Beware Hyderabad, a flood is in the making

Telangana repeals 1996 order, allows construction on 2 reservoirs that have saved Hyderabad from floods for over a century

By Shagun
Published: Friday 06 May 2022
Himayatsagar and Osmansagar lake reservoirs were built after the Hyderabad floods of 1908
Himayatsagar and Osmansagar lake reservoirs were built after the Hyderabad floods of 1908 (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary) Himayatsagar and Osmansagar lake reservoirs were built after the Hyderabad floods of 1908 (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

A sprawling photo studio for wedding shoots, educational institutions, upscale resorts, villas and farmhouses crowd the peripheries of the Osmansagar and Himayatsagar lakes on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The massive campuses have been set up despite a March 8, 1996 government order that prohibits construction or industrial activity within 10 kilometres of the century-old reservoirs.

That order was passed to keep the reservoirs pollution-free. Now Telangana has repealed the order, paving the way for concretisation of the catchment areas of the lakes.

The K Chaadrashekar Rao government issued two orders on April 12 and April 20, authorising construction around the reservoirs as long as theie water quality was not impacted. The orders also announced the formation of a committee under the state chief secretary to frame guidelines to protect and prevent pollution in the waterbodies, and submit the report at the earliest.

The orders now allow real estate companies and other businesses to carry out construction in 84 villages in the catchment areas of the reservoirs.

Building on a lie

The state government rationalises the decision by claiming that the reservoirs now provide only 1.25 per cent of Hyderabad’s drinking water, from 27.59 per cent in 1996.

Experts contest the claim, saying that the reservoirs were constructed to save Hyderabad from flooding. “In 1908, the city saw a devastating flood, caused by the Musi river,” said Hyderabad-based environmentalist K Purushotham Reddy. That is when the Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad had requested Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a celebrated civil engineer and the then diwan (administrator) of the erstwhile Mysore kingdom, to make a flood control plan.

Visvesvaraya suggested constructing two reservoirs upstream of Hyderabad, one on the Musi and the other on its tributary, Esa, to absorb and store excess water during floods, says Purushotham Reddy. “The Nizam later decided to use the reservoirs to provide drinking water to the city and prohibited polluting activity in the catchment area,” he added.

Till 1975, the reservoirs were used to meet the drinking water needs of Hyderabad. As the city expanded, it started receiving water from Krishna and Godavari rivers, from over 200 km away. Even today, the two reservoirs provide 226.5 billion litres of water a day to the city. “There is no logic in destroying existing facilities. It will affect the sustainability of the city,” Reddy said.

Rajkumar Singh, an environmental activist who filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2015 to conserve the catchment areas of the two lakes, says the reservoirs have saved Hyderabad from at least six major flooding events between 1908 and early 2000s. “The concretisation started around the 2000s and the city witnessed floods in 2020 and 2021,” he added.

If the catchment area gets concretised further, the flood waters could move six times faster than normal and cause unprecedented damage, said BV Subbarao, hydrologist and technical advisor at Bangalore University, adding that the latest move is not in the interest of Telangana. The Musi river originates and ends in the state.

“Telangana has 100 per cent control over the river. It has a basin of 12,000 sq km and the catchment areas of the reservoirs account for almost 17 per cent of the river’s catchment area,” Subbarao said.

“Starting in April, wind starts to flow over the two reservoirs and it has a cooling effect on Hyderabad. Allowing construction activities in its catchment areas will mean summers will get hotter in the city,” Reddy said.

Without a thought 

Telangana Chief Minister Rao said the decision would provide employment and livelihood, but the residents are sceptical. But farmers for whom agriculture is not sustainable and residents who want to sell their land but are getting low rates are in favour of this.

The real estate sharks purchased lots of land in the catchment directly. The poor sold the land at low rates as registration was not happening,” said N Saibhaskar Reddy, environmentalist and resident of Gondala village, which is in the catchment area.

Purushotam Reddy said real estate companies have already purchased sizeable chunks of land in the catchment area over the past decade or so. They now want to carry out construction work legally.

This is not the first time the state government has tried to repeal the 1996 order.

The first attempt was made in 2014, as soon as Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh. That year, there were also efforts to set up a polluting industry along the lake. The move was stalled after Singh moved NGT, which asked the chief secretary to submit a report on the number of encroachments in the 84 villages.

A government report issued at the time said there were 12,500 illegal structures in the catchment villages. Singh says the actual number is over 20,000. “The area also has government buildings that are illegal,” he said.

In 2016, the state government constituted an expert committee to study the merits of the order. Singh alleges the committee was supposed to submit its report in 45 days, but never released its findings.

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 May, 2022)

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