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.

Two glaring symptoms of global warming: Drought & Heatwaves

Girl Collecting water

(Image from thehindu.com)

Time to spend money and attention on adaptation

Price water. Please. We do not have the luxury to waste water on growing low-yielding rice varieties and sustaining 300 million cows & buffaloes.

However, the current machinery extracts significant rent from crises. Emergencies give procedural checks and balances a go-bye making an already leaky system entirely porous.

Speaking for myself, living in 40C + weather daily. This is how it feels.

Morning walks are impossible unless one starts before 7 am. Stepping outside in the day, the first assault is of hot dry air on one’s cheeks. Then the sun hits the head. Even with head covered, tiresomeness sets in after a few minutes. Forget irritability, there is no energy to be angry. One feels parched. The fortunate have access to water.

What a hellish existence is it when in this heat, with no option but to work out in the sun people have little access to water.





Heat Wave



Conclusion – Article Series Summary

All Good Things…

We now come to the conclusion of the series – our exploration of what climate change is, what it will mean for India and importantly, what we can do.

Climate change is much more than a 1°C increase in temperature. A consistently warmer temperature fundamentally alters the way air holds moisture: warmer air can hold more vapour resulting in more intense rain alternating with more drought. When coupled with unwise urban planning, this intense rainfall results in floods. Plants cannot adapt to such different patterns of rainfall: agricultural yields to fall steeply if we don’t adapt and it will and has caused extinctions of many species. Seas will rise and there will be salt water intrusion into ground water in coastal zones. There are and will increasingly will be frequent, deadly heat waves, as each new year sets a record in soaring temperatures.

It’s virtually certain that humans have caused this warming through the greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels like coal or diesel and increasing our livestock populations. Carbon dioxide tends to be long lived (some fraction of what we emit now will hang around in the air for thousands of years). This makes it important to consider cumulative emissions when assigning blame and enlisting action.

We saw that this is not going to be an easy problem to solve. Why? Because each country is affected differently by the warming climate: warm, poor countries suffer both because of their already hot climates and their inability to cope, while cooler, wealthier climates suffer relatively less. Consider the US. Responsible for a quarter of global cumulative (1850-2011) Carbon emissions, it does suffer from climate change – California will likely get drier, the southwest will be more plagued by forest fires and the Eastern Seaboard will be buffeted by storms. But there will be benefits as well – lower winter cooling costs, and a longer growing season. More importantly, the US will be able to cope with the changes. This perhaps explains why many Americans increasingly rate climate change pretty low in their list of concerns. There were celebrations about the Paris accord saying it was the tilting point of climate change action, but little has happened since then with richer nations not agreeing to legally binding cuts in emissions.

This means curbing climate change will need a “miracle” as Bill Gates recently called it.

With this in mind, and given India’s relatively small share in emissions and our current developing state, we are better off adapting ourselves to the change and taking “low-hanging” mitigating actions or those with substantial non-climate benefits. Look at this another way, an average Indian emits less than a tenth of what an average American emits. And India’s share of total emissions today is about 5% of total global emissions. Moreover, India will be hit very badly: her agricultural yields are likely to plummet, putting half her population dependent on it at risk. Her already hot climate will become hotter still – making deadly heat waves deadlier still. Her cities will get flooded with terrible regularity and the disease burden will increase. Not a pretty picture.

Here, it is important to bring up the oft-ignored concepts of “Attention” and “Execution”. As a country, we have so many things to do, that the availability of both talented manpower and capable institutions are serious bottlenecks. Rather than say I will lower my emissions (switch to solar, cut coal) AND adapt (develop heat and drought resistant crops, climate-proof my cities, insure my water supplies), better to focus on a small set of actions and execute well.

But this is not a macro-focussed column. So, moving from a macro to a micro perspective, we need to look at what each of us could do to both lower our impact on the climate as well as adapt to it.

In the last article of the series we will consider what are the top 5 actions we can take to both cut down our impact on the climate and help India adapt better.

Climate Change – up close and personal

What we eat has a huge and increasing role in influencing the climate. Surprisingly, the greenhouse emissions from ruminant animals (cows, buffalos etc.) are amongst the largest contributors to India’s overall greenhouse emissions. Perhaps we should be mindful of that when we add our milk to our morning teas. Additionally, the cow that provides our milk will end up as beef and leather, taking with it the enormous amount of water used in growing it. Not a small problem for a water-stressed country like India. Then there is the tremendous problem of food waste – equal to junking 100,000 Taj Mahals every year. In India, it is more an issue of food loss rather than food waste – where a large proportion (30-50%) of our crops rot after they leave the fields. The first-order reason for this is simple – poor cold-chain infrastructure to store and transport our food. But a deeper examination is required. Why haven’t we invested in facilities to store our food, when billions are poured in to ship and store the latest fashions? Is the marketplace for food so warped? Perhaps. We need to solve that first. Because, you will agree with me, I’m sure, that as a collective whole, Indians need better nourishment than the nth pair of new jeans. There are also developed-world echoes in the urban Indian food waste puzzle. Our groceries stock and waste produce, while we often buy what we don’t need and toss it, adding to both the water footprint of the food and the growing solid waste menace in our cities.

There is a great interest in the organic food movement today. But is the organic food movement truly “green”? In earlier articles, we saw that if we did nothing (no GMO, no crop growing measures etc.) our agricultural yields are likely to plummet in the coming years, leaving millions in peril. Our actions and reactions in this realm therefore need to be nuanced. We should encourage research into genetically modified crops (specifically those providing heat and drought resistance) by our government and private universities, subject them to stringent testing and then use them judiciously, while preserving the “natural” genetic libraries. Think of it another way, the climate is changing too fast for crops to adapt naturally, they need our help. Moreover, our soils have a very low organic content – this provides multiple win-win opportunities from rationalising our fertilizer subsidies to using the compost from our food waste and using the manure generated from the animals to enrich our soil. For those opposed to pesticide use (and I will count myself with them), keep in mind that the Bt-resistant cotton has been the single biggest reason for pesticide use coming down in India.

Onto the climate impact of cooking our food: We have a million deaths a year from indoor air pollution – mainly from the black carbon-laden soot that emanates from cooking stoves fuelled by wood and dung. Black carbon warms the climate on a local scale (some scientists consider it the leading cause after carbon dioxide) while wreaking havoc on the lungs and other organs of those exposed to it. Solutions exist in improved cook stoves that small companies are beginning to come out with. We need to build awareness on this issue and act on it.

Next we considered the climate impact of how we move. We discovered that the vast majority of Indians don’t play a significant role now, but choices we make today (build roads vs. build trains) will lock us into a high-carbon or a low-carbon transport path for decades to come. Our over-crowded and growing cities provide another reason to move differently. While a relatively poor country like India may not be able to splurge on metros for every city or every route, the rapid transit bus system (BRTS) requires a far lower investment of funds while offering much the same benefits. Of course, there is the psychological backbone of discipline and the institutional will to design an effective, complete system to make the BRTS work, or it will become yet another bus in our crowded roads.

We also saw that how we drive has almost a big of a “climate-saving” effect as what we drive: this involves making sure our tyres are properly inflated and that we drive at the right speeds without jerking. The current darling of green transportation: electric cars are not quite as green as they are made out to be, especially when powered by grids powered primarily by burning coal.

A Warmer World…A Different World

We then considered the climate-impact of our homes. We looked at how our electricity can be very “climate friendly” if it were to be produced from hydro-power or wind energy or can be very “dirty” if produced from coal. We also saw that we only optimise what we pay for, and so, since many in India do not pay for electricity, it is unlikely we will get the necessary improvements. It is critical that each member directly pay for what they consume – only then will there be the incentive to conserve. How can we conserve electricity? Several solutions exist: from changing to LED bulbs for lighting, right-sizing our appliances and going for the energy-efficient Avatar of those appliances and planting trees. Then of course, we looked at the tremendous and growing problem of Municipal Solid Waste – just 6 of India’s largest cities generate more than 10.5 million tonnes of solid waste a year – that’s like adding a fully grown adult blue whale to the landfills every week of the year. Ouch! The problems this waste cause are horrific: from encouraging mosquito growth, to poisoning our ground water, to supporting the stray dog menace to causing tremendous health problems for the thousands of rag pickers in India.

We also discovered that this is a solvable problem. I shared the results from the experiment in my house where we reduced our solid waste by 40% (and the amount we sent out into the corporation by over 85%) in less than 5 months. Our lessons were: Buy what you need, buy good-quality produce, store well and transparently, segregate your waste and compost. As an aside: our waste has fallen another 10% in the last two months since the article has been written. The alchemical step in solving the waste problem is segregation. If we do that, the solution is in sight.

An important element of the climate change issue is water. A hotter atmosphere stores more moisture resulting in stormier weather that results in floods when matched with cities that have built over their water-coping mechanisms. In India, water, although celebrated by our various religions and beliefs, is not priced today and hence not valued as it should be. Agriculture, the largest water user, is not charged for it and so does not adopt the most-water-saving crops or technologies. India has become the largest exporter of beef and one the largest exporters of leather despite the fact that producing a kilogram of beef used up 15000 m3of our water (compared with <1500 m3 per kg of soya). We produce our rice by wasteful flood irrigation, and we have built over many of our water bodies in our cities leading to water shortages in the summers and flooding during the rainy season. Israel, with its brilliant water strategy, shines as a beacon of hope. Israel uses only the water it produces in a given year: whether by rain, from desalination or from treating its waste water. By pricing its water, it makes drip irrigation feasible and by conducting continuous and productive research, it has one of the highest agricultural yields in the word. Every child in Israel knows the value of water and the proof of the pudding is that despite being a desert nation, Israel exports fresh water!

Lastly we considered the impact of the changing climate on our health. The warming climate puts a heavy load on the most vulnerable of us: our poor who work out in the open, plus the very young and very old (another significant portion), plus a large proportion of women. There are the direct impacts such as the increased heat stress, the diahorrhea and the other ailments that come from exposure to storms and flooding. Then there are the indirect impacts. First, the increased mosquito burdens like Dengue, next those that result from falling nutrition or difficult working conditions and lastly, the tremendous problems of conflict and migration. Syria provides a visible and violent example of what climate change-triggered-conflict would be like – something that will become increasingly common in the coming years. We saw that a large, vulnerable population – our women – are likely to be especially hit by the warming climate and require our awareness and support.

So there it is. Climate Change is a big and serious problem. India is in the cross hairs. And we can and should act.

(Image Courtesy: AFP: Sajjad Hussain)

Milk and Water

The role of milk and its corollary, beef in the demand of water in India.

There have been beef bans across the country in India. However, the appreciation

of the fact that beef remains a natural corollary of milk is not forthcoming.

Further, the pernicious role played by livestock in depleting groundwater resources

in India is highlighted in this article.


Food and Climate Change

While we hear so much about governmental policy action and technology in solving the climate change issue, we fail to appreciate the critical role played by our choices. Simple choices like what to eat, how to travel etc.

This is particularly pertinent in developed countries where transportation and food habits contribute substantially to emissions and water use around the world.


Action on Climate Change – Water – Janicki Bioenergy

Few people are brave enough to sip water from a sewage tank.

But the world’s richest man did it.

A few weeks ago, Bill Gates drank a glass of water that came directly from sewage fed into Janicki Bioenergy’s Omniprocessor. “The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.” he said.

Going forward, in a drought prone area like India where we waste so much of our ground water, mining our precious resource, sewage, maybe a great solution going forward.

There are a number of “ifs” here.

(1) How many of us would drink water from sewage? Other people’s sewage? The first reaction is “Yuck”, followed closely by “Gross” and “I’ll pass”. We have that luxury today. We’re also succumbing to the availability bias. Much of the water we drink today is ultimately derived, at least in some part, from sewage. We don’t directly see it, so we choose to disregard this. Singapore uses water from waste extensively. They currently source 30% of their water, which they call “New Water”  from waste and plan to increase this to 60% in the future.

The psychological barrier is the greatest. As humanity, we’ve overcome psychological barriers before. But we will only if we need to.

(2) Current water and sewage pricing ensures no solution will be found if status quo on pricing prevails. Currently, people who pay, pay about 0.5 paise/L of drinking water for household in Madurai, or less. Farmers, the biggest users of water, get water for free – either through the overflow from dams during monsoon time or through ground water (free power). Industries also get highly subsidized water. Ground water is considered the exclusive property of the person owning the bore into an aquifer.

We pay little, if any for sewage removal and treatment. This essentially ensures our sewage is not treated.

In the meanwhile, our ground water levels are falling, our water bodies are polluted by untreated sewage and we drink contaminated water.

I repeat, this is a great solution. We need two barriers to be overcome:

(1) The psychological barrier

(2) The mispricing barrier: water and sewage treatment are NOT free. We should not pretend otherwise.

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

Today’s reading list

the business of water: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/8e42bdc8-0838-11e4-9afc-00144feab7de.html#slide0

Some quotes from the article:

  • Since 2011 companies have spent more than $84bn worldwide to improve the way they conserve, manage or obtain water, according to data from Global Water Intelligence, regulatory disclosures and executive interviews with the Financial Times.
  • The $550bn global water market – which covers everything from water treatment plants to pipelines – is expanding at about 3.5 per cent a year, says Martin Stuchtey of McKinsey.
  • Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all water use compared with 22 per cent for industry and just 8 per cent for domestic users, says the UN.
  • Just over 97 per cent of the world’s water is in its oceans. Of the 2.5 per cent that is fresh water, almost 70 per cent is locked away in glaciers and ice caps and about 1 per cent is in lakes, rivers and other surface water sources. The remaining 30 per cent is groundwater, some of it so ancient and hard to replace it is known as fossil water.
  • India accounts for over 30% of increase in global water withdrawals over the past 15 years.
  • By 2030, the global population is expected to have increased from today’s 7bn to 8bn. The global middle class, meanwhile, is likely to have surged from nearly 2bn to 5bn, according to the OECD, largely in fast-growing Asian economies. Like their predecessors in developed countries, they are likely to want a hamburger, not just a bowl of vegetables, and the UN has calculated it takes 2,400 litres of water to produce a hamburger compared with less than 30 litres for a potato or a tomato.
  • Energy is a big consumer of water with each shale oil well consuming 2 million gallons of water or more.
  • Desalination growing, with 17200 plants today.
  • Water use and recycling action critical with Israel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_Israel) and Singapore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_Singapore) having great solutions