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World Water Day March 22

March 14, 2015

March 22nd is celebrated globally as World Water Day. Simply to bring focus on this life giving substance which has made planet earth inhabitable and which is at risk. The theme this year is Water and Sustainable Development, an all-encompassing one and perhaps relevant to governments and institutions one would believe but think again.

Water is one substance which touches our lives daily. As the slogan is coined it is everybody’s business. Without it there would be no health, no hygiene and no safe sanitation. There would be very little agriculture and no growth in the economy.

In the old days in many parts of India there was a concept called the ‘pyaoo’. This was a water point set up in summer by philanthropists to provide cool water to the thirsty. An edict of the Emperor Asoka in Dhauli, Orissa urges the populace to plant trees and dig wells, particularly on roads were a weary traveller could rest in the shade and quench his thirst. Though some of these water places continue to exist much has become commercial to the point that now you insert a coin and water is dispensed for drinking.

There are many things one can do to secure water starting from being conservative in use and not wasting it. A house owner incorporated a rainwater harvesting system. Storing part of the roof rainwater in a sump and recharging the rest through a small open well. Five years of rain has helped the water table in the local area and not only his bore-well but that of his neighbours are full.

Though one must do what one can for oneself, Thinking beyond the self is crucial. A Government aided school saw individual donations which enabled it to get two sets of toilets, one for boys and for girls. Another assistance provided rainwater harvesting systems to collect rooftop rainwater for both storage and recharge of an open well in the school premise. This enhanced water security and in a do-it-yourself spirit the boys and girls of the school actually worked to build the toilet themselves guided by their teacher.

In the spirit of community informal groups called Friends of Lakes are forming all over the city. They gather every Sunday adopt and clean up the local lake. They also work with authorities to ensure that the lake is preserved and maintained. Slow but important steps of thinking beyond the self. Working with institutions and pressuring them to provide water as a right to those who do not have access to it is also part of the caring.

Nature and bio-diversity should also become part of our thinking around water. While a revived lake will provide for flora and fauna, even a small bowl of water placed out in summer and replaced regularly so as to avoid mosquito breeding, will provide succour to birds in hot summer. The smaller insects such as bees will need just some damp sand and soil to draw their water sustenance.

Worldwide, our rivers, our lakes, our wells need help and World Water Day reminds us of our duties and possibilities. As the famous naturalist Dr. Jane Goodall said ‘Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help will be saved “

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Locating small town India in a watershed

March 8, 2015

The tankers have started plying and it is not March yet. Small towns in semi-arid India see a crisis of water come summer. The months till the advent of the monsoon are going to be long and hard and full of fights for water in many places.

The next 90 days are sure to be trying ones. What can be done to redress the situation? For one, towns should start to place themselves in a watershed.

What is a watershed? Any area of land where the rainwater falling exits at a single point such as a river or a lake is called a watershed. It is a basic hydrological unit which can be planned for water collection and recharge. The map below shows some of the sub watersheds around the town of Devanahalli north of Bengaluru. Each area bordered by a red line is a sub-watershed usually culminating in a tank .

Devanahalli_24X20

The town of Devanahalli, the birthplace of the legendary Tippu Sultan,  in the centre red area used to draw water from bore-wells from a small tank to its North (in a circle) called the ‘Seehi Neeru kere’ or sweet water tank. The tank is now dry as are the bore-wells located there.

As can be seen from the map, there are 5 tanks  upstream of this sweet water tank. If all of them are de-silted and the channels connecting them kept in shape and without silt or encroachment come a good monsoon the tanks should fill up, overflow and eventually fill the sweet water tank. This will appropriately recharge the aquifers below and enable Devanahalli town to have good water. Unfortunately the jurisdiction of Devanahalli town ends with the Seehi Neeru Kere and does not extend to the tanks North of it. These come either under the purview of the Zilla Panchayath or the Minor Irrigation Department.

Only a coordinated District Plan encompassing the entire watershed upstream of Devanahalli and involving the inor Irrigation Department and the Zilla Panchayath can reasonably hope to provide water to the town as well as the villages and  innumerable townships springing around it.

Down to the South is another circle which shows the large Bettakote tank. This tank gains water from  run-off of rain falling on  the runway of the International Airport. The watershed of the Bettakote tank if maintained well can provide substantial recharge for groundwater. This too can be a source of drinking water for the town of Devanahalli as well as the surrounding villages in an area where groundwater levels are precipitously declining. Thanks to some de-silting works undertaken using the MGNREGA funds this tank has some water and the aquifers including open wells are recharged. A massive upscaling of the de-silting work to encompass all tanks would be most useful to the water situation in the area.

The time to plan for water is now in the summer and to execute tank rehabilitation as well as channel repair works and prepare for the rains. Adopting and understanding the bigger picture of the watershed will enable all users of water to get their fair share.

Planning for water at the appropriate scale is water wisdom.

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Three trick pony

September 28, 2014

The three products address a part of the crisis gripping urban India, energy, water and waste.

So do you have a solar water heater?

A Rain barrel?

A kitchen waste composter?

No? What are you waiting for?

Yes? Well done then.

A solar water heater works fine for about 300 days in a year in a city like Bangalore. It preheats water for the rest of the 65 cloudy or rainy days. A hot water bath being a dire necessity for any self respecting Indian, the solar water heater is a boon. It saves money to boot with fast increasing electricity prices and pays back for itself in about 4 years. No wonder than that Bangalore has the largest number of solar water heaters for any city in India. Many solar water heaters are available in the market and the choice is wide.

A Rain Barrel or even any other form of rainwater harvesting such as a filter and storage in a sump tank or even a recharge well to top up the groundwater aquifer is another must in an era of water shortage, bad water quality and sky rocketing price for water tankers. This works for the 60 days that it rains in the city and depending on the use can supplement water requirements quite a lot. Consider getting and installing a Rain Barrel, takes half a day and you can get all the years drinking and cooking water supply straight from the Indian Ocean. Rain barrels have to be bought and installed and any well trained plumber can do that. If you want to buy rain filters many are available in the market.

The mountain of waste that a city throws up now exercises the highest political leadership of the land as well as the judiciary. The solution begins at home. A kitchen composter can take the segregated waste which can be bio-degraded and turns it to rich compost which can be used in pots and gardens to grow the organic ‘bhindi’  which you so crave or even the brinjals for that matter. This simple act of segregation , composting and recycling which would take no more than 5 minutes of your time can save tonnes of monies for the local government, acres of land and water which would otherwise be polluted beyond description and keep our environment clean. Readymade composters are available with bio-additives which hasten the process of composting  in the city and outside.

Now that you have the three essential products for basic survival

how about a cycle for moving around instead of your car ?

How about some solar lighting systems with LED bulbs?

How about a kitchen bio-gas plant to generate your cooking gas requirement?

A fast expanding list for a responsible citizen journey which you and the city will be proud of.

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Sustainable sanitation – Agenda for India

September 13, 2014

The U.N. set the Millennium Development Goals or the MDG between 2000 and  2015. Goals 4 and  7 was to halve the number of people without access to improved water or sanitation. The goal for water is likely to be reached by the deadline but sadly not for sanitation. Unfortunately in the quest to provide access to facilities for people the sustainability component was missed. This miss will hopefully be rectified when the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) come into place as the next phase of the MDGs. As estimated by UNICEF and WHO, the burden of bad sanitation for India is the death of over 386,600 children due to water borne disease particularly diarrhea, a crippling physical and mental stunting called enteropathy which disables children from absorbing nutrition and finally the loss to the economy amounting to 6.50% of the GDP in 2012 as per an estimate of the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank.

What is sustainable water supply and sanitation? A global network of individuals and institutions which have come together under the banner of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (www.susana.org) try to answer this in the following manner. Sustainable sanitation is defined as that which is universally accessible, is used by all, that which lasts and that where the waste products are safely disposed if not productively used.

In the rural context sustainable sanitation would mean not only the construction of toilets but their continued and correct usage. After the pits are full an adequate and safe mechanism for their emptying and potentially the reuse of the waste material as fertilizer after it has been safely sanitized. It should also be remembered that a whole community approach is needed to make the environment entirely Open Defecation free, with not a single violator; else the benefits of sanitation will not accrue.

Good positive examples for sustainable rural sanitation have come from the states of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim in particular and in the case of Sikkim the entire state has been declared as Open defecation Free. This is an example to emulate for other states particularly when more than 600 million people in India do not use a toilet.

In the urban context it would mean not only the construction of sewage lines and sewage treatment plans but their ability to convey all sewage without leaking to the STP which would then treat it to meet standards as prescribed. Ideally in a sustainable sanitation paradigm, there would be recovery of energy through bio-gas, recovery of nutrients in the waste-water stream such as Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium and finally the recovery and reuse of the water component from waste-water. The landscape of urban India is littered with leaking sewage lines, uncollected waste-water and dysfunctional sewage treatment plants and is nowhere near the sustainability desired. On plot sanitation systems too would be important in many urban areas and may be relevant for a long time given the high investmen needs for underground lines.

Chennai leads the way with four of their Sewage Treatment Plants generating enough energy through bio-gas and electricity so as to provide for about 80 % of the plants running requirement for energy.

Unfortunately both the rural and urban examples are few and far between registering as a mere blip on the requirement radar.

India will do well to invite SuSanA to set up an Indian chapter which will provide the ideas , examples, experience , knowledge and particular a platform to bring together the community of people and institutions working on sanitation to understand, discuss and implement sustainable sanitation in India at a scale and reach necessary for the problem.

The Prime Minister of India has called for a clean India and a clean Ganga. Both can be achieved only when there is sustainable sanitation for all in India.

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The eThekwini story on urban water and sanitation services

September 6, 2014

The eThekwini story on urban water and sanitation services

The World Water Week, a global gathering of people in the water sector, is currently on in Stockholm, Sweden. This is the Mecca for water practitioners where cutting edge yet practical ideas and experiences in managing the water sector is shared and discussed. At the water week various awards are given out and this year the winner for the World Water Prize is Dr John Briscoe. In the urban water sector the winner for the 2014 Stockholm Industry Water Award is the eThekwini Municipality and more specifically the eThekwini Water and Sanitation Utility (EWS) which is in charge of providing water and sanitation facilities to the greater Durban Municipal area.  Here there are many lessons for Indian water utilities and municipalities.

The eThekwini utility is responsible for serving a population of 3.6 million people spread over a vast area of 2297 square kilometers. It supplies 900 million litres per day to both formal and informal housing settlements where the informal settlements are actually 54 %. In South Africa the constitution recognizes water and sanitation as a human right and therefore a certain amount of water – 900 litres per month- is provided free to households as well as access to free sanitation in the form of a Ventilated Pit toilet at the minimum. In the greater Durban area 37 % of the families receive these free basic services as it is the Ethekwini Municipality which is designated as the agency responsible for the delivery of these rights.

What then differentiates this utility and makes it the most progressive and innovative water utility in Africa? At the heart seems to be the institutional team with a creative leadership with a vision. Neil Macleod, the outgoing head is recognized a s a great team leader with a vision. He sets out his vision as following the 5 key management issues – human resource skills, customer management, revenue management, asset management and new services delivery. Clearly lessons for Indian utility managers. With this leadership it has also been possible to generate the required political will towards innovative and progressive water and sanitation services delivery.

The second seems to be a relentless focus on customer first as well as clear service level standards. Every customer in the municipality is clear about what she can expect under the customer charter so developed as well as a clear articulation of the Service Level Standards set out by EWS.

Some of the innovative ideas tried out include the provision of more than 80000 Urine Diverting Dry Toilets (UDDT); Investigation is now on to see how both urine and faecal sludge can be used as a nutrient for agriculture. Also there is a project to pelletize the faecal sludge and then use it as a fertilizer. Rainwater harvesting is being encouraged for households to supplement their water requirements. Wastewater recycling for industrial use, street theatre for customer literacy and the correct use of sanitation facilities, a robust community engagement mechanism including customer service agents is some of the innovative ideas being tried out.

Durban is famous for its beaches and it is the clear water and surf which brings tourists in hordes and helps the local economy. It is critical therefore that the waters be kept free from sewage pollution. That the EWS focus is both basic service to people as a human right and managing waters to benefit the economy and the environment is a tribute to its efforts recognized by the Award.

It is time that water utilities in India learn from the eThekwini example and a visit to Durban is therefore a must. That would be water and sanitation wisdom.

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On sanitation in India

August 31, 2014

The sanitation question

With the Prime Minister emphasizing the need for India to gear up on sanitation and announcing a clean India campaign from October 2nd 2014  sanitation is now firmly on the front burner of every city and village. The challenge is of course enormous and though global each solution will be hyper-local. For a city with reasonably good infrastructure and with a reasonably good economic prosperity it should be easier than say for a poorer city with a high slum population. Yet answers will have to be found and quickly for the toll bad sanitation takes on the health of people and the economy is very high.

The imagination for toilets and waste-water will for example have to be comprehensive and will need to take account from source to sink. While private toilets will come up on individual sites, care will need to be taken that underground sewage lines are laid and connection to them is easy and affordable. Else this will lead to toilet waste being led into storm drains and polluting entire water systems including lakes , which can then become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies, dangerous vectors for diseases. Well functioning public and community toilets will be a challenge, for it is not in the construction but the continuous maintenance and cleanliness which will be the challenge here. As Bangalore saw with the beautifully designed Infosys Foundation supported toilets, it takes a specialized institution and focus to keep the toilets running in good condition.

  Sewage will have to be picked up in underground lines and treated fully preferably enabling recovery of water and nutrients. It can no longer be allowed to flow in storm-water drains, rivers and lakes.

At the individual and community level some uncomfortable questions will need answers. During the construction of the building did we insist on the contractor to make toilet provision for the workers? Does our apartment and layout have enough clean public toilets for the service staff and visitors to use? Do our offices, schools and colleges have clean, functional toilets with running water? This  is as much a responsibility as any for the management.

Storm water drains and garbage seem to go hand in hand. We as a citizenry seem to believe drains are meant to dump garbage. This cannot be allowed to continue. Segregated garbage will need to be handed over by a responsible citizenry and then collected, composted or recycled by a responsible local government. A specialized institution like the Karnataka Compost Development Corporation achieved wonders for years. It is time such institutions are strengthened and asked to go on with the job.  It is a crying shame that we have allowed landfills to proliferate and devastate the lives of villagers surrounding our cities. Storm-water drains will then have to be regularly maintained from weeds so as to stop vector breeding. Dengue, Chikungunya and Malaria are all prevalent and this is a fall out of an unclean and unhygienic city.

A lot will depend on individual and community action and building the right competent institutions for solid waste, for community toilets and sewage management and for storm-water drains. Cleaning up the neighbourhood and the ward with the help of the local Corporator will be key for this is primarily the responsibility of the local government. Now that there is backing from the very topmost political leadership this is the time to become water and waste wise.

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Memory and forgetfulness – of the well and water.

August 7, 2014

The Indian Institute of World Culture is located in the locality known as Basavanagudi, one of the oldest layouts formed in the city in the 1890’s. The road on which the building is situated is called the B.P.Wadia Road and is named after the founder of the IIWC, which was established in 1945. There is an excellent library for adults and for children in the rather large campus with the typical old style Bangalore building. Many old timers come to listen to lectures organized in the evenings on various topics. I was there to speak on the culture and tradition of the open well in India.
Since I was early I wandered about the premise speaking to the person looking after the garden and the premises in general. Casually I asked him if there was a well in the area. To my surprise not only did he take me and show me a functioning well but also assured me that the water was crystal clear and sweet. The well , safely enclosed in a pumping room , dates at least to the 1940’s and has been supplying water unfailingly ever since. Devaiah also told me about a large stone lined and stepped open well next to the building which was also there for long. It has now been filled up and a multi-storied apartment has come in its place. The apartment has drilled a bore-well to supplement its water needs.
The Institute has done a nice thing for the well. It has taken all the rooftop rainwater from the two large building blocks on its premise and put it into two recharge wells 10 feet deep. This ensures that the entire rainwater goes into the aquifer thus enhancing groundwater levels.
In front of the Institute is the famous M.N.Krishna Rao Park. Here also is a water reservoir of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board or the BWSSB. This reservoir is filled daily from waters of the river Cauvery, a 100 kilo-metres away and 300 metres below the city. Ironically it also probably sits on a shallow aquifer with a high groundwater table that it ignores.
The area now known as Gandhi Bazaar where you get perhaps the best dosa in town at Vidyarthi Bhavan was upon a tank called Karanji Tank. This is just close by to the Institute. On the other end not far away is the Lalbagh Lake. Hyder Ali began the famous Lalbagh gardens with three wells for irrigation so says the traveler and chronicler Buchanan. It looks like Basavanagudi is lucky to have a good water table with a lot of open wells capable of providing water to its resident’s right through the year.
It only remains that we remember the well as a source of good and cheap water, that we protect and preserve the catchment so as not to pollute the resource and that we enhance it through rainwater harvesting measures. Areas such as these should be designated as groundwater sanctuaries and the groundwater legislation used to sustainably maintain that most precious of all resources for this city-water. As a famous writer once said this is a fight between memory and forgetfulness. The memory of the well must be retained and must be integrated with modern water needs but in ecological fashion. That would be water wisdom.

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