Archive for March, 2013


The purpose of water

March 28, 2013

In the small town of Mulbagal, Kolar District , Karnataka, an NGO drove a water project for some years based on the Integrated Urban Water Management approach. One of the key success of the project was the de-silting of a large step well called a ‘Kalyani’ . The step-well is adjacent to a temple and the reason for its being filled with garbage and debris is not known. The de-silting and cleaning was an affair of great pride for the town and especially the Councillor of the area.

In the warm month of March, one saw boys diving and swimming in the rather green waters and having a whale of a time. The high groundwater table in the town ensures that there is water for swimming. Clearly the festival of Holi is an everyday event here in the well.

Water in a town is not to be seen and planned only as a functional engineering construct meant to flow through pipes and be distributed by pumps. Water is a recreational, aesthetic, ecological and even spiritual a material.



Swimming pools are few and far between in India and for many a luxury they can ill afford. Hundreds of boys and girls in rural India and in small and medium towns have therefore learnt the art of swimming in open, dug wells. With a declining water table there are no more swimming lessons to be learnt and fun had. An entire generation has lost a very significant experience of water. This is so with the polluted rivers and lakes too. Mulbagal has discovered a treasure serendipitously.

Close by to the town we come across a full well of water. A tank above stores and recharges water from a rock catchment and recharges the aquifer. A villager informs us that the name of the well is round well . It is always full and people come from miles to just have a swim and enjoy the pleasure of dunking oneself and splashing in its blue-green waters.


Is there a value attached to such human activities and their loss through a collapsing water table ? Should we not attach the same importance to the non-functional aspects of water which are good for the soul rather than only concentrating on the functional aspects of consumption in taps?

The festival of Holi came and went. With drought prevailing in many parts of the country there were calls for muted celebrations and to play ‘dry’ Holi.  For children and the young the essence of Holi is the splashing of coloured water on each other. Should we as a society go on a guilt trip about this one beautiful experience?

In our neighbourhoods, in our villages and in our towns and cities let us plan that there is wise use of water. Let us also plan that our lakes and tanks are full and that our wells have water throughout the year. It is not an impossible task but requires dedication and a vision.


This monsoon be prepared to harvest the rain, in tanks, in lakes and in the aquifers. Individually and collectively let us stop polluting water bodies and treat them with respect.

Let the children have the experience of water which is not of shortage and worry but one of plenty and one of fun. Let them swim in the full wells of life. That would be water wisdom.




World Water Day – on cooperation and sharing

March 21, 2013

This World Water Day March 22nd, 2013 is designated as the year of water cooperation. In this part of the world, South India,  large states fight over rivers and take the dispute to the highest court of the land. Even that decision is met with discomfort and is not easily accepted. When states fight is there hope for water and its sharing then?

On a trip to Rajasthan near the old abandoned town of Bhangarh I come across a well. This I am told is on community land, no one owns this well. Farmers have got together and installed some diesel pump-sets. Everybody in a radius of a kilometre almost is allowed to share the waters. The pump-set too can be hired and used. A true example of sharing.

Another town called Vijayapura close to Bangalore. Waste-water flows out of the town in a channel. A farmer whose bore-well has gone dry finds an ingenious way to tap into the waste-water and use it for his land. Other farmers downstream now request that he allow some waste-water to flow so that they can use it too. He readily agrees. Sharing waste-water too is possible.

Close to the nieghbourhood there are a series of deep open wells. These were dug in the 1940’s and even as late as 1960’s by hand with great effort. Those who dug the wells are no more but the families and their descendants continue to benefit from the endeavour of their fore-fathers. Grandfather starts, son completes and grandchildren enjoy the fruits of water from wells so goes an old saying. Though the wells are private the water is not and is available for all the families around who need it for drinking and cooking. Indeed a case of inter-generational sharing, as well as current generation sharing of the precious resource called groundwater.

In the early part of the 1900’s there was a great drought in the city. A betel leaf merchant by the name Yele Mallappa Chetty devoted a large part of his earnings and wealth to the construction of a water body called a tank so as to harvest rainwater and provide succor to the people for drinking water as well as for farming needs. Yele Mallappa Chetty kere is on Old Madras Road and its vast water spread a joy to behold.  Yele Mallappa was a water philanthropist and a grateful city must remember him even now.

In the 1920’s another drought struck the city. The only source of water the Hessarghatta reservoir ran dry. Three large tanks upstream which still had water had to be breached so that their waters could fill the Hessarghatta tank and provide drinking water to an already thirsty city. This was done only in consultation with farmers who would lose their crops in the three tanks. The city ensured drinking water to the villages and paid cash compensation to the farmers for giving up their water, a sterling example of water cooperation indeed.

In the modern times people establish water kiosks called ‘Pyaoos’. Free water is distributed to those thirsty especially in the scorching summer months of March, April and May. This is all voluntary action and especially a facet of the Marwari community from Rajasthan. Nothing is more worthy a deed than giving water to people and animals.

Why cannot ‘pyaoos’ be established by some of the large commercial and residential buildings in the city? Water can be provided to passerbys , construction workers et al who would be thirsty in an increasingly dry city. I such efforts of goodwill and compassion beyond us ? Not necessarily so.

There are many bore-wells with hand-pumps in the city. An auto rickshaw driver pumps water from one in Malleswaram and slakes his thirst. He then fills a bottle of water from the same hand-pump and goes to a roadside sampling and waters it. He does this  every day sharing water with a tree.

On the streets a neighbour starts chatting. She puts a small bowl of water replenished every day and kept in a corner providing relief to myriad birds, insects and creatures of nature in a thirsty urban world. She thoroughly enjoys the bio-diversity she gets to see. Many do it out of a sense of selflessness. Can you?

There are acts great and small done with a spirit of community and these acts are their own reward. This World Water Day let us renew our commitment to the spirit that is water , renew our bonds with it and the world that surrounds us, let us share with people who have little access and let us also share with nature so that the web of life is reinforced. That would be water wisdom.


Groundwater Rules and a city – how not to make a law.

March 15, 2013

The Groundwater Act has been passed (  and the rules and regulations drafted. Every bore-well drilling rig and every bore-well in the city has to be registered with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the deadline is put at March 31st. This shows at best the complete lack of coordination between two wings of the government. In Karnataka, groundwater is accounted almost as a mineral and comes under the purview of the Mines and Geology Department, a rather strange way to look at an essential resource for domestic, irrigation and industrial purpose.

Prodded forever by various well meaning institutions including the Courts a Central Groundwater Authority was constituted, a morphed and rather toothless renaming of the Central Groundwater Board.

Water being a state subject then had to move to the domain of the State which too has very, very reluctantly and with a perfunctory debate in the house has passed the Groundwater Act.

The fundamental criticism of this act is that it does not promise any outcome; say for example safe, sustainable groundwater with the best quality accessible to all. It does not discriminate between a city and its use of groundwater vis-à-vis irrigation use. It merely seeks to enumerate and perhaps restrict with no great logic the commercial use of groundwater as well as prevent its exploitation in so called dark zones. Can it for example deny a citizen in a dark zone a drilling of the well if the state itself is unable to provide water either for drinking or for a livelihood?

Bangalore: The BWSSB already levies a charge for every bore-well in the city for a house or an apartment which has a sewerage connection with it. It calls this a sanitary cess arguing that the waters so used from the bore-wells enters the sewage lines and has to be collected, conveyed and treated. It levies the charge from nearly 180,000 such bore-wells. Why then a re-registration in another form and with another fee?

The BWSSB itself would be best advised to create a groundwater cell. It does not help if there are no hydro-geologists in the organization and leaving it to Engineers is a recipe for disaster.  Once the cell is created and suitably manned it should be set the task to map every sub-aquifer in the city and layer with the micro-watersheds on top. It is important to understand the recharge characteristic of every sub-aquifer, the quantity and quality stress it is subject to and then draw up a suitable management plan to manage the sub-aquifer so that it does not go dry and does not get contaminated.Given remote sensing capabilities the state has this should be a job done at best in a year.

The registered bore-wells in the city should then be mapped and put up on a publicly accessible GIS platform so as to wisely decide on whether fresh bore-wells should be sunk or not even by private individuals. Right now individuals and apartments make the choice of sinking a bore-well with a notion of water security not knowing what is the probability of striking water, at what depth and what will be the life of the bore-well. Huge costs are therefore sunk in infructuous investments which could otherwise have been put to productive sustainable use such as rainwater harvesting or groundwater recharge.

Conclusion: The current groundwater act provides an opportunity to a regime of shared groundwater where recharge and sustainable use based on demand management. It is therefore opportune to work on the knowledge and implementation of such a participatory groundwater regime. Institution building is key and should be the first step instead of a license permit raj.




Water lifting devices – the development of hydro-technology

March 12, 2013

In other posts I have argued that the first epoch making move for human-kind came from the discovery that a hole in the ground could yield water. Till then tied to the tyranny of rivers , lakes and springs ,humankind could but hover around surface water bodies.

The well allowed them to move into the vast landscape of the earth and the countryside was now all to occupy. Around this idea developed the science of water divining. Where to dig for water , how to read the signs on the land to determine the best places to dig, how deep to dig and how wide to dig.  Water provided the first codified , shareable knowledge.

Technology - the pulley

Then came technology . The pulley must have been the first technology to be invented. This made lifting of water easier from the wells. The pulley then became the wheel I hazard. Water was necessary before locomotion.

An improved pulley

One of the water lifting devices is still in use in certain parts of India . This is called the ‘Chadas’ or simply the lifter.

Here is how the Chadas works. Beautiful isn’t it?

Here of course is the Persian Wheel

A basic device based on the principle of the fulcrum and lever was the Joto or the Yeta


The culture of the well

March 11, 2013

The culture of the well


The well represents a culture and an ethic that is crucial to the sustainable use of water. A well taps only the dynamic water-table, which is annually replenished. 


                     A well at Lothal – 2600 B.C.


Water Wisdom: Drawing water from a well called for effort, and so water use was efficient and minimal


What is a well’s relevance in a city now? It represents a culture and an ethic which is crucial to the sustainable use of water. A well taps only the dynamic water table which is annually replenished. It gives fresh clean water if the surroundings are kept clean and the well itself maintained every year. It represents an understanding of soil and the ground which resulted in the first scientific approach to understand where to dig for it, how deep to dig, how wide to dig and how to line it. It was the meeting point for exchange of information and a daily walk or two and exercise in lifting the water. Because it called for effort, water use was efficient and minimal. You would hardly want to lift more water to waste it. This, in current parlance, is called demand management. The water from the well was free, the human right to water.

The well talks to you if you care to listen. It tells you that summer is approaching as water levels fall. You are asked to be prudent and conserve water. It tells you that this year the rainfall failed and is a drought year so there is very little water available. It also tells you about years of plenty when sometimes the well filled to the brim. Demand and supply was, therefore, based on ecological availability of rain and water and was dynamic.

Contrast this when man is distanced from the source of water with a utility as an intermediary. The borewell and the pipelines hardly converse with you and water is now distanced to be consumed as a commodity. When the resource runs out there is a feeling of betrayal and panic.

The culture had its ills. Wells were caste-based in certain areas with certain people not allowed to use it. It became polluted easily if not taken care of. Certain disease like cholera could spread easily if the water was not treated and people committed suicide in it.

Modern recharge wells

It is therefore heartening to see the revival of the well culture.

Rainwater harvesting being made mandatory has seen a proliferation of recharge wells- structures 3 to 5 feet in diameter and 10 to 30 feet deep are being dug and rooftop rainwater filtered and led into it. A recent visit to an apartment of 24 flats was enlightening. The occupants had dug seven recharge wells and made sure that every drop of water falling on the site was diverted to it. Over time the water levels had come up and could be seen in the open well itself.

The borewell, 200 feet deep, which had gone dry had revived and was yielding better than old times. Every time it rained the occupants would check that the system was functioning and that water was flowing into the recharge wells.

The connect with rain and water seemed to have been re-established for these urban dwellers.

An old well on rocky terrain which had gone dry showed 20 feet of standing water after recharge. A small pump was humming merrily and the well water was being used.

Open wells have the least energy costs in pumping and the higher the water table the lower the energy demand. Rainwater harvesting and recharge helps reduce energy demand and carbon emissions.

All over the city wells are making a comeback. Now to receive water and replenish the earth, unlike the old days when they use to give water. Wells can be planned and integrated in every form of development — individual homes, institutions, industries and large apartments. Storm water and rainwater networks can be linked for recharge of the aquifer.

Urban flooding can be reduced, if not eliminated, through the right design and use of the wells and with time and careful stewardship they shall connect the clouds and the earth.


Two precautions are needed: adequate collection and disposal of sewage so as not to pollute the wells and adequate disposal of garbage.

Restricted demand based on availability of water in the well will mean sustainable water needs for the city.

Cities would be well advised to reinvent the well culture both from a traditional but also a functional point of view.

We can rightly say all is well with our waters then. That would be water wisdom.


This land is my land, this land is your land….

March 10, 2013

For a nation fixated on the growth of GDP many have been reminding that the resource base which makes this possible needs stewardship. The soil , the forests , the rivers , the bio-diversity….all need a careful look .



On embedding urban food production and linking it to productive sanitation for the city

March 2, 2013

Summary: Urban India is a repository of many crises. From housing shortage, congestion, water shortage, waste-water prevalence, transport problems, energy and food/ nutrition shortage. While in the long run better urbanization and land-use policies will have to be done in the short run there are some ameliorative steps that can be taken.

It is possible to link water, productive sanitation, waste management and agriculture in a cyclical consumption pattern where the output becomes an input for the other sector. It is possible to find solutions at the household level and also at the city level with intermediate steps also part of the scale of solution.  One such example is presented in the paper below.

Introduction: Urbanization is a phenomenon which India like many other developing nations is experiencing. Though progressing at a slow pace the country is slowly but surely urbanizing with the percentage of population in urban areas as a ratio to rural population on the increase.

The Census of India 2011 identifies the presence of more than 7000 census towns, areas showing urban characters either in terms of density of population, employment in non-agricultural sectors or in terms of definition as urban areas.

Urban India as it expands converts its peripheral land from agricultural and ecological uses to urban uses. Often fertile lands are converted to industrial or housing use. The urban value of land being of higher economic value agriculture is a big loser.

On the other hand the fast growing cities need more and more food grains and vegetables to feed the ever increasing population. Vast streams of water are now to be transported over great distance to slake the thirst of the city. Groundwater from the city is pumped up from great depths to supplement piped water. Both the surface and groundwater so consumed now is let out as waste-water. This waste-water full of nutrients and pollutants flows in our sewage lines – if they exist – or in storm water drains and null

The Census of India 2011 revealed some startling data on the sanitation situation in India. Of the total households numbering 246,692,667 a staggering   53.10 % had no toilets. While a large percentage was rural, urban areas too reported open defecation.

Urban sanitation:  In urban areas underground water borne sewerage systems are slowly making progress but if all the towns in India  are to be fully  covered it will take large investments and a long time not to mention large volumes of water needed for flushing. In the meantime people are building septic tanks and pit toilets for themselves which will need to be emptied and the septage managed in a hygienic way and if necessary the nutrients recovered to aid the soil in the peri-urban areas in becoming productive.

Enter the ‘Honey-sucker’, a truck or tractor based pump, store and transport system developed in the formal but mainly in the informal sector. These pit emptying trucks are rapidly expanding and providing service especially in the Southern and Western states. In the city of Bangalore for example there may be 200 to 300 such trucks providing assistance to over 150,000 households for pit emptying.


Honey-suckers – Pit and septic tank emptying trucks equipped with de-sludging pumps

When pit toilets or septic tanks are full, at the call of a mobile number these honey-suckers will arrive and do a pit emptying job in 15 to 20 minutes without any human contact with the waste. They charge a small fee of Rs 1200 to Rs 1500.  They then take the sludge to farms in some cases where farmers after composting the sludge in turn sell it for Rs 2000 a tractor load. The whole enterprise is financially sustainable and has no subsidy component anywhere.

Rural Sanitation: While eco-sanitation systems (which is usually Urine diverting toilets collecting urine and faeces separately to be managed) are slowly increasing in numbers they form a minuscule portion of the total toilets being constructed.

The overwhelming numbers of toilets in the 10’s of millions are single pit or double pit toilets. These pit toilets, connected to our flush latrines, are filling up fast and will need to be emptied. With the Manual Scavenging Act being rigorously enforced the only way to do it legally will be through a process of mechanization which means a smaller version of the Honeysucker.

Smaller Honeysuckers for rural areas are a possibility

Honeysuckers emptying into and Sludge composting beds set up by a farmer


Composted sludge used as a fertiliser to grow bananas – replaces costly artificial fertiliser


The Bangalore method of composting faecal sludge: This method of composting was developed at Bangalore in India by Acharya (1939). The method is basically recommended when night soil and refuse are used for preparing the compost. The method overcomes many of the disadvantages of the Indore method such as problem of heap protection from adverse weather, nutrient losses due to high winds / strong sun rays, frequent turning requirements, fly nuisance etc. but the time involved in production of finished compost is much longer. The method is suitable for areas with scanty rainfall.

Preparation of the pit Trenches or pits about one metre deep are dug; the breadth and length of the trenches can be made depending on the availability of land and the type of material to be composted. The selection of site for the pits is made as in the Indore method. The trenches should preferably have sloping walls and a floor of 90-cm slope to prevent water logging.

Filling the pit: Organic residues and night soil are put in alternate layers and, after filling, the pit is covered with a 15-20 cm thick layer of refuse. The materials are allowed to remain in the pit without turning and watering for three months. During this period, the material settles down due to reduction in volume of the biomass and additional night soil and refuse are placed on top in alternate layers and plastered or covered with mud or earth to prevent loss of moisture and breeding of flies. After the initial aerobic composting which is for about eight to ten days, the material undergoes anaerobic decomposition at a very slow rate and it takes about six to eight months to obtain the finished product.


Vijayapura:  It is a small town about 60 kilometers from Bangalore surrounded by rich agricultural land. As water shortages increase and as groundwater tables fall all around our cities and towns interesting behavior patterns emerge and consolidate around waste-water. Imagine a farmer cultivating his 5 acres of land. His bore-well which has gone 1000 feet deep now runs dry because there is no rain and therefore no recharge of groundwater. He sees the city’s sewage water flowing nearby. What should he do? Overcoming his own apprehension he starts to use it on his field. He realizes that the water has nutrients too but they need careful handling since they may burn his crop or destroy his soil. He learns quickly and develops a palate of plants that can tolerate the waste-water and still be productive. He has also to manage the waste-water that the farm labourers do not run away.  He carefully now husbands this resource and makes productive use of it. He grows fodder, he grows maize and he finds a market demand for it. Is he doing the right job?

Conclusion: Embedding food production as part of the vast waste-water movement cycle of cities is happening at an informal level. These systems need to be better understood and tweaked to remove negative externalities and public health issues if any.