Archive for September, 2010


Policy initiatives in the water and sanitation sector

September 24, 2010

Needed: 24×7 access to safe water


Wise policies and pioneering initiatives are a must in the urban water supply and sanitation sector

Useful: RWH has multiple benefits

A strong, policy-led initiative is the best way to bring a structured approach to an issue. Let us take the example of some such initiatives in Bangalore. The State Government has long back incorporated rainwater harvesting as a system to be encouraged and brought into action in both urban and rural areas. While this remained a statement of intention, it was translated into action by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board through a legislation which made it compulsory. The institution not only legislated but it also rolled out an implementation deadline, thus setting a clear target for the end user.

This in stark contrast to what the Corporation did. The BBMP made RWH a law as early as June 2004 as part of the amendment to the building bye-laws and promptly forgot about it. There was no target set, no Minister backing the initiative, no commitment from the staff of the organisation and therefore it was a comprehensive failure.

The BWSSB decision spawned a series of changes on the ground. According to the law, a target was identified for the number of buildings that would have to implement RWH to be in conformity. This was understood to be around 54,000 buildings. Assuming that each of these could harvest around 200,000 litres, a staggering 10,800 million litres could become harvestable and available to the city of Bangalore. This from a mere 54,000 buildings, while the total number of property in the city is estimated at one-and-a-half million.

There are around 1,000 plumbers and well-diggers now carrying out RWH works all over the city. Assuming that on an average each structure will cost around Rs. 50,000 since many of the buildings are large, the local economy would have seen a spurt by Rs. 2,700 million. This would have also created employment among plumbers, helpers and well-diggers to the tune of Rs. 90 crore of wages, not a bad amount for a project.

The policy and its implementation has also spurred a lot of creativity. New designs have emerged especially for rainwater filters ranging from Rs. 300 to Rs. 10,000. Over time, recharge structures have also stabilised around the recharge well and well-diggers have found employment. All this has been achieved at virtually no cost to the organisation since this is all private investments.

The urban drinking water and sanitation policy formulated as early as 2002, on the other hand, is an abject failure because it simply failed to set outcomes and milestones.

Currently the city needs a clear-cut universalisation policy which will set out targets as to by when all households in the city will be connected to water supply and sanitation.

A pro-poor policy needs to articulated too which will talk about the financial barriers for the poorer households to access water and how to overcome them through steps such as waiver of initial connection charges and provision of community standposts in localities as well as overcoming legal barriers if any in the poor accessing connections.

The city has been a forerunner for many pioneering initiatives with regard to water supply. It was the first to use steam engines to pump water, the first to use electricity again to bring water from Hessarghatta, the first to establish universal volumetric metering, the first to pay for ecological services and the first to have a specialised water supply and sanitation institution. It would be entirely appropriate if it would be the first to formulate a universal, pro-poor policy and ensure access to safe water and safe disposal of sanitation by all households.

A clear policy initiative in this regard is awaited as is the water wisdom that is needed for sustainable water and sanitation.


The monsoon

September 22, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night. Yes, sure it was, and I was inside a mosquito net – the ‘macchardani’- in the ‘aangan’ of our house in Korea. Before you ask North or South, the Korea I knew still remains one and is located in Surguja District of Chattisgarh. When the night was dark and stormy it used to be called M.P., never Madhya Pradesh. I was all of 10 and my siblings were 5 and 3, which makes it pretty child-abusive of my parents to have gone to the local club to play ‘Puploo’ a version of the card game rummy popular among the North India colliery officers.  But they had gone for just an hour, or so they said.

The monsoon had just arrived in that part of the country entirely without the help of T.V. or the India Metrological Department’s website satellite imagery tracking the clouds. 1972 you see, was way behind times.  It caused a mad scramble amongst us brothers and sisters as we made haste to grab all the belongings including the mosquito nets and dash inside the house. By the end of the exercise we were drenched. Our parents dashed in, card game forgotten and as we talked in the dark, the electricity having gone, the drum roll of rain on the zinc sheet roof had us yelling to get heard.

The monsoon is a very personal experience. Each person has his or her take on it. For me it was always aural, the monsoon. The sounds of the rain on the tin roof, the whistling and howling of the wind, the definite darkness that descended which only made the sounds sharper, the cicadas and the frogs with their background noise and one particular spine chilling sound of the wind as it blew through a low pressure area of the courtyard. For a young boy just introduced to Boris Karloff comics, it set off a vivid imagination of ghosts and spooks which still leaves me afraid of the dark.

Thanks to the India Metrological Department and websites, things have changed. This year we know for sure now that the monsoon has been normal or in excess in most parts of India except Eastern U.P., Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and West Bengal. That the normal onset date is June 1st and that the normal withdrawals date from the sub-continent is September 1st.

Then there are the more prosaic facts. That it is called the monsoon from the Arabic word ‘mausim’ meaning season. That on average it brings and dumps on the Indian subcontinent of 3.3 million square kilometres about 4000 billion cubic metres of water.

This love child of the Indian Ocean and the Sun is a capricious creature however. It challenges the best of prediction and does things which nowadays are blamed on climate change. It used to be the ‘weather’ now everybody nods sagely and says global warming.  Notice the deluge in Leh or the floods in Pakistan or the drought in Bihar. This then is the new normal.

Then there are the quirks of the monsoon. It douses the coal rakes with water and causes power shortage since thermal power plants cannot burn the wet coal. Karnataka faced that situation this year. Its brought dengue, malaria and chikungunya to our villages and even our metropolis though the blame also lies with abysmal municipal management of garbage and drainage facilities. It’s caused no end of woes to the organizers as they plan the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

The monsoon brutally exposes the failures of our municipal and rural governance system like no other feature of nature. The million of tonnes of rotting food grains lying exposed to its vagaries is not as much an exposure by the news media as by the monsoon. If previously we feared that we could not grow enough to feed our teeming millions now we fear that the rains will cause the wheat to rot. This is another exposure of miserable governance of our food system.

On the positive side and for a change it’s brought the Yamuna to its full glory and swept away for a few days the filth, the garbage and the sewage Delhi so mercilessly dumps into it.

My friends from the villages of Western Rajasthan who harvest rainwater say that this time the monsoon has filled their wells and they should have no problem for the next two years. Many bore-wells have sprung back to life and in a country of 20 million bore-wells and counting, this means water for some more days.

The whole of Bihar has been declared drought affected but within the embankments the monsoon has caused floods and brought misery to millions. The Kosi lives up to its reputation and fills its embankments. The ‘Maegh Pyne Abhiyan’ a people’s movement for rainwater collection in Bihar is however busy catching whatever rain that falls. They have even converted the tarpaulin shelters on the embankments where they seek shelter from the floods into catchments for rainwater, pure water fit to drink. The monsoon brings the misery of the flood but also provides the water of succour.

Things are normal in other parts however. Cherrapunji has received 1215 cm. of rain this year from January to September, the site informs me. The highest rainfall receiving place on earth is in India and continues to get the blessings of the monsoon.

For days in the Southern states there was talk of cloud seeding. A couple of good rains and the talk seem to have evaporated. We make a hue and cry of not getting the rains but when it does fall we are ill-equipped to receive it. There are not enough dams and other storage structures and certainly not enough efforts to harvest rain and artificially recharge aquifers.

The monsoon however is a personal thing to us Indians and each will experience it in her own way. As a farmer was mentioning the other day, it rains by Survey numbers these days and not uniformly like the old days. Each farmer will have his tale of the monsoon.

For me the enduring image will be the street sweeper lady on a section of Park Street in Kolkata sweeping away and cleaning the entrance to the storm water gutters while it poured and poured for 3 hours straight and rained 120 mm. She had no umbrella, no raincoat and was drenched to the bones. Yet her work continued unsupervised. In Kolkata the rain is warm unlike Bangalore where it can freeze you but that is small consolation. On such diligence of workers do parts of the country run, whichever parts do.

It is a dark and stormy night, the monsoon has not retreated and the winds are howling, it is pouring….this year the monsoon will only retreat by end of September and we shall catch the retreating monsoon or the North-East monsoon too.


An excellent video on water by a Bolivian animation specialist

September 10, 2010

<iframe src=”; width=”400″ height=”225″ frameborder=”0″></iframe><p><a href=”″>Abuela Grillo</a> from <a href=”″>Denis Chapon</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Rainwater harvesting and combating slightly acidic rainwater

September 7, 2010


Simple methods to clean rainwater and make it potable


Rain is the single biggest source of water in India. Snow, ice, fog and desalinated sea water would make up the rest. As rainwater harvesting picks up all across the country it is important to focus on the cleanliness of rain itself.

Inevitably the first question is of ‘acid rain’. What is acid rain? pH is a measure of the acidic or basic nature of a substance . This is a measure used scientifically to understand the concentration of Hydrogen ions contained.

Rainwater with a pH below 5.6 would be acidic and would be called acid rain. Typically a pH-balanced water would have a pH value of 7. Rainwater being naturally acidic, coming in contact with the Carbon Dioxide in the air, would have a pH of 6.0 to 7.

Acid rain occurs when rainwater picks up weak sulphuric acid and weak nitric acid from the atmosphere. These acids are a result of the polluting sulphur and nitric oxide emissions from ehicles, thermal power plants, oil refineries and other gas-emitting industries. Acid rains are known to have had pH values of 4 and less.

What harm can acid rain do? Acidity in water may in itself be not harmful to health. However this water can leach lead or copper if present in pipes and this can be harmful when ingested. Acid rain can also destroy life in water bodies and vegetation by its corrosive effect.

BIS standards for drinking water in India specify that the pH value of potable water be between 6.5 and 8.5. It is therefore important that all waters we drink measure up to this standard though many carbonated drinks and even lime juice would have far less pH. How to tackle the impacts of stored rainwater if it is acidic? The ancient rainwater harvesters of Rajasthan and Gujarat had shown remarkable wisdom when it came to combating the natural acidity of rainwater. They would immerse a perforated clay pot with limestone or marble pieces in the storage tank. The limestone would be gradually released and would increase the pH and neutralise the acidic rainwater. This is a good method still if rainwater is stored and used for consumption purpose as in many fluoride-affected areas of the country.

If harvested rainwater is allowed to recharge the groundwater table, the buffering effect of soil with its minerals tends to neutralise the acidity in the rain.

Naturally present limestone and carbonate-rich rocks and a contact time which is long tend to make the water better.

Testing for pH is very simple and can also be done by children using the sensitive litmus paper or solution test. It is always good to check stored rainwater or the water from wells and borewells for their pH value. If the pH is not within the permitted range it can easily be balanced using limestone or caustic soda if the pH is higher than 7. Water wisdom is in understanding the interconnectedness of nature. Humankind cannot afford to pollute the air and believe its water will be unaffected.

Source control, lesser use of vehicles, and stabilising thermal power air pollutants are all measures equally necessary to maintain the sustainability of water resources.

Rain is the greatest distillation made available to mankind by the forces of nature. To preserve its pristine state is our responsibility.