhu
Madhukar Swayambhu is a TEDx speaker, awarded by Jal Shakti Mantralaya as Water Hero, Recognized as Global Top 3 Author on Water by Smart Water Magazine (Spain), having many published articles in various Water & Environment magazines.
Schneider Electric
  • Hyderabad Blues Again - Story of Water Warrior

21st August, 2021 was a historic day for Hyderabad, when the city of pearls was declared “Water Plus” City for the 1st time.

As per Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India – “A city can be declared as Water Plus provided, all wastewater released from households, commercial establishments etc. is treated to a satisfactory level before releasing the treated wastewater to the environment".

The Water PLUS protocol aims to provide a guideline for cities and towns to ensure that no untreated wastewater is released into the environment thereby enabling sustainability of the sanitation value chain. This is in line with the Government’s focus on water conservation and reuse under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan and also aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals on clean water and sanitation. The toolkit provides the detailed SBM Water Plus protocol laid down by MoHUA, along with declaration formats to be obtained from various stakeholders, that wards / work circles (in case under jurisdiction of development authority) and cities are required to submit, as part of the SBM Water Plus declaration and certification process.”

That’s a very good news for Hyderabadis, but was it always like this?

Rest of the world assumes that the “City of Pearls” would have always been like that, but reality is far away from this perception. Just about a few years back, as recent as 2018, the only sources of Water in the plush Hyderabad residential area was ONLY water tankers, supplied by the municipal corporation, and the city was galloping towards ZERO DAY.

So how did this transformation happen?

This is because of some dedicated hardworking people and organizations working perpetually, painstakingly, against all odds for restoration of Environment & Ecology for all the people of the city. This is the story of such a WaterWarrior – A story of Kalpana Ramesh and her social organization – SAHE (Society for Advancement of Human Endeavor). Their dedication, hard work and success.

Kalpana Ramesh – The WaterWarrior of Hyderabad

3rd March, 2020 – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that on the Women’s Day (8th March, 2020), his official twitter handle shall be used by seven selected ladies recognized as the Women Achievers of the country, who have inspired people to work for the society.

These Self-starter Women were:

  • Sneha Mohandoss – A Chennai-based food activist, striving for a hunger-free planet by founding a food bank, Malvika Iyer – A motivational speaker from Rajasthan, a disability rights activist, and a model striving to make fashion accessible to all, Arifa – A Kashmiri activist seeking to revive the traditional Namda crafts, Vijaya Pawar – An artisan from the Banjara community of rural Maharashtra, Kalavati – An activist from Kanpur on a mission to make the country OD Free, Veena Devi – An economically independent organic Mushroom farmer from Munger, Bihar, and
  • Kalpana Ramesh – The WaterWarrior of Hyderabad, dedicated towards building the Water abundance of the city by restoring Waterbodies spread over the city – Lakes, ponds, baolis, step wells and even rivers.

Kalpana Ramesh has been a trained designer, well settled and established in US like a successful lady from the effluent class of the Indian society, practically living the big American dream. Like most of the people in the society, she had all the success and lavish lifestyle.

The transformation from a normal designer to extra ordinary city planner for a sustainable society started almost two decades back, in the year 2000, when she came back to India and chose to settle down in Hyderabad instead of Bengaluru (where she was born & brought up).

This was the time, when she got exposed to the tanker culture of the city for the 1st time. For almost five to six months in a year, the only possible supply of Water for the house hold requirement was to buy Water tankers on a routine basis.

Moneywise it is obviously not a concern for a US returned designer, but for a sensitive nature loving person, it’s painful to know that the nature’s biggest blessings to the living beings like Sunlight, Air, Soil & Water have a price tag. She was very sure that this is not happening and it can’t go on like this, but was unable to decide on the path to go forward. The city was busy struggling with the daily routine chaos of life and no one was bothered on such issues, since the stop gap arrangements like the Water Tanker was a very well acceptable norm in the society.

She tried convincing many residential apartments and resident welfare associations that this wasn’t the right practice and what is happening is definitely not sustainable, think about what your children, let’s create some rain water harvesting structures and apparatus within the society, let’s plan some Water management for our society & community, but all was falling in deaf ears. People had accepted the new normal, that the water is supplied by tankers only.

Though being a designer, she guided them on plan, help them install and trained them to operate too, but with lack of people’s mindset and participation, there wasn’t any sense of ownership and the model didn’t see success at all.

It was the people’s perception and mindset that Kalpana has to fight with, because a perfect designs were also not working in lack of their involvement. It was perceived to be end-to-end Kalpana’s baby, she had to convince people, educate them, teach them on the purpose and need, design, implement, run, and expand from society to society too.

It must’ve been quite a frustrating time for her. Imagine her plight, she wanted to help people, administration and society to save them from day zero, which she could envision then, and the same set of people were standing against her, doubting her intentions to fail her and skeptical about her vested interest.

The Journey Begins

The saying is – “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, and the same got implemented for the Water Warrior, when she started designing her own home. This was literally her own baby, and no one could stop her from designing it right and implement it in the right spirit.

She designed a tanker free home, by creating a sump of 30K liters for maintenance free collection, filtration, cleaning and trickling of water through multiple stages. She designed coal & sand filters for passing the direct rain water through and created a personal Water bank. The bank was able to support her house for throughout the year and no tankers were now required in her newly built home.

Her perseverance and grit was now showing results. She had a water abundant home in a parched city, and this was the beginning of the success story of the Water Warrior. Persistence, Positive attitude and Perpetual focus towards Perineal Water source – has been her 4 Ps leading towards success. Now that she had a successful role model, people started giving her a patient hearing.

By year 2012, the Water hero, started preaching the communities, the slum dwellers, the resident welfare associations, the societies, the schools and the colleges, the clubs and the NGOs on Water, sustainable practices and Rain Water Harvesting. This was a herculean task, but it had charismatic results too. When communities started following the suit, the situation started improving.

Society for Advancement of Human Endeavors (SAHE), her social organization was in full action. “Save 10K bores” was the campaign in which they worked out on community engagements, training the plumbers, reworking on the bore-well recharge strategies and reviving the defunct wells. They were conducting trainings in schools and colleges too. They had recharged and revived a few ancient stepwells and created over two hundred (200+) Rain water harvesting pits as well, through their collective efforts by now, in a city wherein Water wasn’t available for a new bore even at five hundred (500) feet depth.

By 2016, she had already made her community – tanker free. It was a tough year for the entire city, water scarcity was at peak, while people were rationing Water and tanker shortage was also observed in the city, still the society in which the WaterWarrior stayed, didn’t had to order even a single tanker. And the same story is continued till now.

From Water sovereign individual home, to the whole community – it was a BIG leap.

By now people started extending a helping hand to Kalpana, from Government Departments to Ministries, Corporates to NGOs – all came together to ride on the success wave by not just extending power an authority support, but also funds in form of grants and CSR initiatives. The communities were also impressed and started looking forwards to her advices.

From home to society to communities, it was now the ripe time to look at the next obvious destination “to restore the city” for a sustainable water condition. It was now time to move on towards restoring the natural abundance of the city. This was the advent of Kalpana’s initiative of “Lift the Lakes” under which SAHE adopted the Kudikunta Lake.

This was yet another uphill task and she had to harness support from all sections, Administration for permission, Forest department for horticulture, Communities for changing the behavioral pattern and their relationship or their psyche towards waterbody, corporate for CSR funds, Government for grants, technology companies for helping with new innovations, media for their support and traction, academia for research & propagation of idea. It was a huge list of “things to do”.

The Kudikunta Lake Revival

A magnificent eight (8) acres Lake, which used to be outside the city limits earlier, but eventually engulfed by the city due to rapid urbanization.

In the new millennia, the waterbody was not just encroached, but also transformed into a dump yard. This was one of the many neglected and crucified waterbody through the hands of rapid urbanization. Once a beautiful Lake near two of the ancient temples had, eventually become a dumping ground. City sewage was being dumped in the lake, it was a mosquito breeding ground, full of filth, foul smell, insects and carcasses of the dead. But that wasn’t all, like money attracts money, waste attracts waste as well. Thus from sewage to municipal solid waste, you name it and you had all varieties of wastes being dumped in there.

It was in this death bed situation of the lake. It was in such a bad shape that the “idea of reviving” itself was an impossible perception for the people. But the word “impossible” doesn’t exists for warriors, and therefore Kalpana Ramesh took this as the challenge to rebuild the belief system of the people.

KudiKunta Lake time lapse study from 2003 ~ 2015, satellite imagery study showing the impact of urbanization on the Waterbody. See how the surrounding is getting populated.

SAHE started the community building exercise around Kudikunta Lake by meeting the people around. About 22,000 people live within half a km from the Lake and SAHE held over hundreds of community meetings to get back the sense of ownership and responsibility. They formed a “Lake Protection Committee” out of the people residing in the vicinity and got it registered with Government as the 1st independent civil society in Hyderabad on lake protection. The awareness campaign ran over a few months altogether, sensitizing people around

In ten (10) months of rigorous meetings, symposiums, seminars and interactions with communities, SAHE tied up with colleges, schools, corporates, self-help groups, Government & administration for gathering people and volunteers for reclaiming the lake from the dump yard. About 10 tons of plastics and municipal Solid waste (MSW) was removed from the lake in 32 clean-up operations with the support of the communities.

The garbage dump was now undergoing a makeover towards its original waterbody status. Now the turn was to work on the liquid waste Water flowing in from the nearby apartments and societies. For the builder the dump yard was a safe haven for liquidating their sewer lines, but with the Water Warrior’s restoration, it was creating a problem for the builder lobby. Many tried to create hindrances and stop the savior from this restoration, but “a warrior never gives up till he wins”. So the tussle continued, and she stood against all odds to make it happen. Luckily administration and communities were in favor and the builder had to cooperate. Finally from 12 drains coming in the Waterbody, all chocked lines were cleaned and reestablished and 12 sewer lines were consolidated in to one single drain that carried 2.8 to 3.5 MLD of sewage every day to the Lake.

Now in the next phase fund-raising was to be done from the corporate CSR funds and NGO grants, for strengthening and stone-pitching of the embankment area to give it a shape of the Lake. This was yet another mammoth task. A lot of public relation (PR) and media interaction was required to build the brand, which could attract funds. Our WaterWarrior had to now wear a new cap, and thus started a massive campaign. Giving speeches, Talks, Lectures, presentations, interviews and so on. From Doordarshan Yadagiri to Lok Sabha TV, TEDx, News18 to ETV Hyderabad, EPTRI to IIT, Local Government to state to central Government – she left no stone unturned.

The Lake was now reclaimed as a waterbody and restoration of Water was the focus for the day. Now that the PR & media was aware and giving support to the social cause, many funding agencies, startups, academic institutions, research associates and government authorities came up with open hands to join in. Those who could fund, extended funding, those who could give technology, shared their equipment’s, ideas, prototype and so on.

Kalpana had designed the lake well and reclaimed it from garbage dump, back to its age old shape. She tried almost all the technologies under the sun. They installed floating islands, tried phytorid, worked upon cyno-bacterial treatment, chemical treatments, solar pumps, mechanical cleaning, dredging – if anyone used to come up with any technology, SAHE used to entertain them. Because the idea was very clear, the rejuvenation had to happen, come what may.

But the challenge that each technology had to face was the daily sewage addition of a whopping 2.8 to 3.5 MLD volume. They did a lot of hard work, even nature was responding to them, since the birds were back, but some problems were just perineal like the algal bloom, mosquito breeding, massive foul smell in the vicinity and such other water decay / eutrophication problems. But the struggle was on, and the Warrior was still fighting the war.

The Divine Intervention

People say “if there’s purity in your intentions, the entire universe will help you proceed towards your goal” – that’s called the divine intervention. Somewhat similar happened, when in the year 2019, a new ministry called “Jal Shakti Mantralaya” got constituted for the 1st time in India.

The ministry started the “Jal Shakti Abhiyan” and came up with a contest to recognize and certify the Water Heroes in the society. Though our WaterWarrior was doing the same, without any government reward or recognition for almost two decades by now, but a government recognition would make the entire nation aware, and would’ve support the cause too.

In the month of October, 2019, our WaterWarrior was certified as the winner of the contest “Water Heroes: Share your story”. In the same month, there was another winner of the contest from another part of the country, Madhukar Swayambhu (Founder of Vaidic Srijan LLP) from Delhi. He was awarded for his technology, which he called “Cownomics™ Technology”, which was inspired by Vaidic Sciences and was aimed at “Resurrection of the native ecology of the wetlands” in situ conditions, which basically meant that the algal bloom, foul smell, mosquito colonies – all will get abolished and the other functions of a natural Waterbody like aquifer recharge, aquatic food chain, carbon sequestration, air pollution mitigation – will all get reinstated.

As the Mantralaya shared a common mail to all the winners, both the winners got introduced to each other in the same mail. Thus started a series of interaction and research. SAHE team interacted with Madhukar and studied about their case studies, media coverage, videos, blogs, presentations and TED Talks. They got convinced that this can be tried out for solving the problems of Kudikunta Lake.

One the discussions, research and due-diligence was over, and the plan to co-work was frozen, by the time both heroes joined hands to rescue the Lake, the Chinese virus had broken the political boundaries and the COVID attack had frozen the world. The Global Lock down happened. And thus in spite of a clear intent to work together, the project was jeopardized.

As they say, there’s always a right time for everything. India overcame the 1st attack and finally the country opened up again after the 1st COVID wave was over. SAHE and Vaidic Srijan (Madhukar Swayambhu’s team) joined hands together to work on the Kudikunta Lake Rejuvenation project in September, 2020.

Vaidic Srijan team studied the Lake ecology, as they do for every project. Their process starts from the study. After a meticulous & conscientious study and understanding the comprehensive limnological picture, they make the Cownomics™ Concentrate, which is a herbal extract of prudently selected herbs & shrubs based upon the study. This concentrate is a concoction of 100% botanical extracts, which is then diluted with fresh water from the same agro-climatic zone, as that of the Waterbody to be treated. Now this diluted concentrate is poured in the Waterbody, and get synthesized by the aqua-ecology in presence of the photons supplied by the sunlight, and the resurrection process starts. As the sewage additions is continuous, the treatment also has to be done on a daily basis, and eventually the Lake ecology is strengthened enough to deal with the daily addition.

Vaidic Treatment Starts

The project start on 1st of October, 2020.

For Kudikunta Lake, SAHE had already been doing a lot of work for years for Water Quality Improvement, but all failed to success due to the consistent unstoppable untreated sewage input of 2.5 ~ 3.8 MLD. But in the attempt of using and trying out various technologies, SAHE had already done, quite a lot of health improvement, which was evident with the birds returning back to the Waterbody. Thus it was just the right time for “Resurrection”. Water responded very well to the treatment and the rejuvenation was quite evident from the 1st treatment itself.

Within merely forty five (45) minutes from the 1st dosing, tiny bubbles started appearing across the surface of the lake. These were oxygen bubbles, which were generated due to decomposition of the phosphate molecules (abundant in the domestic sewage). Moreover, the negative ORP (Oxidation Reduction Potential) of the diluted concentrate supplied the aqua-ecology with a lot of electrons resulting in to something like a CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resurrection) shock to the native microbiota of the limnology.

In about a weeks’ time, the stench was completely eradicated. The resurrection phase was in full force, and the Lake was responding very well to the treatment. The daily addition of the sewage was getting daily neutralized too. Parallely the dredging of the settled sludge was also being done by the native microbiota, as a part of their natural metabolic activity. As a result, the sludge layer was being consumed, and Water was reclaiming the space. The surface salvaging was already done by SAHE, now the Cownomics™ Treatment was recovering the aquatic space too. As soon as the complete sludge layer was consumed, the soil capillaries would open up and ensure the aquifer recharge, which was the basic purpose of the WaterWarrior behind the master plan of dividing the whole city into Water clusters and creating Watershed structures for recharge of the aquifer to enrich the Water table. Kalpana was happy to see the developments, but wanted to test the efficiency too.

And then came the return monsoon of 2020, which had a break journey in Hyderabad. It rained so heavily that the record for rains in Hyderabad for the month of October, broke for last one hundred (100) years. Over one hundred sixty five (165+) waterbodies, including the mammoth sized Hussain Sagar Lake also flooded. This was good enough a challenge to check the efficacy of the treatment. And our Warrior was happy to see the results. Kudikunta was now a rejuvenated Lake, in spite of the daily sewage addition. No stench, no mosquitoes, but the weeds (algae, hyacinth and a little bit of Azolla) were still there. So the treatment continued.

Parallel to the Water, she also wanted to see the effect of the Air. Thus involved EPTRI, Hyderabad to test the Water & Air quality too. Within about quarter of testing, the results were quite satisfying even on the air quality. The Air Quality Index (AQI), which was at 365 in September, 2020, had come down to sub 150 level by January, 2021.

The entire ecology was responding well to the efforts of the Water Warrior, Aquatic life was in a good shape, many birds flocked around the Waterbody, plants were looking healthy, Water was low viscosity, wavy and lighter in color, no mosquitoes, no stench, Water recharge was happening, daily sewage input was getting neutralized on a daily basis, air was fresh around the lake, overall it was a rejuvenating experience for one and for all to spend some time around Kudikunta.

All parameters were regularly checked and found to be satisfactory in all aspects. In nine (9) months of treatment with Cownomics, SAHE & the WaterWarrior was able to get the desired results in situ conditions. The project united the efforts of two different experts in two different fields and helped the improvement in the Water conditions of the Lake.

Apart from KudiKunta, Kalpana Ramesh, restored hundreds of ancient step wells, recharged hundreds of defunct bore wells, and created hundreds of rain water harvesting pits, trained thousands of people and educated huge number of plumbers to help Hyderabad achieve the status of Water plus, and the support from Government, Authorities, NGOs, Corporates, Communities and all the people around has been commendable, to make this journey successful. Above all, her determination & grit has paid well.

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