November 2013 | Centre for Science and Environment

November 2013

Dear friends,

River in, sewage out is the only thing city planners and engineers know about water supply and waste water disposal in South Asia. In city after city, upstream rivers provide water while downstream, if the river has the misfortune to flow through the city, it becomes a sewer. Belatedly the same people who messed up the environment have woken up to the catastrophe. Instead of remedying the situation, they are aping the west by putting their faith in technology – pumps, pipes and plants – to ‘solve’ the problem. In the meantime, the rivers get filthier while engineers get wealthier.

Even that paragon of Himalayan virtues Bhutan has failed to get the water pollution equation right. The only advantage it has is a small population so the quantum of pollution entering rivers is small. But walk along the main streets of Thimphu and you are periodically greeted by the smell of hydrogen sulphide emanating from drains into which poorly designed septic tanks empty. These drains eventually converge on the Wang Chhu; by virtue of being a fast flowing stream, it does not betray pollution but water quality tests show a high level of biological oxygen demand for even such a river.

Delhi is compounding the problem by covering the many natural drains that carry monsoon runoff to the Yamuna. In the process it is (a) creating pollution hotspots by depriving the water of the natural cleansing effects of sunlight and air (b) reducing green cover since the open drains have a rich variety of plant life that has to be removed when the drain is concretised (c) reducing the chances for natural  recharge and (d) creating large eyesores since the open drains are much more aesthetic even with sewage than the cemented boxes they are being locked up in.

These covered drains are very soon going to make the problem of water pollution worse. They are not going to solve anything, leave alone the problem of smell that residents living next to them complain about. Nor the problem of corrosion of air-conditions and fridges; the covered drains will generate very high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide and other corrosive gases that will eventually corrode the concrete covers and seep through. Water is a living resource and trying to bury it is counter-intuitive.

We have gone over many other alternatives to this lunacy that can be used in any South Asian context. Bioremediation, constructed wetlands and artificial aeration are some simple, and cheaper, options to treat water in drains and ensure it does not stink. The engineers do not know and do not want to know about these options and therefore, attempts to make them think laterally hit a wall, literally. Any conversation about these options ends with ‘we will try a pilot’, but there are many pilots that remain just that. The water bureaucracy ensures its ‘solutions’ prevail while others that will help reduce water pollution in the short and long term never see the light of day.

These alternatives have to built into city plans since they need a different approach. They need more land and more aesthetic than conventional systems. We developed a plan for Gurgaon that combines multiple systems to maximize local water availability and something of that scale would work for most cities. The inertia to try such systems is something citizens and governments have to overcome if we are to address water pollution. Burying the problem will not solve it.



Nitya Jacob, CSE
Sithi Naka - Festival to celebrate water conservation in Kathmandu valley
Kathmandu valley in Nepal initially depended entirely on traditional water sources like hitis (stone spouts), ponds and wells. Many of such structures are more than 1500 years old. The local people knew that the water quality of these hitis, wells or ponds had to be maintained. Hence they celebrated special festival Sithi Naka to clean these water sources before monsoon. Today these structures are lost, forgotten and built over. In ancient times, the hitis were the main source of drinking water. Ponds in the valley, which also form groundwater recharging bodies and water sources, are also in a poor state. Many buildings of Lalitpur municipality have been raised by encroaching the pond. Few other examples of threatened ponds are  Kamal pokhari and  Rani pokhari where police stations were erected on the encroached land of the pond and on the bank of pond respectively.
Communities cleaning hitis-Source- CIUD

The people in the valley still continue to celebrate Sithi Naka but not to that scale feels Centre for Integrated Urban Development (CIUD), a leading NGO in Nepal. Once the piped supply of water came in, the traditional festival of cleaning the water sources lost its importance, feels the NGOs promoting water conservation and sanitation in the country. Sithi Naka is celebrated on the onset of the rainy seasons every year. Wells, stone spouts, pipes, wells, ponds etc. are cleaned in different parts of the valley. The indigenous community celebrate this festival by worshipping Kartikeya (or Kumar as locally called), the son of Lord Shiva. Although the festival involves many aspects like worshipping, traditional food preparation etc., the main focus of this festival is to clean the water sources. As this festival occurs in the dry season, it becomes easier for the people to clean the water sources. The well in the water also drops down and people go down to clean these wells. The people also have a traditional technique of checking if the bottom of the well has enough oxygen for a person to go in. They first send a hanging oil lantern down and see how deep the lamp goes down without extinguishing. It gives them an idea if it is safe for them to go inside. They worship the wells, ponds, hitis spouts as deities, thank them for providing the people with potion of water and clean them for the forthcoming monsoon.

Communities worshipping hitis - Source - CIUD

The valley is looking at projects like Melamchi Water Supply Project to quench its thirst and completely ignoring its traditional water wealth. Crores of rupees are pumped into this project. The wait for the completion has been long for the valley.  The environmentalists and the planners in the country strongly believe that there should be promotion of this festival and there should be provision of celebrating this day as the traditional water source conservation day. This will surely help people to understand the traditional water wealth.


Sushmita Sengupta, CSE
Squatter Communities and Access to Water
The term ‘community’ has always been a contested concept and it is often defined using a variety of variables, most commonly in terms of geographical identity and common interests. At its simplest, the term ‘community’ can be defined as a group of people who must have something in common and that must distinguish them from other groups. Traditionally strong communities used to develop over a considerably long period within some form of boundaries, such as geographical location, language, religion, culture and ethnic identity. However, in recent years, due to social and economic changes in society, the nature of communities has dramatically changed. Today, effective communities can also be formed based on a purpose. The most obvious evidence of such communities is urban communities of squatter settlements. With urbanization, more and more people are migrating to cities and a large proportion of this population is finding shelter in squatter settlements that lack access to basic amenities such as water supply and sanitation facilities. Dhaka city is one of such example where a huge number of migratory rural population resides in squatter settlements. These settlements not having any land entitlements are not eligible for formal water supply and sanitation facilities. However, despite these legal obstacles a large number of these informal settlements manage to get access to adequate water services by organizing themselves into a community based on their common interest. With some assistance from NGO community, these squatter communities organize themselves. The NGO community further helps these communities in negotiating with the authorities and setting up an agreement by which the community pay the capital cost and, the operation and maintenance cost that includes maintenance expenses and the monthly-agreed payments for the water provision. The community together borne the capital cost and takes the entire responsible for the financial and the administrative management of the provision. Eventually the community takes the entire control of the system. This demonstrates that even ad hoc communities such as squatter communities have an ability to organize themselves into strong communities just based on common interests and develop a sense of shared responsibility among its members in order to get access to basic amenities such as water services.


Amandeep Kang, CSE
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