Archive for July, 2012


The parks in our city – Waters ancient and modern

July 24, 2012

Watering the garden – the Lalbagh story


Yellow Lily in bloom -Lalbagh

Even for the garden city with its many parks Lalbagh is iconic. Spread over 240 acres with 1854 species of plants on display it is a botanical dream. Started in 1760 by Hyder Ali as a private garden it was spread over just 40 acres when it began. Dr Francis Buchanan in his famous travelogue in 1800 writes “ The gardens are extensive and divided into square plots divided by walks the sides of which are ornamented with fine Cypress trees…..want of water is the principal defect of these gardens for in this arid country everything during the dry season must be artificially watered. The garden of Tippoo is supplied from 3 wells, the water of which is raised by the ‘capilly’ or leather bag, fastened to a cord passing over a pulley and wrought by a pair of bullocks which descend on an inclined plane. “Image

               The open well at Lalbagh – Circa 1760 ? Did it have a Capilly ?

So it was that on a Saturday when one was invited to visit the Lalbagh to help look at the water situation that one was excited. The small tank then serving Lalbagh has now expanded to cover 20 acres. The Bangalore Development Authority has invested over 2.5 crores in expanding and improving the tank. Storm water feeders to the tank are now regularized and cleaned from cow-dung and animal waste which once used to flow in. A small sewage treatment plant has been set up at one side of the park where domestic sewage from surrounding areas is trapped, treated and stored in a reservoir for watering the park. Up-to 1.5 million litres per day can be treated and made available to the park. The cost of the treated water for Lalbagh comes at an economical Rs 15 per kilo-litre. If there is excess then treated waste-water can be led into the lake for storage to further recharge the groundwater.

Shallow bore-wells supplement the water requirment

9 bore-wells have been drilled to supplement the treated waste-water for use to water the park. These have varying depths but the deepest is about 370 feet.

What was however a discovery was the 3 wells in the original 40 acre campus. Were these the original wells from 1760? Most probably yes but more investigations are due. The wells were unused and some had waste strewn in them. It is however definitely possible to clean them up and de-silt them. All the wells had water and the water was at 15 to 20 feet thanks most probably to the large lake up-stream . The stone lining was intact except the parapet needed repairs.

Hidden open well in the original 40 acres of Lalbagh

It would be wonderful if the wells could be cleaned up and brought into life. Wells need the least amount of energy to pump water since the head to which water is to be lifted is less and therefore have the lowest cost for water. To use well water makes economic and ecological sense.


The old tank at Lalbagh – now rejuvenated and made larger

As a water heritage even the ‘Kapile’, the ‘Yeta’ and the Persian Wheel can be fitted to the wells to remind us of a glorious water heritage. This will be another attraction of Lalbagh apart from its lovely flowers, plants and trees.

Lalbagh shows how a verdant green park can cater to its water needs by investing in smart sustainable solutions. Preserving and enhancing a lake, using treated waste water, using groundwater and reviving open wells is a mini integration of water management.

There is of course much more of a need to monitor the quality of the lake water, ensure that the sewage treatment plant works constantly and well, that the hydro-geology and groundwater table is mapped and understood and that shallow aquifer sources are integrated better into the water system.

All these water structures could be made more informative and display boards informing local citizens and visitors of how these systems work can only enhance water literacy. That is water wisdom.


Integrated Urban Water Management -IUWM

July 24, 2012

Integrated Urban Water Management

The first week of a slightly delayed monsoon has been completed and rainfall 36 % less than normal has been reported. While this in itself a cause for major worry as according to the Indian Metrological Department the subsequent rains may make up for the shortfall it is time to understand the dependency of our cities on rain. Most urban areas now start to draw water from over a 100 kilometres. Cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore have large ‘water footprints’. Coimbatore was struggling to supply enough water to its citizens as the reservoir on the Siruvani was depleting fast and had enough water for just 15 days.

As an alternative to drawing water from large distances the concept of an Integrated Urban Water Management system has been mooted globally and is being tried out in several cities. This process seeks to manage the surface water, groundwater, rainwater and treated waste-water as a whole. It seeks to close the hydrological loop at the city scale itself if possible. If not, to reduce the dependency on external piped water supply to the extent possible. IUWM is a principle and a process and not a set sequence of solutions. It is also a process which seeks to encourage a lot of solutions within the city rather than to depend on one utility or the local government to be the only solution provider.

On the World Environment Day June 5th I was at the Volvo Construction Equipment factory in a suburb of Bangalore. Many in the team planted trees but what was striking was the effort put in to manage water. Below the parking area a huge rooftop rainwater harvesting tank has been created. This can hold up-to 2.5 million litres i.e. every drop of rainwater falling on the large rooftops. This provides for almost 4 months of the total water requirement of the unit. There is also recharge of groundwater which enables the 3 bore-wells on site to provide the rest of the water needs of the factory. A 20 kilo-litre per day waste water treatment plant treats all the effluent generated on site and this is reused for landscaping requirements and for toilet flushing. The factory has shown itself to be independent of the city’s water and sanitation network and has reduced its water footprint to zero. This is Integrated Urban Water Management in practice.

There is a residential layout on Sarjapur Road which also harvests almost every drop of rainwater falling on site, prices water to control demand and recovers the monies spent on supplying it, has a waste-water treatment plant which treats and reuses all the domestic sewage generated and depends only on groundwater for its requirement from an aquifer which they have recharged. This too is IUWM in practice. Depending on local sources not only provides for independence and control but also reduces the cost of the water as well as the embodied energy .

Urban water bodies can all become recipients of properly treated waste-water, sometimes through wetland systems, which can then be reused as groundwater after properly testing water quality. This means that sewage treatment plants need to be located near lakes, all sewage in the catchment conveyed to the treatment plants , the water treated and released into the lakes for it to become a bio-diversity and recreation zone but also be functional by recharging groundwater and enabling it to be drawn through wells and bore-wells for further reuse.

The process of IUWM is one of keeping catchments and aquifers clean, understanding and working with the hydrological cycle at play in urban areas, aiming for universal connections so that there is social equity in access to water. It is also about celebrating water in the form of lakes and tanks, avoiding floods through proper source control and management of water, managing aquifers through traditional structures such as open wells and modern ones such as bore-wells. A city like Bangalore has approximately 3000 million litres per day of water falling on it in 60 rainy days. The demand for water is about 1800 million litres per day.  By taking responsibility for the rainwater and waste-water , by ensuring harvesting, recharge and treatment , by protecting urban water bodies and by appropriate garbage management not only water but the environment can be made sustainable.

From exercising our rights to water we have also to move towards showing responsibility for it. IUWM is the process of translating that responsibility to action. Institutions will need to change gears and invest quickly in lake maintenance, waste-water treatment and storm water drainage. Only this will ensure that the monsoon rains are put to good use and that cities are sustainable in so far as water is concerned. That would be water wisdom.


Drilling a bore-well – the informal sector at play

July 19, 2012

The crew and the truck

They came in the afternoon on Saturday. The bore-well drilling crew came in two large trucks struggling to manoeuver in a narrow tree lined street. One of the trucks had a drilling rig and a large compressor. It costs Rs, 1.15 crores so the owner said and can drill up to 1250 feet. The other one had diesel, more equipment for drilling and sundry other stuff such as cooking equipment for the crew and water for the drill bit to be cooled.

The drilling rig

Much before them a hydro-geologist had come swinging a pendulum and marching about looking for a possible spot for drilling. The city has been facing a water crisis due to bad rains plus an exploding demand. Political pressure had sanctioned 10 bore-wells to each Corporator. These were to be drilled in each ward of the city and provide supplemental water. The hydro-geologist then placed a steel rod in a place next to the road and a storm water drain and had walked away. This was the point sacred and inviolable. The drilling crew found it and went about chopping the saplings and tree branches obstructing their rig from reaching the exact same spot, not neither an mm here nor an mm there.

The point identified for drilling by a hydro-geologist and diviner

After much back and forth the drill got to the exact spot. A tube level was used to ensure the verticality of the bore and with enough noise to wake and disturb about 6 roads of the neigbourhoods the drilling commenced not before a ‘pooja’ to propitiate the gods of water and earth in true Indian style.

The first 100 feet was easy as this was soil and weathered rock. The dust flew and covered the entire crew as well as a few houses nearby.

Red dust in the initial phase of drilling

Then hard rock was struck at 100 feet, indicated by the grey colour of the dust replacing the previous red. The drilling bit had to be changed and the slow grinding of the earth started. Progress was slow about a foot a minute. The compressor rig drank 1 litre of diesel per minute too and had to be constantly fed. In conversation with the owner it came to light that the mother-lode for the rigs is a small Tamil Nadu town called Tiruchengode.

Fresh cooking for the crew – the driver doubles up as a chef

Almost all rigs operating in South and Western India seem to come from the town of groundwater drilling.

The pooja

Drilling went on till 10 p.m. in the night. Was there permission needed to drill? Not right now said the rig owner. Do you have to register your rig? Not right now. Can you drill throughout the night? Well we stop if the local residents object usually at 10 p.m. else we keep drilling.

The crew was a motley but cheerful lot from Kumbakonam and Theni. They went about their business professionally and knew what they were doing. The driver doubled up as a cook and started his preparation of egg curry and rice with a gas stove and cylinder right on the road. Freshly cut onions, garlic, ginger and freshly ground masala added an aroma to the whole venture. Mutton will be prepared in the night was the promise.

The two men who coordinated operations took turns on the shift. They both had started work as helpers and through experience had risen to become the drill operators. No school in India teaches drilling for groundwater and the roads are where you learn. For a country which has 30 million or so wells and bore-wells and draws 250 cubic kilometer of water every year this is remarkable. The crucial role of the informal sector in providing water is not well understood. It is they who provide over 60 % of India’s total water demand and not Engineers.

Drilling in a quiet neighbourhood

The drilling went on over a Sunday and on a Monday. Up-to 800 feet there was nary a sign of water. In the middle the drill would get stuck and it required all the expertise of the drill operator to take it out. It rained during the evenings and night and yet work went on. There was no protective gear, not even an umbrella on site. They slept inside and below the truck during two nights. Drank whisky from tetra-pack cartons and ate well thanks to fresh food from the master chef on the road.

The grey dust indicates hard rock- the bit has to be changed

Anxious residents and Corporator kept tabs sometimes by coming to the site and mostly on the phone. Finally at 840 feet water was struck. It came in a gush up through the drill. There was no expression of joy or relief for the crew. For them it was another day of work. Finally drilling stopped on Monday afternoon. All the drill lengths were lifted and measured to know exactly how deep the bore-well went as well as to make payments.  The crew packed up over 2 hours and moved on to their next drilling place about a couple of kilo-metres away leaving behind gravel slurry and egg shells as a reminder of their slog. The pump would be fitted later and the electricity connections given. Water would reach the residents in a week or two. How long would the bore-well last? Nobody has a clue but the smiling owner of the rig assured us onlookers that it would be there for some time.

Hard work

It is tough work providing water to India’s growing needs particularly during times of drought and low rainfall. Though groundwater is unsustainable without proper demand management and recharge yet it continues to be a source for emergency supply. On the informal sector of people who pick up skills by learning on the ground do we survive. Respect for them and their hard work are due and necessary. That is water wisdom.

Water at 840 feet – For how long ?


Limits – water

July 15, 2012

Staying within limits

The bore-well supplying water to the apartment went dry. The question posed was what do we do now? The members of the committee managing the apartment thought drilling one more bore-well, possibly deeper was the answer. So a new bore-well was commissioned. After much trouble a new one was sunk for more than 900 feet and it yielded nothing. Insofar as groundwater was concerned the apartment had hit and exceeded the ceiling for use.

The situation in the apartment is illustrative of the blissfulness we live in in terms of our natural resources. As one observes the progress of the ‘water footprint ‘of our cities one is reminded of the motto of the Olympic games- Citius, Altius, and Fortius – a faster, higher and stronger consumption of water.

In this thirst for increasing consumption we have dried up our lakes, depleted our rivers and now sucked out the water from the ground up-to a 1000 feet deep. This unbridled urbanization coupled with consumption simply cannot go on as the resource runs out.

While the conventional answer to the running out of water has been looking for more supply it is now necessary to take a hard look at demand. Is it really possibly to have economic activities and unrestrained urban growth?

We have to be smarter with using multiple sources of water such as treated waste-water, rainwater and storm water but we have also to realize that urban planning within a river basin has also to be envisaged with limits. The only recharge for all sources be it rivers, lakes or groundwater is rain. The annual replenishment done by the monsoon is what we are entitled to. Nature has its ceilings. Technology can stretch the ceiling by trying to reuse water but this too has limits.

The city of Bangalore for example will get 1500 million litres of water per day. Of which around 50 % is unaccounted for meaning only 750 million litres per day will be available. With a population which will hit 10 million shortly this means that every individual is entitled to 75 litres of water per day. In so far as groundwater is concerned, a rough estimate is that the annual replenishment will provide the equivalent of 300 million litres per day equivalent. When the city of Bangalore has a population of 10 million we will be entitled as individuals to 105 litres per person per day. We need to architect our lives around this availability of water so that there is equity and just allocation for all.

If we are profligate and exceed nature’s limits we will have conflicts, inequity and disturbance in society. Let us understand these limits, let us live within them and let us stop sinking deeper bore-wells. In this lies water wisdom.


Plan B – for water

July 15, 2012

A Plan B for water

The news on the monsoon front for Bangalore has been disappointing. After the least rainy month for 117 years which was June, July too has seen hardly any downpour in the first 10 days. The clouds are picking up and it is also true that the rainiest months are ahead being August, September and October. The Kabini reservoir which is one of the first to fill up and overflow is almost at rock bottom. It is from here that water flows and joins the Cauvery before it is pumped into the city to reach our taps. It is said that the prayer for rains in the Thanjavur area of the Cauvery delta, the rice bowl of South India, is for it to rain in Mercara so that the Cauvery will flow and reach their fields. Similarly Bangaloreans must pray for rain in Wynad as much as they pray for rain in their own city.

Apart from prayers there should be a Plan B for a low monsoon. What is that? As of now it is not clear that the city has a Plan A let alone a Plan B to distribute water to reach all its citizens. However here is what a Plan B could look like.

Make rainwater harvesting mandatory for all buildings in the city. The lesser the rain that falls on the city, the more precious the water that will be harvested and put to productive use. Every building should become a contributor to the water requirement of the city rather than only placing a demand on it.

Take up de-silting and improvement of all the tanks in the city on a war footing. Here is an opportunity masquerading as a crisis. When citizens have realized the scarcity of water it is for the government to wake up and make plans which are implementable in the short run and which focus on storing water and increasing the groundwater table to recharge the aquifer as and when it rains.

Make it mandatory for all parks and medians to use treated waste-water only. Stop the wasteful use of fresh groundwater in the 1000 or more parks in the city and use the bore-well water to supply it for domestic requirements. There is plenty of treated waste-water in the city which is not being used and the opportunity presents itself to put this to good use for construction activities also such as the metro and the large apartments being built in the city.

Quickly implement the groundwater bill and make sure that groundwater is treated and used as a community property resource rather than as a private good. Take over the large yielding bore-wells and make them part of the city distribution. Every bore-well must be mandated to have a recharge structure and as much of rainwater as possible to be recharged into the ground.

Storm-water drains must be made sewage free and those that are made sewage free should then have recharge structures in them to ensure that storm-water too is put to productive use.

Apartments and layouts – They play an important part in demand management and reducing demand by 20 % should be easy. Metering of each flat should be taken up quickly as is putting the waste-water treatment plants to good use. Treated waste-water must become the first charge for non-potable use and layouts must be mandated to put them into place and start using them immediately.

Watering of lawns and washing of vehicles should be banned and a social mobilization created against such waste quickly.

Individual homes:  My friend from the neighbourhood and 14 years old Aravind suggests that school- children should be involved in water conservation efforts by their parents. One bucket of water for a bath is enough he says. By not getting clothes dirty much water can be saved in washing them and he also suggests that boys should clean their own plates and cups with as less water as possible in homes and schools.

The fragility of our water systems, their dependence on rain  and the linkages of tanks and lakes and groundwater is clear to us. A crisis they is also spelled as opportunity in Chinese Mandarin. Will we make use of the opportunity? Will we put in place a Plan B ?