In the desert state of Rajasthan, India, a couple of centuries ago two cities were faced with an eternal quest – how to quench thirst? One succeeded and created a rich heritage of water conservation, the other perished in the parched lands. In the lap of world’s oldest mountain ranges, Aravalli, their rise and fall presents a template of living and dying for the future generations.
Bhangarh is a ghost town about 110 kms from Jaipur, Rajasthan’s state capital. Legend has it that it was a bustling town cursed by a magician who coveted the queen. She spurned his overtures and the jilted lover destroyed the beautiful city. However, the reality is little less romantic but equally tragic. Bhangarh was a trade outpost, a town that thrived on commerce. In time its importance soared and so did its population. Rising thirst of a burgeoning population forced wells deeper in the ground and the water tanks rapidly lost their high levels to meet the demand. Finally, the last saviour, monsoons, failed to resp0nd to the needs of the people year after year. Suddenly water was worth its weight in gold and yet all the bullion couldn’t buy it for there wasn’t any left. Forced by thirst, residents gave up their thriving trade and started moving out till there was no one left in Bhangarh town. The deserted town was no match to the advancing jungles of Aravalli and soon surrendered to relentless march of the nature and was engulfed by wild growth.
Meanwhile the other town Jaipur succeeded where Bhangarh failed as the former had the foresight that was sorely missing in the latter. The rulers of Amber wanted to create a city but were acutely aware of the importance of water. They commissioned civil engineers to create a system of rain harvesting three centuries ago that was so ahead of its time that even today it can serve as an example of water management. If you have seen the movie Rang De Basanti you will remember Amir and gang sitting in stadium type reservoir up a ridge. It’s a part of the rain water harvesting system in use, partially, even now in Jaipur. The civil engineers of the time created water channels on both sides of the ridge and their water would collect in reservoirs that were built on the ridge where ever there was a little depression. If you enter Jaipur via the Amber Fort you would see a line running parallel to the upper part of the ridge, it’s not a natural feature but the water channel created centuries ago to collect rain water. These reservoirs supplied water through the year to Nahargarh fort and the new complex, the city palace, built later. The rulers of Jaipur created three lakes, Ramgarh, Talkatora and Mansagar and then asked people in their state to come and start a city. Slowly and steadily people moved in and Jaipur city was born. Beginning with a population of a few thousand residents it had enough water to sustain a population of a couple of millions. It was a vast oasis in an area notorious for water scarcity.
The last quarter of the 20th century witnessed unprecedented urbanisation in India. The latest UN reports suggest that urbanisation in India is one of the fastest in the world. This rapid expansion has taken its toll as most of the cities today are bursting at the seams, heritage is under siege and the infrastructure is stretched to its limits. Jaipur too has its share of woes. It expanded exponentially in the last three decades and its famed water bodies bore the brunt of modernisation. The Ramgarh Lake, venue of kayaking and canoeing in 1982 Asian games, is now a dust bowl. Talkatora is blocked and the Mansagar too had turned into a dumping ground for the city’s two biggest severs – Brahmpuri and Nagtalai.
Just when it seemed that the city was hurtling towards Bhangarh’s fate, its long tradition of wisdom and foresight asserted itself and the government entered into a public private participation to revive the Mansagar Lake. Work started three years ago and a separate channel was created that stopped severs from directly emptying their waste in the lake and instead carries it away for one and a half kilometres. The channel ends on the east end of the Lake in a wide and deep chamber. The width and the depth robs the sever waste flow of its speed and most of the impurities settles down in the chamber basin. The chamber has a wall of boulders, mud and weed at the end and the water seeps through it into another chamber before entering the lake. Just the use of these two ingenious chambers have helped reduce the pollution in the lake from 350 BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) to 15 BOD, with no use of electricity or any other form of energy. As Jaipur’s climate is very warm and dry the shallow Mansagar Lake would dry up in summers. To deal with the problem experts suggested that the depth of the lake should be increased from three feet to six feet. This innovation coupled with two electric water treatment plants that pump seven million gallons of recycled waste water into the lake everyday have helped buck the trend of drying up. Even two successive weak monsoons have not been able to dry up the lake that was seasonal puddle till a few years ago.
The sparkling lake is an example of how modern technology and ancient wisdom can come together for urban renewal, heritage revival, resource creation and infrastructure development. Nature is remarkably resilient only if we give it space in terms of time to recoup itself. Jaipur has shown that it hasn’t lost touch with its conservation heritage. As a former professor of agriculture in Bikaner said years ago, “Desert civilisations will outlive river valley civilisations, they know the value of water and acuteness of thirst.”
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