Posts Tagged ‘rivers’


Independence -water

August 16, 2013

As has been well said, it is easier to make things complex than to make them simple.  Luckily for us some of the functional things to do with water remain the simplest. While we celebrate Independence Day let us also remind ourselves that the role of citizenship confers on us rights but also puts on use responsibilities. It is in our engagement with the world outside our private boundaries that we truly become citizens.

A list of the possibility

Respect the law: In Bangalore for example rainwater harvesting is mandatory . Now the water supply utility has set August 20th as the deadline for buildings to get rainwater harvesting done. Correct compliance with the law will help conserve water, increase the groundwater levels and reduce urban flooding.

Start with responsible water use:  Switch water conserving taps, flushes , showers , washing machines et al. and become a responsible water user in your home.

Take responsibility for community areas: In your apartment engage with the system which uses water for the garden, lawns, swimming pools and look at ways of being water efficient along-with the staff responsible.

Adopt your street: If the building you live in has a street adopt it. Work on keeping the whole thing or at  least a stretch of the road clean. This will mean that garbage management is in place , segregation and collection happens in all buildings and that the nothing is left as litter on the roads. It also means that the storm water drain is kept clean and that the roadside trees are protected.

Take care of a lake: Citizen groups all across the nation are coming together to take care of urban water bodies. Identify the nearest one, organize and ensure that the lake is revived. The work will be a learning and its own reward.

Assist a nearby government school: Everybody agrees that the future of India is in its younger generation and the education they get. For proper schooling a basic necessity is good water and sanitation. Many government schools struggle to access clean water and good sanitation. Engage with a local government school and help improve their water systems. As little a thing as soap for hand washing or  a good water filter can be of great help , prevent absenteeism and reduce the incidence of water borne disease outbreaks. Try it , it is not difficult.

Go for a walk in the park: Enjoy natures bounty but also ensure that it is clean , that they adopt water harvesting and get a landscape which does not demand water. A retired professor and his school teacher wife have adopted and cleaned up a local park in front of their home even labeling plants and trees as well as creating a lot for children to play . They are closer to 70 . If they can do it most of us can too.

Try visit a river:  India is the land of seven rivers. Most of them are struggling now with pollution or with water use drying them up . See if you can do something to redress the situation. Groups across India are planting trees in catchment , creating percolation tanks and cleaning up old wells called Kalyanis. Perhaps you can help them out with your skills whatever they be.


Nationhood is about thinking beyond the self. Progress and a clean environment is not a spectator sport and requires strong engagement with communities of like minded citizens banding together to overcome a problem. This Independence day let us all become water warriors in our small way . 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 .



When the rivers go dry – and how groundwater over-abstraction killed it

November 21, 2012

On The death of rivers and the role of groundwater extraction in the killing

Water can be both good and bad, useful and dangerous. To the danger, however, a remedy has been found, learning to swim- Democritus.

The time of Democritus (460 – 370 BCE) was a happier one for waters, be they rivers or lakes or the sea. It was not the era of pollution from sewage and industries or the era of unbridled exploitation through overuse and over-extraction , especially of groundwater, posing a much greater challenge than to learn to swim to deal with dangerous waters.

Now rivers and lakes are drying up. A primary cause is the lowering of the water table in the catchment zones. As ground waters go deeper they no longer emerge as seeps and springs to feed rivers. Whatever little water is there in these water bodies now either evaporate or re- enter the ground to be further exploited.

A recent publication by the US Geological Services – USGS – titled ‘ Stream-flow Depletion by Wells—Understanding and Managing the Effects of Groundwater Pumping on Stream-flow’ examines the phenomenon.

Its conclusion is that by far the biggest influence on depleted river flows is groundwater pumping. It also clears up several misconceptions. The belief for example that the total development of a groundwater aquifer system is ‘safe’  or ‘sustainable’ up-to the average rate of recharge. A system currently followed by our planners. This, the paper argues, is wrong. The second myth that depletion stops when pumping of groundwater ceases. This too is a false belief.


In our immediate neighbourhood many attempts have been made to revive rivers and some are still ongoing. Say for example the effort of the Cauvery Niravari Nigam to revive the river Arkavathy. While crores of rupees are being spent on chopping bushes and cleaning drains not one paisa is spent towards understanding the groundwater and surface water flow interface and to manage the groundwater in such a way that it does not render the Arkavathy a losing stream. Good intentions are simply not enough for reviving water bodies. They have to be backed by a scientific rigour and analysis and the understanding that groundwater plays the biggest role in river and lake inflows.

Groundwater determines river flows

The survival of a river or a lake cannot be the peripheral activity of many institutions it has to be the core activity of one institution. It is time we constituted a river basin institution for each one of the tributaries of the Cauvery and the Krishna and started planning and implementing appropriate groundwater management strategies to ensure that the river systems remain healthy. That would be water wisdom.


India- Our Water Heritage

November 13, 2010

Know your water heritage


The cultural heritage around water has tremendous tourism and knowledge potential, which in the West enhances property value in the area and spurs local economy. A study by water expert S. Vishwanath

Stately:The Wellesley Bridge on the Cauvery built in 1894

India has a rich cultural heritage on water structures and architecture. Consider the beautiful step-wells all around the country from Hampi in Karnataka, Abaneri in Rajasthan and Bundelkhand to Adalaj Vav near Ahmedabad. Water structures include the ‘ghats’ or river bank steps at Srirangapatna, Benaras and on the banks of the Narmada. Water architecture has is reflected in the temple ponds or the ‘kalyani’ in Melkote, Thiruvananthapuram and Madurai. Water aesthetics have been elaborated as the beautiful channels and fountains at Humayun’s tomb Delhi or again at Hampi.

Often forgotten are the more prosaic but equally beautiful structures like the large open wells with their beautiful granite dry stone pitching, bridges built of stone or brick masonry with their arches, dams built of earth and lime mortar, aqueducts which brought water to cities, siphons which helped empty reservoirs when they were full and pumps which helped ship water to distant cities.

All these cultural heritage structures and devices around water have tremendous tourism and knowledge potential which in the West enhances property value all around and spurs the local economy. In Sydney, Paddington reservoir, one of the oldest of its kind, has been restored and made into a recreation spot with signboards explaining the history and evolution of the system. Cities and governments needs to revisit these structures and draw up a plan to fit it around the local needs.

Consider the history of water supply to a city like Bangalore. A dam was built on the Arkavathy at Hessarghatta in 1894 and it is one of the most beautiful and scenic spots around Bangalore. There is a siphon here which when the reservoir was full in the olden days would empty the excess waters. The sound of the siphon could be heard for miles, say the old timers. The reservoir now does not fill up but the siphon is itself in a state of disrepair and there is no explanatory board to suggest how the system functions.

A brick aqueduct would bring water some kilometres from Hessarghatta to a place called Turubanhalli from where a steam engine imported from the U.K. was used to lift the waters to a reservoir at Jalahalli. From here the water would flow to the ‘jewel filters’ at Malleswaram and be distributed to the city. The steam engines are still there in pristine condition but tucked away in a room and the brick aqueduct is being eaten away by vandals, destroying a precious heritage. Again, no explanatory boards are seen anywhere.

No respect for history

Bangalore was also one of the first cities in India to have electricity which was then used to replace the steam pumps with electric ones. This too is a remarkable thing needing to be showcased but, alas, we do not respect history and our heritage.

Virtually nothing of this system or the feats of our engineers has been preserved or showcased to the city and its younger generation. We are, it seems, not proud of our engineering skills.

Consider the beautiful Wellesley bridge, called the ‘haley sethuve’ or old bridge, in Srirangapatna. Built during 1802-04 the beautiful stone bridge still continuous to be functional and can take car traffic too. How many modern structures can claim such longevity? Yet there is virtually little information available on this beautiful bridge. Trees and roots establish themselves on the deck and the pillars, the old sign board announcing its inauguration by none other than Dewan Purnaiah is unmanaged and the bridge is in slow decay.

None of the property and resorts that have come along on the banks of the Cauvery do anything to highlight and help preserve this engineering marvel. Neither does the Tourism Department or the PWD Department.

In Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and in Hampi, work is in progress to revitalise and showcase the water heritage. Channels, ponds and ‘kalyani’ are being revived, fountains resurrected and explanation boards coming up. This is good work, but just the beginning. Similarly we need to focus on all such structures for in them there are lessons of creativity and overcoming problems through engineering ingenuity. More institutions apart from the Archaeology Department need to get involved. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board can take up the revitalisation work of Bangalore city’s water heritage, for example.

The PWD can refrain from what it did with the beautiful old stone bridge on the Shimsha at Maddur built in the 1850s, which it dismantled and sold as stones. It can take up the restoration of the Wellesley Bridge aesthetically and showcase its design.

By respecting our water tradition and culture and by letting our young generation know about the efforts put behind the marvellous structures we will have spread water literacy and done justice to our forefathers’ works. That in a sense is the path to water wisdom.


Requiem for our rivers

March 10, 2008

This is a column I have in The Hindu. It appears every Saturday in the supplement called Property Plus. This is last weeks article.


Requiem for our rivers S. VISHWANATH

Price of development: Copious flows in the Arkavathi is a thing of the past. This is a requiem for the Arkavathi and most of our peninsular rivers. The Arkavathi is a tributary of the Cauvery. Rising in the Nandi Hills to the north of Bangalore it passes through most of Bangalore Rural district and joins the Cauvery at Sangama in Kanakapura district. It flows for 190 kilometres and in hydrological parlance is called a second order stream, meaning it is a tributary of the Cauvery which joins the sea. The Cauvery is a first order stream flowing into the sea, its major tributaries are second order streams and the Vrishbhavathi which joins the Arkavathi is a third order stream. The catchment area from where the water collects in the river is more than 4000 square kilometres. Yet the Arkavathi is dead and barely flows during heavy rains. Why is that so? This is a sorry tale of the death of a river.When Bangalore first ran out of water from within its boundaries in 1894 it was decided that a reservoir at Arkavathi would need to be built to ensure that enough water was available to the city. The Hessarghatta reservoir, about 24 km from the city, was built on the Arkavathi and continued to supply water till about 1934 when the second reservoir on the Arkavathi called the Thippagondanahalli or the Chamaraja Sagara Reservoir was constructed to bring in more water for the increasing thirst of Bangalore.

Both reservoirs were built on the Arkavathi for The Gazetteer of Bangalore Rural says the Arkavathi “is not exactly a seasonal stream, in the summer months it presents the usual aspect of a sandy bed with a small current of water flowing at one side.” In short it was a perennial river. Large tanks such as the Madhure and the Dodballapur ere also constructed on the river and would usually fill up. The town of Dodballapur depended on the Arkavathi for its drinking water requirement as did the town of Ramanagara.

Groundwater was available at 1 to 3 metres below ground level in the Arkavathi basin. Wells ranging from 2 to 10 metres in diameter and depths of between 3 to 12 metres provided up to 60,000 litres of water per day. In summer, well water would fall at best to 4 metres. Wells provided drinking water for all villages as well as agricultural water for irrigation. More than 30,000 wells were present in the Arkavathi basin. This was the situation till the 1980s.

Pressure What killed the Arkavathi? A combination of the natural phenomena of drought and pressure on the catchment of the river. From 1980 to 1987, six out of the eight years were drought years with below normal rainfall. Wells dried up and were replaced by deep tubewells and borewells. Over-pumping resulted in a steep fall in the water table with most wells drying up and a competitive deeper drilling of borewells resulting in depths of nearly 300 metres being reached. With the fall in the groundwater table there was no base flow into the river. It first dried up in summer but then was unable to flow in the rainy season except for a few days. The tanks and the channels leading to the tanks were encroached upon or mismanaged and the links of surface water flows to the river stopped. All the tanks dried up and the Hessarghatta was abandoned as a reliable source of water to the city. The same fate awaits the Thippagondanahalli in a few years when it too will cease to be a reliable source for storage. The Nagarakere or the Dodballapur tank was long since given up as a source and the drinking water situation there is perilous with most water coming from private tankers. Villages struggle for drinking water in the basin especially in summer as borewells go dry.

The change of land use to predominantly agricultural activities resulted in the levelling of land and the construction of field bunds. Ploughing of land was a natural corollary to farming activities. Runoff from the land became zero. Sand mining and granite quarrying disrupted rivers badly and added to the problem.

Then came the industries with their huge water demand. The apparel park set up in Dodballapur in the Arkavathi basin will need water from the Cauvery and so will the international airport in the Dakshina Pinakini basin. The second order streams are dead and the first order Cauvery is the only reliable source. The question is for how long?

What does it mean for property? In the absence of any river basin- level institution even at the second order stream level, who will be responsible for the planning of the rivers and waters both above the ground and below the ground? Who will plan, invest and manage the waters of our rivers and who will be held accountable for failures?

With the coming up of the international airport a property boom is on in Dodballapur. Land prices have skyrocketed and housing colonies, resorts, restaurants and apartments are seeking to locate themselves there. But where is the water for this development?

Unless we create the right institutions at the right river basin level and arm them with the ability to plan and act on the plan, water shortages will be the order of the day and will hinder livelihoods and economic growth. Agencies such as the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board are woefully inadequate to manage sources and to provide water for all.

This is true of ALL our second order streams and it is a matter of time that climate change hits us and starts affecting first order rivers.

Water wisdom lies in recognising problems at the scales at which they occur and taking remedial action at that scale legally, institutionally and financially so that the problems are overcome.

Economic development and poverty reduction will be hit unless ecological resources are taken care of and that is the responsibility of ALL of us as citizens of the country. Recognise the river basin you are in and take action to revive it.

Water wisdom is leaving things better for the future generations than what we inherited.