Bhuj’s Lake of Life

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    It is sad, but today’s India has a very peculiar relationship with its rivers, lakes and water bodies. Once providers of much-needed fresh water, transportation and livelihood, today they have become dumping grounds for waste and filth. The only time they make it to the news is when we lament about the condition they are in! Filled with toxic waste, parched most of the year, flooding during the rains, it’s as though these lifelines have become harbingers of catastrophe. In such a scenario it is important to revisit an old connection that has flourished for 450 years. The relationship between Lake Hamirsar and the city of Bhuj, which is unique. Every time the lake overflows due to rains, it is a cause for celebration! Geology and history come together for this.

    Hamirsar Lake is at the heart of a unique 450-year-old rainwater management system, which has sustained the city of Bhuj for centuries. To understand the innovative water management system of Kutch, it is necessary to understand the distinct geology of the region.

    The land of Kutch is 180 million years old. It was buried beneath the sea at several points during its history as the tectonic plates parted and collided over time. The process of sediment deposition and rock formation occurs constantly, regardless of sea level. Therefore, the rocks that formed while this land was the sea floor became saline. The water stored in these rocks, as a result, was inherently saline. Even today, while the water is sweet at the surface, it becomes saline at greater depths. Hence only 15 of mainland Kutch stores fresh water. So only a small zone has the potential for substantial groundwater withdrawals.

    Even today, the water is sweet at the surface, but saline at greater depths

    To add to the troubled geological past is the harsh climate. Kutch falls in one of the most arid regions of India receiving around 430 mm of annual rainfall in comparison to the national average of 1153 mm. Moreover, it has a high coefficient of variance in annual rainfall of 65%. This means that the total amount of rainfall can vary up to 65% from the average, year to year. Thus, every drop of rainwater is precious and has to be conserved.

    Even the Harappans realized the importance of water management more than 4000 years ago. The Harappan city of Dholavira located in Khadir Bet Island in the Kutch desert was one of the largest cities of its time and thrived from 2650 BCE to 1450 BCE. To sustain a large population, Dholavira harnessed annual flooding of two adjoining freshwater streams and stored freshwater reservoirs. As time passed, Dholavira was abandoned as an urban settlement and this water system fell into disuse.

    Over centuries, Kutch was ruled by several powers. The Indo-Greek kings, Guptas and the Scythian kings known as Sakas. In the 14th century CE, the Jadeja dynasty established its rule in Kutch and continued to rule it till India’s independence in 1947. The Jadejas (who claimed to be descendants of the god, Krishna) also established their kingdoms at other places in Gujarat such as Jamnagar, Morbi, Rajkot and Gondal.

    It was the Jadeja ruler, Rao Khengarji I who declared Bhuj the capital of Kutch in 1549 CE. The site was chosen as it was located in a Cretaceous sandstone belt – one of the only in Kutch – that provided a consistent source of groundwater to the settlement and the surrounding agricultural area. This was one of the few places where rainwater could be stored without turning saline. In a dry and arid region, such a place was worth its weight in gold!

    Rao Khengarji I declared Bhuj the capital of Kutch in 1549 CE

    On this site, was a small pond named Hamirai. When Bhuj became the capital of the Jadeja kingdom in 1549 CE, Rao Khengarji I decided to make this pond, the heart of a sophisticated water management system that would sustain the capital city. He enlarged the pond and increased its expanse to around 28 acres and named it after Rao Hamir (1472 – 1524 CE), the father of Rao Khengarji. Since the original catchment area was small, a network of canals and channels were built, that would divert fresh water to the Hamirsar Lake. There was also a network of 43 reservoirs around it so that any overflowing water could also be conserved. As a result, Bhuj had abundant water to sustain it throughout the year.

    The drinking water to the city was supplied from the large wells connected to the lake, which were in turn connected to community wells. The fresh water from the lake kept recharging the wells. In the 19th century, check dams were built to harness water for irrigation. Also, a channel was constructed from Hamirsar Lake to nearby Pragsar Lake, thereby interconnecting the two lakes.

    Not surprisingly, the entire city grew around the lake. The locals and the Jadeja government spent huge sums of money maintaining the lake and its system. Palaces and grand government buildings were built on the banks of the lake. This relationship between the lake and the community continued even with the advent of piped water in the 20th century CE, all the way up to the 1970s.

    This water management system of Bhuj sustained the city for almost 400 years and was actively functioning till the 1970s. Then, rapid urbanization, encroachment of catchments areas and digging of bore wells disrupted this system. The fragile eco-system of water catchment areas fell victim to human greed and apathy. Housing colonies were built on these areas while reservoirs and tanks dried up. Wells and ponds became dumping grounds of filth and water channels were silted and blocked.

    By 2001, when the great earthquake struck Bhuj, Hamirsar had already lost its catchment areas as well as its ability to recharge the groundwater of Bhuj.

    It is only since 2010, that attempts have been made to revive the old water system of Bhuj. Hamirsar Lake has been desilted and its channels revived. The Bhuj municipality has also revived the earlier princely tradition of celebrations and puja when the Hamirsar Lake overflows. The attempt is to reestablish the bond between the community and the lake. But a lot more needs to be done to restore Hamirsar Lake and its catchment area to their former glory. Hamirsar Lake has been cleaned up. But it no longer supplies water to Bhuj. It is merely a tourist attraction, popular with visitors and locals alike.

    The story of Hamirsar Lake and Bhuj water system raises important questions about the development model followed by Indian city planners, and the relationship Indian cities have with the water bodies. Lessons from history and how we managed our water so well, even 400 ago, will go a long way in addressing the crisis that we face today!

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