Nature-Based Solutions for Water Management in the Peri-Urban

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Udaipur Lake System: An Integrated Nature-Based Solution for Water Sustainability in Rajasthan, India

Author: Nandita Singh

Udaipur is a heritage city in the semi-arid western state of Rajasthan in India, known for its unique network of interconnected lakes, which has bestowed upon it the sobriquet “City of Lakes”. These lakes and their connecting channels and streams constitute a complex system, representing an integrated nature-based solution that was created more than 400 years ago. The network comprises more than 100 interconnected, big and small, public and private artificial (human-made) lakes, which are spread across its peri-urban spaces as well as its urban core. Ten of these lakes are large and vital for the system to function. The purpose of creation of the system was to support and sustain water availability in Udaipur, which is situated in a valley in the Aravalli Mountains, without any access to a perennial water source. This water cycle gap is addressed through rainwater harvesting and collection of runoff in the interconnected lakes, allowing only the excess to flow out. The network has thus sustained groundwater recharge and made water available for drinking, agriculture and other livelihoods for the populations living in and around the city. It has also supported a range of cultural services through the ages and helps prevent floods from the sudden heavy showers in the valley. Historically, the larger lakes were mainly created and maintained under royal patronage. Presently these are governed by the Rajasthan State government and the local municipality. The smaller lakes were mainly managed by local communities in the past, but have now become neglected.

This photo story aims to raise awareness about how the picturesque Udaipur lakes – the central attraction in this heritage city – actually hold much deeper value for the city, its peri-urban spaces and their inhabitants. As an integrated rainwater harvesting system, it represents the water foundation of the city, that has a deep significance for its existence. It also aims to highlight the need to improve the state of the lakes and manage them sustainably, by strengthening the integrated perspective, connecting stakeholders and building cross-sectoral synergies. The title photo presents a picturesque view of Fateh Sagar Lake in the heart of the city of Udaipur. (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh).

A picturesque view of Udaipur city and its lake waters nestled in the Aravalli hills (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Udaipur is a historical city situated at an altitude of 598 m (1,962 ft) above sea level. It lies nestled in a valley named Girwa Valley situated on the highly eroded southern slope of the Aravalli Mountains - the oldest fold mountains in India. Towards the north-west of the area where the city is located lies the Great Indian Desert. The city and its peripheries have a hot semi-arid climate, where the temperature ranges between a highest of about 42°C in summer to a lowest of around 2°C in winters. With a population of less than half a million in the city and its suburbs, it is a comparatively low income city and quite densely populated, as evident from the photo above. The city is undergoing rapid urbanization. Its expanse has increased manifold over the decades, changing from mere 17 in 1946 to 221 in 2011.

‘The upper lake called Badi Madar located in the peri-urban foothills (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

The ten large lakes in the Udaipur Lake system can be classified into three groups: Upper lakes, City Lakes and Downstream Lake. The lake network functions at a catchment scale, which is the Berach River Basin. There are three Upper lakes located in the upper catchment area, one of which is Badi Madar. Situated about 19 kms roughly northwest from the city, the lake mainly comprises the runoff brought by two rivulets originating from the adjacent hills. The lake is formed by an embankment constructed across this water body, from which emerges a stream locally also called Madar. Depth of the lake is about 8 m. Madar stream provides irrigation water in the neighboring villages and later combines with another stream emerging from the neighboring second Upper lake called Chhoti Madar. This combined stream serves as the main source of Ayad (or Ahar) river that feeds the City lakes located further downstream.

The bed of Ayad river during dry season (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

The lake system is dependent on a number of ephemeral watercourses which bring runoff from the hills into the valley which is then impounded in a series of lakes and ponds in and around Udaipur. The overflow from the system drains into river Berach downstream. Berach river in turn joins Chambal, a tributary in the Ganges River system. The lakes were created by generally raising embankments on one side of the watercourse bringing runoff from the hills or spillover from a preceding lake. The most important of the ephemeral watercourses that feed and interconnects the lake system is Ayad. This river carries water received from the Badi and Chhoti Madar lakes (mentioned earlier), mainly during and immediately after the rainy season. For rest of the year, water availability in the river is generally limited. The above photo was taken in July 2019, just before the onset of rainy season.

Sluice gate and overflow in the course of Ayad river at Loyera-Chikalwas (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

At a peri-urban place called Loyera-Chikalwas, a feeder canal originates from Ayad river that carries water to Fateh Sagar Lake located downstream towards the south-east. The main course of the river continues to flow a eastwards towards the city via a sluice gate and an overflow. Closing of the sluice gate shown above enables diversion of water into the feeder canal that branches off a little before.

Badi Lake which serves as a buffer water reserve for Udaipur city (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Lake Badi (or Jayana Sagar) is the third Upper lake, located about 12 km west of the city of Udaipur. This artificial lake was constructed around 1643 by the local ruler to counteract the devastating effects of a famine, a function it has served more than once in recent decades as well. Otherwise, it supplies water for irrigation in the neighboring villages, and its overflow feeds Fateh Sagar Lake in the city. The lake covers an area of 155 and an average depth of more than 10 meters.

Lake Pichola in the heart of Udaipur city, with an ornamental palace-hotel on an island inside (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

The City Lakes of Udaipur are the ones situated within the municipal boundaries. Lake Pichola is the largest of these, said to be about 650 years old. It is very picturesque, encircled on all sides by ornamental palaces, marble temples, and mansions, besides palaces on islands inside, and crisscrossed by ornamental bridges with attractive arches. The lake has a surface area of about 7 sq. km. and an average depth more than 4 m. This lake is the main local drinking water source for the city, and itself obtains water from a seasonal stream called Sisarma that originates in the nearby hills. Pichola is connected to a number of smaller City lakes, namely, first Rang Sagar and Swaroop Sagar in series, and Kumharia Talab which branches off from Rang Sagar. Pichola is also connected to Fateh Sagar - the second largest City lake - which receives its overflows for storage through a link canal.

A view of the water expanse in Fateh Sagar Lake, with the Udaipur Solar Observatory island seen in the far end (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Fateh Sagar is a roughly pear-shaped lake constructed in 1678, and later renovated in 1889. It has a surface area of about 4, and an average depth of over 5 m. The lake receives water from three main sources: river water from Ayad (routed via a lock at Loyera-Chikalwas), and lake waters from the Upper lake Badi and City lake Pichola, besides local drainage from its catchment. Excess water from the lake flows into Ayad river via a connecting drain. It serves as a water reservoir in the midst of the city which helps with groundwater recharge and as a stand-by drinking water reserve.

Goverdhan Sagar – the southernmost City Lake in Udaipur (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Goverdhan Sagar, which is located around 2.5 km southwest of Udaipur city, receives and stores overflows from Pichola Lake, thus also helping flood cushioning in the city. It is also fed by runoff from its local catchment. It is the smallest lake of Udaipur in terms of expanse, but the depth is as much as 9 meters.

Gumania Nala carrying excess water away from the City Lakes to Ayad river (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Overflows emerging from Fateh Sagar and Swaroop Sagar lakes are carried away by a drain variously called Gumania or Panchavati Nala which empties into Ayad river on the outskirts of the city.

A downstream stretch of Ayad river on the outskirts of Udaipur city (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

A view of Udai Sagar – the only Downstream Lake in Udaipur (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Ayad river (shown earlier) flows eastwards for about 13 km to drain into the last lake of Udaipur - called Udai Sagar - created in 1559. Overflows from this lake leave the Udaipur valley to supply water further downstream, where the emergent watercourse assumes the name Berach, which ultimately drains into the Ganges River system. Over the decades, river Ayad has turned into the main drainage channel of Udaipur city and lake Udai Sagar has consequently become extremely polluted, making the water unhygienic for human consumption and unfavorable for survival of aquatic life. Eutrophication is evident in the photo above. Also, the water has a strong foul stench from polluted water. While Ayad river was shown as dry upstream, much of the water seen in the downstream stretches (as seen in the earlier photo) actually comprises the untreated municipal sewage and industrial effluents that are received through innumerable city drains all along its course.

Solid waste and eutrophication in Rang Sagar lake (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

The state of Udaipur lake system is alarmingly poor today in terms of quality as well as quantity of water. The status of Ayad river and Udai Sagar lake has been already illustrated above. Rest of the City lakes present similar scenarios, with different kinds of solid waste such as bread, flowers, plastics and bottles seen floating. A number of sewage outlets, from the numerous adjacent hotels as well as private dwellings, open into these lakes, causing eutrophication.

Cleaning staff from local municipality cleaning the waters in Rang Sagar lake (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Cleaning on the banks of Pichola lake by volunteers and members of a local civil society organization called Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti
(Lake Conservation Society) (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

Pollution in the Udaipur lake system is gaining serious dimensions, which is driving this unique nature-based solution towards devastation. Consequently, different stakeholders have started taking action for cleaning up the lakes, excerpts of which are shown in the above photos. Restoration activities have been undertaken by the national government, state government, and Urban Improvement Trust (UIT), that have jointly prepared and implemented a lake conservation plan for Pichola and Fateh Sagar in recent years. However, the authorities, who shoulder the main responsibility in this regard are criticized by the civil society and citizens as paying only lip service. They are of the opinion that while the weeds are being removed, little is done to stop the source of eutrophication causing the proliferation of weeds. The civil society actions are mainly organized as occasions to sensitize masses towards the state of the lakes and the need for citizen action to improve the situation. In addition, these organizations also act as advocacy forums that have contested court cases for protecting the lakes.

Phoota Talab - one of the several encroached smaller lakes in Udaipur (Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

The water quantity-related problems mainly originate from major land use changes in the lake catchments and their beds. At many places the catchments are deforested or disturbed by construction of houses, roads, bridges etc. as a result of which natural drainage passages are obstructed. At other places, entire lake beds have been encroached, with residential colonies and other kinds of new land uses coming up. One such encroached lake is shown in the above photo which disappeared when a residential colony was built in its bed about two decades back. Now the area gets flooded whenever the monsoon showers are heavy. Almost all the City lakes are getting increasingly encroached in different ways. On the whole, land use changes have most directly affected the runoff flowing into the lakes which now instead of getting stored in the encroached lakes tends to quickly flow out of the city. This, in turn, reduces groundwater recharge and hence groundwater availability, and also flash floods because the flood cushioning provided by the numerous smaller lakes is disappearing due to their encroachment.

An alarmingly low level of water in Pichola lake near the drinking water supply infrastructure
(Photo courtesy: Om Prakash Singh)

An immediate impact of the degradation of the Udaipur lake system is consistent lowering of lake water levels. Pichola, which is the main drinking water source for the densely populated areas of the old city nearby, is increasingly becoming deficient in this regard. A lake that is said to have never gone dry in the past even during drought years, has started drying up in recent decades. In 2005, it is reported to have dried up completely. This is not because of the increase in population, but mainly due to reduced water capacity resulting from increasing siltation and lowering of groundwater levels. The status of water in the lake in July 2019, just before onset of the rainy season, is seen in the photo above. Reduction of groundwater availability is in turn linked to encroachment of smaller lakes and ponds in the system and degraded catchments.

A number of important lessons can be drawn from the case study of the Udaipur lake system. Firstly, rainwater harvesting and collection of local runoff is an important nature-based solution that may potentially fulfil the water needs of urban centres, as well as peri-urban spaces around. Secondly, since the lake system was based on local knowledge and management practices that involved local stakeholders, integration of the same is essential for protection, upkeep and maintenance of the system in order to prevent its degradation in present times. Thirdly, different stakeholder may share different kinds of interests in the lake system and its components. However, resolving these conflicts in favor of environmental interests is essential for keeping the lake system alive. And finally, engagement of local citizens in maintenance and upkeep of the lake system presents the potential of their improved governance in future. An effective strategy integrating the above lessons can help strengthen this unique nature-based solution through rejuvenation and restoration of the lake system and expansion of rainwater harvesting practices in the city and its peri-urban spaces.