Archive for June, 2011


Hi-Tech vs Low-tech in the rural drinking water sector

June 21, 2011

Ever since Schumacher wrote his now very, very famous book Small is Beautiful (if you have not read it you are so doh 🙂  ) there has in my mind been a question of the appropriateness of the solutions we urban educated types posit for rural ‘problems’.

In the village of Dandiganahalli, very close to Bangalore, is one such example. The village has a problem of high TDS in its water , meaning the water is too salty and brackish. Worse still it has Fluoride  in it.

A 20000 litre sump tank collects rainwater

Here is the detail of the village as given in an excellent website maintained by the Govt. of India

The Govt. with the help of a kind Prof. from a technology college has set up a real snazzy hi-tech solar distillation unit next to the village water tank.

A solar distillation unit - takes months to get operational

Presumably this device will draw the water by gravity from this tank , distill it and the distillate will be free from salts and Fluoride. A board says that up-to 1000 litres of water can be obtained in  a day. Not much for a village with a population of  1561 people in 2001 itself.

Here is a link on the inauguration of the plant

Approximately Rs 40 lakhs has been spent on tube well schemes and it is not clear how much has been spent on the solar distillation device yet the village drinks Fluoride contaminated water,

The trouble too is that the system was not functioning many months after its installation and the villagers had no clue why. In the meantime they continue to consume Fluoride contaminated water.

2 households in the village were slightly different. These people were a bit more affluent and had installed rooftop rainwater harvesting systems into a sump tank. Both the families said that they had rainwater for drinking and cooking and that it was good for the whole year.

The school too has students who are vulnerable to Fluoride. So the school is getting a rainwater tank of about 15,000 litres capacity. The funds for this has been brought from Canada by 4 volunteers who actually physically built the tank.

We will start collecting rainwater and a process of checking the water quality along with the students and ensure that they drink potable water.

In the meanwhile we will also interact with the authorities to figure out how to make the solar distillation system work.

Much more effort will be needed before the village of Dandiganahalli gets clean water but hi-tech does not necessarily seem to be the way.


The lake and the well – part of a water masterplan

June 19, 2011

Jakkur Lake in Bangalore - revived by the Bangalore Development AUthority

When a city adds nearly 3 million people in  a span of a decade ensuring water supply to its citizens seems a huge challenge. One critical thing to realize is that the mind-set of ‘providing’ water has to change and become one of ensuring that citizens can access water of requisite quality. Multiple sourcing of water is therefore simply a reality to be respected.

Water will come from such sources as bore-wells, open wells, private water tankers, rain water , bottled water you name it.

In this particular case the Jakkur Lake in Bangalore is being fenced off and protected by the BDA at a cost of nearly Rs 22 crores. The BWSSB has set up a sewage treatment plant upstream and hopefully all of the sewage flow into this lake will be treated . The lake has become a beautiful wetland inviting birds and hosting a large variation of plant bio-diversity.

It is also a recharge structure feeding the beautiful open wells . These wells are a cultural heritage too for they are of a typical kind made by a particular artisan group. Yet it is functional and provides copious water which also is the cheapest because it has such low energy costs associated with it. Why bring water from the Cauvery a 100 km away when the ground below your feet can provide it?

How is this then to be integrated with the city water supply will be a challenge for the water utility. Would it be allowed as a private resource in which individuals can sink their own wells and draw their own water? This would become possible if the the price signals would encourage such behaviour.

The Cauvery water should be priced at cost say around the Rs 24 mark per kilo-litre, its true production cost. The well water which would be as less as Rs 2 a kilo-litre would then become cost competitive.

It could also be that the government uses the new groundwater legislation to appropriate its distribution in a slightly more centralized fashion. It could then ban the drilling or digging of wells in the area, dig its own and then distribute the water. Many such possibilities exist but only if the institution in charge sees it as a resource and builds capacity to manage it.

Old open well at Jakkur

Managing such a complex interface of surface water, groundwater and waste-water will be a learning curve. Are our institutions up-to it ? Should not the water utility create a hydro-geological cell to help it better understand and manage groundwater as a source in Bangalore ?

There is a need therefore to map both the shallow aquifer and the deeper aquifer as well as keep tabs on the extraction structures and the volume of extraction from groundwater. Recharge and drawal can then be optimised.

One other advantage of this way of managing water would be that urban floods could be mitigated. Many such interesting possibilities emerge when an integrated approach is taken.


Where our rivers begin -Water literacy for urban Bangalore

June 18, 2011

Fishing grounds

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana

For the people interested in water supply to Bangalore a must visit is the Channakesava Hills abutting the Nandi hills and part of the range. It is here in a small pond that the Arkavathy river is famously said to originate. It moves down the hill in the form of a spring and enters the first of the man-made reservoirs, called ‘tanks’, the Chikkarayyappanhalli Kere. From thence begins the journey of this tributary to the Cauvery. Passing through a series of tanks built to hold its water for irrigation it comes to the large ‘Nagarakere’ at Dodballapur. The entire drinking water for the town of population 100,000 used to come from this large tank. Moving further on the river comes to the almost 7 large Hessarghatta tank. In 1894 this tank was enlarged and became the first external source of water supply to the city of Bangalore.

The Arkavathy moves further on and where the Kumudvathy merges with is the second large reservoir built for Bangalore city’s water in 1934. The Thippagondanhally reservoir so large that when full it could supply 135 million litres of water daily to Bangalore.

Further down the Arkavathy is joined by the Vrishbhavaty river . This once clean river carries most of the sewage out of Bangalore now. Finally at the Sangama the Arkavathy meets the might Cauvery and proceeds on its journey to the sea.

Of interest to Bangaloreans would be the fact that apart from the Chikkarayapanahlli tank which holds some water none of the other tanks further down have any. The 7thth tank in the chain , the Nagarkere at Dodballapur itself is more or less empty. The once mighty Hessarghatta is a brown field with a puddle in it. The Thippagondanahally rarely fills up even half and is more or less on the way to being abandoned as a reliable source of water to the city.

This death of a river system is largely due to a complete absence of a catchment management plan . Granite quarrying continues in the Arkavathy basin. Encroachment of forest ecosystems happen. The very act of agriculture and its expansion is one of levelling land and ploughing it preventing run-off of rainwater. Rivers die when agriculture expands in its catchment.

Tanks have been encroached and the gullies linking the overflow of one tank to another silted up. Groundwater exploitation is to depths of 600 and even a 1000 feet. When the earth itself is dry is there a chance for the rivers?

A crying need is for the city to come up with a plan for the river to run always and implement it. Even a rupee a month from every citizen of Bangalore will generate more than 100 crores a year to help revive the river. Are we up-to it institutionally and otherwise? Or shall we cry in our ignorance about water shortages all the while?

While we do not care about the Arkavathy drying up are we bothered that it is the rains in the Kabini catchment that keeps the water in our taps? If so what are we doing to protect the forests of the Wynad? Will we wait for the mighty Cauvery to meet the fate

A water literate urban citizenry must engage with its river sources, its catchment and the forests. If we do not understand the problem we will never attempt the right solution. For a start take a walk to Channakesava hills.


Mismanaging the shallow aquifer – Subsidy and distortions

June 12, 2011


Managing shallow aquifers in a city

BWSSB must take a hard look at its cross-subsidisation and tariff policy and provide incentives for good practises, says our water expert S. Vishwanath

Good option: The city needs multiple sourcing of water and open wells have the potential to provide up to a third of the requirement 

Just how a city can be arbitrary with its policy on water management and therefore leading to sub-optimal conditions is made clear by a recent example one came across. Balasubramanian had an old open well dug to a depth of 30 ft. when he first built his house in the early 80s. The well had yielded water for quite some years but then subsequently had gone dry.

He read about rainwater harvesting in the papers and its potential to recharge the aquifer and so he connected his rooftop through a series of pipes and a basic filter to his open well. Remarkably, in a very short span of time, the water level in his well increased.


While his neighbours struggled to get water and sometimes had to buy from private water tankers he just fit a small pump and was able to meet his entire year’s water requirement from the shallow well. He actually did not need a city connection but kept it just in case.

Now here is the comical part. The city utility came to his home and seeing that there was a pump in the well decided to charge him a fee of Rs. 50 a month as sanitary cess.

The argument that the city has is that the water from the well is used by the household and is then released into the sanitation lines. Since the utility has to collect, convey and treat the sewage it is entitled to charge the household the amount as a sanitary fee. Bangalore is the only city in India which has such a fee structure for the use of a well or a borewell by a household. Perfectly logical, one would say.


Balasubramanian is, however, incensed. He says he did rainwater harvesting as advised and made compulsory by the utility for the site of his size.

Now that the rainwater harvesting has become successful he is not only not being rewarded for a good job done but actually being penalised for it.

The utility spends Rs. 36 for every 1,000 litres of water that it brings to the city. It charges Rs. 6 for the first slab of 8,000 litres and Rs. 9 for the next slab up to 25,000 litres.

Now, in a month, if Balasubramanian consume 25,000 litres of water from the utility he gets a subsidy of Rs. 699. The utility loses this amount.

If Balasubramanian shifts to an open well and saves the utility 25,000 litres of water he is not only making available this water for other residents but also saving money for the utility. For this act he has to pay an additional Rs. 50. The world is unjust or so he feels.

Higher cess

Here is the other irony. If the utility had supplied this entire water to him they would have charged him a sanitary cess of Rs. 15 only. Now he pays Rs. 65.

There are over 120,000 borewells and open wells which pay this sanitary cess to the utility. It is time the BWSSB took a good hard look at its cross- subsidisation and tariff policy and worked towards incentivising good behaviour and punishing bad ones.

The city needs multiple sourcing of water and the open wells have the potential to provide up to a third of the city’s water needs. Integrating them with the water supply plan is the path to water wisdom.