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.



  1. Very valid point ” Why would u lift water to waste it?” Today in most housing societies Gas, Electricity and even waste disposal is charged, but water that is free and part of maintenance. The result is gross wastage of water in housing societies as only a collective bill comes. We need to change the same and each flat need to pay for actual usage. I hope you take this up.

  2. I have a 100 year old hand dug well at my property that has taught me lessons as well. Great perspective on this article, thanks, Dohn

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