Lessons from a River Reborn.

Summer is a supercharged time in the South. For one, its hot. The one degree of global warming is palpable in May, where the temperature often skips above 40°C. For another, it is dry. The past year has been one of the driest in the past hundred and forty years.

In Madurai, we have our biggest festival of the year where a local deity, Alagar, enters the river Vaigai, with hundreds of thousands of devotees swaying to witness this grand show.

This year there was a small catch: there was no water in the river. There is a river bed where buffalos graze and small streams of pure sewage flow, but the river per se died a while ago.


There have been many attempts to rejuvenate this river. Thus far, they have all failed.

Why? The answer is in a word – equilibrium and its better-known partner – inertia. The classic definition of a stable equilibrium is “a state in which a body (or state or country) tends to return to its original position after being disturbed”.

It helps if we have an example.

The district of Alwar in Rajasthan is water-stressed, receiving less than 650 mm of rainfall in a year, most of which falls during the Southwest monsoon. The region is also amongst the hottest in India: Alwar held the “Hottest temperature recorded in India” for decades until it was eclipsed by another town in Rajasthan in 2016.  As is common in such places, much of the rain either runs off or evaporates, leaving the land parched and dry for most of the year. About thirty years ago, in the 1980s, the situation was so bad, that it appeared as though the region was going to become one of India’s first “climate victims”, falling prey to the heat and drought.

But the situation was not always so. Alwar had a rich history of water conservation embodied in its “Johads” – crescent-shaped earthen dams that checked the flow of water and allowed the rainwater to percolate into the soil below and replenish underground aquifers.. In a dry area, the sensible thing is to store water underground, safe from the grasping heat of the sun.

The region also had dense forests: the trees and Johads worked together to trap and store the precious rainwater. Johads tend to be big – the smallest being half an acre in size. As such, they need a village to build and maintain them. In older times, the system was self-sustaining: The king would pay to build and maintain the Johad and enforced rules on not encroaching on forest lands. In turn, the villagers would pay him a share of their crops. The forests provided hunting opportunities for the king while the king protected the forest. The depredations the villagers made on the forest were of the sustainable sort.

Alwar existed in a stable equilibrium, where even if there was a drought, the Johad’s and the forests made it possible for water to be stored underground. Because of strong communal interdependencies, all villagers stuck to sensible crops for the region, and the king was an effective disciplinarian who maintained the Johads. The community, the Forests, the Johads, the choice of crops, the king all worked together and reinforced one another. Equilibriums are maintained by such reinforcing activities that fortify status quo.

But then came the disturbance.

During the Second World War, the British pressurised India to provide timber for their war efforts. The deforestation pressures continued to mount after Independence when a newly created nation wanted wood for its railways and for charcoal.

The first effects of this deforestation soon showed up.  Without the stabilising influence of the trees, the rain carried away the top soil and dumped it on the Johads, silting them up. Without the well-functioning Johads, water levels began to fall. There was no King to pay for maintenance. Moreover, technology reared its disruptive head. In the fifties, the tube well came to Alwar. Instead of the laborious work of communally maintaining the Johad and strict rules on water use, now water was available at the flip of a tap. Here was a machine that could deliver water at a flip of a switch, why worry about desilting Johads? But soon, the water began to recede deeper and deeper, and the machines took more and more power to deliver too little water, until finally, well after well began to run dry.

The earlier equilibrium was broken. The new one left Alwar shattered.

The young men of the village began to emigrate in search for work while the women had to travel farther and farther away to find water for their homes. The very real question became: would Alwar become the first climate victim of India?

Alwar 1985

Figure 1: Alwar in 1985; Picture Courtesy Tarun Bharat Sangh

But then there was another disturbance – this time of the positive kind.

In this bleak scene, a group of idealistic young men came to Alwar. Like many angry young men, they were fired by a desire to “do something to help”. Leading them was 28-year-old Rajendra Singh, a qualified Ayurvedic physician. But strangely enough, he found the villagers to be unresponsive. Indeed, some villagers thought the young men were up to no good at all and wanted them to leave. Singh was disappointed – after all, they had come to the village to help! Just as he was about the give up, Mangu Ram Patel, an elder of Gopalpura told him bluntly:” Talk less, dig tanks and build Johads to get results”. Another villager, Nathi Bhalai was even more blunt: “You fool! You have not understood what is needed. You need to build talabs[1] so that the water does not run off”. Thus, it came to be that Rajendra Singh and Nathi Bhalai took up spades and began to create a Johad in Gopalpura village in 1985. Others watched them, first in curiosity, then to heckle and finally to help. After several months, the Johad was completed and the men sat down and waited for the monsoon.

The rain gods did not disappoint.

By the end of the monsoon, the pond behind the Johad was full.

Surprisingly, so was a neighbourhood well that was not connected to the pond.

The members of Tarun Bharat Sangh, the organization Singh began, held a Pani Yatra (or a march for water) through the nearby village. The villagers of Bhaonta-Koyala were envious: Their wells lay dry and their women had to walk a long way to fetch water, while nearby Gopalpura had water in its wells year-round[i].

Envy is a powerful tool. What was the secret in Gopalpura?

TBS offered to share the secret if the villagers undertook the labour. There was no other alternative: there was no groundwater. Thus, the communal interdependency was built again. In village after village, Johad after Johad was repaired and renewed. Unsurprisingly, water levels went up. Soon, the villagers began to reforest the land around the Johads. They had tasted the wonders of the Johad, and knew that by planting forests, the Johads would not silt up so frequently, nor would the rain evaporate so quickly. The Johads and the forests grew side by side as in the old days. The equilibrium had begun to shift again.

Then, almost a decade after the first Johad has been renewed, a miracle occurred. The Arvari was a seasonal stream in the region that flowed briefly for a few weeks in the monsoon. In dry and hot areas, river replenishment happens through underground water flows. As the Johads replenished the ground water in the upper catchment areas of the river and the forests prevented runoff and evaporation, the river turned perennial and was newly reborn. There was now a new stable equilibrium.

Alwar 2012

Figure 2: Alwar in 2012; Picture courtesy Tarun Bharat Sangh

Many men returned to their villages to farm, now that there was water available. Women and girls were spared the long trek to gather water, and more girls began to go to school. The water level increased and the increased soil moisture allowed farmers of the region to go for more croppings in a year.

But then, another disturbance occurred.

A perennial river meant fish. The state government gave the fishing rights of the reborn river to a private entity. The villagers were aghast. Was this a beginning of a new kind of end? To manage the common fruits of their success, the villagers created the “Arvari Sansad” or a Parliament for the river Arvari in 1999. With representatives from 72 villages in it, the Arvari Sansad frames the rules of engaging with this common resource. For a water-conservationist, it reads like a dream. There are provisions for the type of crops allowed, grazing rights, and borewell rights (they are not allowed). Industrial units are also not allowed. The focus of the rules is to maintain the equilibrium of a community-managed, sustainable agro-based economy.

A key determinant of success was the choice of who sat on the parliament. Rajendra Singh told me that those who contributed to the river’s rejuvenation directly sat on the parliament. Communal surface water management worked here because all contributed to the creation and maintenance of the water resource – they had directly expended resources and therefore had “skin in the game”.

Second, because the people in the area still remembered what happened when groundwater was abused, they understood what the disturbance of the equilibrium would mean. Lastly, any flouting of the rules, would evoke communal punishment. For instance, if anyone tried to drill a borewell, their neighbours would alert the villager leadership, and a group would be sent to “block the borewell.”

Success has not been easy to come by. The “parliament” has no legal standing and rules solely by moral authority. But because of communal interdependency, there is extra bite to the authority. There is one more contributor to the success of the Johad: the water from the borewells in Alwar is often contaminated with Fluorides or other salts, making the water from the Johad the preferred source.

“Come see” says Rajendra Singh “You cannot see a single field with sugarcane, paddy or any water-intensive crop”. And they are thinking ahead. The next generation will not remember a time when the borewells ran dry. They do not have skin in the game as they did not rebuild and create hundreds of Johads, nor did they nurture the forests. So, the members of Tarun Bhagat Sangh spend their time educating the children and trying to imbue them with a link to the Johad, the forest and the community. This is a critical step in maintaining the equilibrium.

Alwar Farmer

Figure 3: A farmer in Alwar, Picture courtesy Tarun Bharat Sangh

Coming back to South India and its drought.

Let us look at Madurai.

Most people do not have a clue as to how much water they consume for one very simple reason: there are very few working meters here. As a result, a large chunk of water is lost to leaks (A conservative estimate in a World Bank study puts this number for Indian cities at 30-40%). Large sections of the city do not pay for the water – as a result the equilibrium is tilted towards water profligacy. There is the water mafia as well – the tanker operators who sell water at high prices to the masses who do not have access. Almost every person I have met in the past few months has been buying water in Madurai.

Farmers grow paddy (a water-loving crop), drawing water with pumps when they can, when the power comes, and if the water is there. Electricity for farming is free, which does not support sustainable water use in farming. And this is important because, most estimates have agriculture using between 80-90% of water used. Thanks to an unpredictable power supply, Farmers have little control over when and how long the pumps will run, and because of the free electricity, they have little interest in controlling its usage. After all, the water stores lie deep underground and they have lasted until now.

And the climate is playing truant. A quick look at 100-year rainfall data (See Figure: ) suggests that the worst is yet to come. When we look at annual rainfall data culled from IMD data and data from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural university, we see that annual rainfall began to fall about 35 years ago and there is no hint of the stemming of this tide.

Madurai Rainfall 100 years

Figure 4: 100-year rainfall data of Madurai; Picture Courtesy Sundaram Climate Institute

So, we have a crisis on our hands. And crises tend to be great opportunities to change the status quo because the population tends to be desperate and willing to change. This is rare. And such opportunities should not be wasted.

But what have we got?

Three obvious measures to tilt the equilibrium towards one that favours sustainable water use include universal metering, a universal (but differentiated) water price (including priced electricity for farming) and communal ownership of groundwater. Each of these would encourage sustainable use of water. Farmers and low income users could pay a lower price and with the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme gaining traction, the government can ensure a basic refund goes to the neediest families, so that they are not out-of-pocket when using water carefully.

Rajendra Singh is not a capitalist – far from it. Even he agrees “Water needs a price. Thirty years ago, I thought “Water is Nature’s gift to my life. I don’t pay a price.” After 30 years [now I say], water need a price. We are using water in a different lifestyle. Water needs some treatment. Water needs management. Water needs distribution. Without a water price our future is not safe.”

Many experts talk about increasing the penetration of drip irrigation in agriculture. Even in states like Tamil Nadu, where subsidies make the drips almost free for small farmers, the take-up is not spectacular. Why? Drips need maintenance. Rodents bite the tubes, there could be some debris that blocks the drip, meaning the farmer will have to regularly spend time and effort to check, clean and fix the drips. Why would the farmer incur a cost to save a commodity that is free?

Headlines and experts bemoan the existence of the water mafia. Why is there no water mafia in Singapore? Because Singapore charges a high price for its water and has a pay-and-perform culture at its utilities. Everyone pays a price for their water that is transparent and fair. This allows the Singapore Water Utility to invest in top-notch facilities including a state-of-the-art wastewater recycling plant and a visitor centre to teach children (and adults) the importance of water. All of this ensure that everyone in Singapore always gets clean water at the turn of a tap. There is no room for the Mafia.

But who will invest in India’s water utilities when the finances look so poor – with little prospect of them improving? Improving water supply and defeating the water mafia means universal metering, a universal water price and a culture that rewards performance at utilities. Only then will leaks be fixed, will sources be strengthened and problems solved.

Thus far, most relief measures have been either compensation to farmers or sinking more borewells to ensure cities get their water. These are short term measures. They will not shift the equilibrium – they will only reinforce status quo.

Let us not waste this crisis. Let us use it to take our first steps into a new equilibrium.

[1] Reservoir

India. Water. Do we have a problem? Yes. Can we something? Yes.

Canon Rebel 200Ground water levels have been falling continuously in many parts of the country.

The first question to ask is are we taking water from the groundwater (aquifer) in a safe way — in a way that allows it to recharge. In many parts of the country, the answer is “No”.

Groundwater India 2016

The second question is the groundwater levels themselves: http://www.cgwb.gov.in/Ground-Wa…

In many places, groundwater levels are falling — especially in places like Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, where alternate sources of water are scarce.

To add to this problem, in many places, rainfall patterns are changing, most probably because of the warming climate. Shown below is the hundred year rainfall of Madurai. Annual rain received started falling about 30 years ago, and has kept falling since then.

Madurai Rainfall 100 years

OK. So we have a big problem.

Is there a solution?


Countries with much less rain than us, export water — namely, Israel.

So there is a solution available today.

How do they do it?

They treat their sewage to such an extent, that the quality becomes almost good as fresh water. They then use it to irrigate their crops through drip irrigation.

Many places in India have used traditional methods such as check dams, farm ponds and bunds to conserve their rainwater.

There are methods to prevent evaporation from ponds and lakes.

But do you see a problem in adopting this to the Indian context?

Collecting sewage, treating sewage, using pipes to take it to agricultural regions, using drips all cost money. Building check dams, farm ponds and bunds take labour and maintenance — it costs money. Today, farmers get the power to run their pumps for free. Ground water is free.

Cities routinely lose more than half their municipal water to leaks.

In my house, until we installed meters on each tap, we found we were hugely inefficient in our water. Ditto for our farm. We reduced pressure, arrested leaks and reduced the number of hours we watered our plants. This has helped bring down our water use by 40–80%.

Again, meters, people to monitor the meters and take action all cost money.

In cities, there is an additional problem – the water tanker mafia. Many of us pay substantial prices – about Rs. 1-1.5 per litre for “drinking water” and less for more substandard water. This lobby prevents progress because they rake in huge sums in supply. They exist because municipal supply is so bad. Municipal supply is bad because we pay too little for it and because believe we cannot question its functioning.

Both of these have to change, if we need to make progress.

We need an universal price for water. Universal in that all users must be charged. But all users need not be charged the same price. Until and unless we charge a price for water — all water and for all users — there is no solution for this.

Cities and Climate Change – Part 3

So far we have seen that the world has become primarily urban. Therefore, it’s important to consider how cities are affected or going to be affected by climate change and how they are adapting to it.

Some of the main ways by which cities are affected by climate change is through water:

  • Flooding because river basins, tanks and reservoirs are occupied by slums
  • Flooding/Storm damage because of sea level rise
  • Depletion of ground water
  • Intense rain events overwhelming the sewerage and storm water drainage systems of a city

Other ways by which cities will be impacted by climate change is increasing heat waves and increasing susceptibility to vector borne infections.

In today’s post, let us consider the vector borne infection problem.

The only infection every one is talking about today is Ebola. So let us deal briefly with that first. How did Ebola come about? The strongest hypothesis is this: humans started consuming bush meat from monkey infected with the Ebola virus and the virus made a “species jump” into humans. Epidemics of Ebola until now have been relatively small and ended fairly quickly – why is the current one so different?

  1. Travel; As the world becomes more urban and there is more travel between cities, infections that were once geographically restrained have become more widespread.
  2. Crowding: as this disease has hit crowded urban centers, one infected person has the potential to infect far more people than he would have in a rural (less crowded) setting.
  3. Overwhelmed medical facilities: Recently there was an article that said there was a need for 1000 beds in Monrovia in Liberia to care for Ebola patients. There were only 250 beds available. So a number of Ebola patients had to be turned away from the hospital to return home and infect more people.
  4. Shared sanitation facilities: many slums in cities do not have adequate toilet facilities, so people end up sharing facilities or practicing open defecation. Ebola spreads through contaminated body fluids including feces.

So this Ebola epidemic is made worse by poorly planned urbanization not so much because of climate change.

Now, let us consider the main infection made so much worse by climate change: Dengue.

What is Dengue: Dengue is a disease caused by the dengue virus. A person contracts dengue fever when bitten by a particular type of mosquito which is a carrier of the dengue virus. Dengue is an urban disease – an infected Aedes Aegypti mosquito typically flies for a distance less than 50-100 metres – often much less. So transmission is possible only in crowded local conditions.

Dengue is a terrible illness – the patients suffer from fever and tremendous pain (the disease is also called break bone fever) and a complication – Dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome – this can be fatal.

How is dengue transmission affected by climate change?

When a city’s coping mechanisms (reservoirs, tanks, sewage and storm water drains) are overwhelmed by either encroachment, increasing population or irregular but intense rainfall, water tends to stagnate. This provides a fertile breeding ground for Dengue.

Second, as the world warms, many cities that were earlier out of reach for mosquitoes. This is no longer the case as is evidenced by the spread of the West Nile Virus in the US.

PS: On a personal note, I’ve had dengue recently – it really is the worst disease I’ve ever had (and I’ve had Hepatitis A, Measles, Malaria etc.). The city I live in has been subject to increasing dengue epidemics in the last 10 years. It was not at all common before that.

Cities and Climate Change

So, last time we spoke about two ways by which cities around the world are coping with climate change: slum relocation and waste management – with different degrees of success.

Today, let’s discuss a big one: sea level rise. The sea has been rising faster in the last 25 years than it has in the last 300 years – by about 1.5 inches a decade. Is it a huge number – other than small island nations (like Maldives) and people who own expensive real estate – no one has been really bothered by this.

But consider the future. The figure below shows that the sea could very well rise by 2-3 feet in the next 80 or so years and then the world becomes a very different place.


http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1255; Link from  Most experts think the projections of Rahmstorf are more likely. See http://www.nature.com/climate/2010/1004/pdf/climate.2010.29.pdf for an update on Rahmstorf’s projections.

Combine this understanding with the fact that most cities are located by the coast.



Moreover, a recent paper by the World Bank published in Nature Climate Change has concluded that climate change related damage in the 136 largest cities could rise to a trillion dollars per year from about $ 6 billion per year in 2005 – that’s about 16600%!!! The 20 cities with the largest effect on their GDP by sea level rise are shown below:


Cities themselves exacerbate the risks they face. They encroach on flood reservoirs (the slum factor mentioned in the last post); they over exploit their ground water (this causes the land to sink); they build too close to the sea – not giving the beach space to grow or adapt and they destroy mangroves that tend to protect the coastline.

The World Bank study goes on the say that the potential annual losses by 2050 could be cut from $1 trillion to about $ 65 billion IF the cities spent about $50 billion in adaptation measures. Once you note that many of the circles are in developing countries, you begin to see that this is not an easy proposition. Another interesting point in the map above shows that many of the dots are in China – perhaps a reason why China has been quite the model country in talking about mitigating climate change causes.

More later.

Cities and Climate Change

Coping with climate change – urban edition.

More and more people are moving to cities.



They come seeking their fortunes – hoping for better lives – be it better education for their children, higher paying jobs, better healthcare etc. For the first time in history, the world became majority urban. So, its a good thing that many cities around the world are adopting resilience plans. These plans look at increasing populations, the need to evaluate and manage the city’s carbon footprint, building adaptation mechanisms- be it coping with sea level rise, increasing pollution, building better public transport or securing water supplies.

Perhaps you live in a city with such a plan. Let us consider some of these plans and some of the issues in their suggestions.

A common drawback is the lack of public awareness/ involvement in such plans. Take this: http://cdkn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Madurai-Urban-Diagnostic-Final-17-01-14-without-annex.pdf. Most people don’t know a thing about it.

Another common issue is suggestions that look great on paper but aren’t implementable. Take for example, slum relocation. Most slums grow on unwanted or under-wanted government land. That makes sense – poor migrants cannot settle on private land or highly valued government land. Unfortunately, such land often has certain characteristics that make it unwanted – such as being in low lying areas adjacent to a river and prone to flooding. With slums and building on reservoir land, natural coping mechanisms for flooding are taken away, leaving the poorest populations exposed to flooding hazards. A straightforward solution is for the slum dwellers to move – they face constant threats of flooding and the many inconveniences that come with it, the slums are terrible places to live – often with no formal water and sanitation facility, electrical connections etc., they don’t own the land. But very often, the slum dwellers don’t want to for many reasons – proximity to work, schooling, operational possession of valuable real estate etc.

Yet another problem is existing mindset(s) Singapore is a city that has done a fantastic job of planning for its water independence. They have been leaders in adopting the cleansing and re branding of sewage water as NEWater. Treating sewage to close part of the water cycle is a great way to address one of the key manifestations of water scarcity. Using recycled sewage water, with comparable or better TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) or numbers of coliform bacteria than water from a reservoir- both measures of how pure a sample of water is, for household or drinking purposes faces a massive mindblock issue. Most people don’t want to drinking treated sewage. Unfortunately in the days to come, we may not have the luxury of squeamishness.

More later