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S Vishwanath: Towards a harvest of rain

Rihan Najib | Updated on July 03, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

In our genes: India has a 5000-year-old history of harvesting and storing rainwater   -  S VISHWANATH

Urban planner and water conservation expert S Vishwanath on how every era develops its own wisdom around rainwater

*S Vishwanath has been involved in several citizen-led projects around rainwater harvesting and lake rejuvenation

*In 2019, he launched ‘A Million Recharge Wells’, a project to restore Bengaluru’s many open wells with the help of the traditional well-digging community, the Mannu-Vaddars

A season associated with renewal and utter chaos in equal measure, the monsoons in India have a beloved but troubled legacy. In 2019, incessant rains — reportedly the heaviest monsoon in 25 years — caused severe flooding in over 13 states, leaving over 1,600 dead and millions displaced from their homes. This year, the rains have arrived at an exceptionally agitated time — as a global health crisis unfolds with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amid such turbulence, the social media pages of Srikantaiah Vishwanath — an urban planner and water conservation expert — reflect a pragmatic serenity that is scarcely found on such platforms. From pictures of intricate stepwells to diagrams of a simple rainwater harvesting set-up for the average home, his posts engage with water in its many forms and moods — especially rain.

Urban planner and water conservation expert S Vishwanath   -  S VISHWANATH

 

“We have a 5,000-year-old history of dealing with rainwater. Ours is a civilisation dependent on rain-fed aquifers and groundwater,” he tells BLink over the phone from Bengaluru, where he is based.

Known by the moniker ‘Zenrainman’, Vishwanath (57) has been encouraging Bengaluru residents to participate in the water issues of the city, famous for its evening showers, and infamous for its urban flooding and lakes foaming with toxic pollutants. He was part of the team that led the rejuvenation of the 200-year-old Jakkur Lake in 2013. Last year, he and his team launched ‘A Million Recharge Wells’, a project to restore the city’s many open wells with the help of the traditional well-digging community, the Mannu-Vaddars.

“In the early ’80s, piped water supply from the Cauvery and borewells replaced the culture of open wells in Bengaluru. Consequently, the Mannu-Vaddars lost their relevance and their livelihoods,” he says. Bengaluru urban by-laws mandate that property owners should instal a rainwater storage tank as well as make provisions for a recharge well. The recharge wells — 3-5 ft in diameter and about 10-30 ft deep — collect the rainwater and also reduce the household’s dependence on the municipality or a borewell. Vishwanath’s efforts, along with the support of the Mannu-Vaddars, led over 1,20,000 wells to be dug, cleaned and restored.

“From the kunds and baolis of Rajasthan to the tanks of Karnataka, each era, each ecosystem and each biome develop their own wisdom around rain. We need to assess our traditional systems and adapt them to our present circumstances,” he says. A civil engineer by training, Vishwanath worked with the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), travelling across India’s small towns in the ’80s and ’90s, witnessing a water crisis unfold. “Back then, the challenge was of poverty and inequality. The State didn’t have the money to invest in water conservation and management,” he notes.

 

Taking a panoramic view of how the Indian State has approached water, Vishwanath explains how the colonial administration brought in canal irrigation, which moved away from traditional tank systems. A newly independent India began to invest heavily in dams. The ’60s saw an embattled State struggling with three consecutive years of drought and a “ship-to-mouth existence” with PL-480 wheat grains being imported from the US.

“The Green Revolution, which fulfilled the promise of food security, had an enormous impact on water resources that is rarely taken into account,” he says. The high-yielding varieties of grain consumed more water as well as fertilisers and pesticides. Moreover, hard-rock drill rigs were imported around this time to delve into the earth for water, beginning the dependence on bore-well digging and groundwater exploitation.

“But cities are facing the impact of climate change now,” he says, noting how the monsoons are changing. “The intensity of the rainfall is high, while the duration is short. The ability of the earth to absorb the water is low because of the high built-up area. So we have a high volume of water falling in a short period of time, with nowhere to go.” Tracking rainfall measurements and patterns captured by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Management Centre (KSNDMC), which operates 99 telemetric rain-gauges across the city, he points out that 185.5mm of rain had fallen in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, a neighbourhood in south-west Bengaluru.

“But if I were to go by the data of the IMD (Indian Meteorological Department), which operates only 4-5 weather stations in the city, I’d be told that only 40mm rain had fallen. And I’d be baffled as to how only that much rain could cause such severe urban flooding,” he says. This granularity of data captured by the KSNDMC reveals how rainfall has begun to vary within cities and across regions.

“The first thing we need to get right is governance,” he says. According to him, there ought to be a single institution responsible for all forms of water — rainfall, sewage, drinking water, stormwater — as opposed to the disparate bodies that currently administer them. “We need an integrated water management plan that will, in a sense, ‘talk’ to the Master Plan,” he says. Moreover, citizens must be briefed on how they can support the city’s water management and incentivised to instal rainwater storage systems in their buildings. Otherwise, says Vishwanath, quoting the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

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Published on July 03, 2020
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