Friday, May 19, 2017

How to drink water in Bangalore

Today we met with a company called Biome that specializes in rain water harvesting. We learned a lot about how villages get water and the struggles they have.
When we came to Bangalore, all we heard was "never drink water from the tap, get a typhoid shot, and here are some diarrhea pills just in case." Filtered water, a basic need that I took for granted, is expensive and scarce in Bangalore. It turns out that the hectic city of Bangalore gets the majority of their water from Mysore, a city 3 hours away as well as downhill (so water must be pumped up, against gravity). Today we began to unpack the complex issues of the “why” behind these problems.

The above photo is the common message written on the Rainbow Drive's community board. However, the manager reports that water levels are fine and the sign is always required.

We met with a company called Biome that specializes in rain water harvesting. At the start of the business, Biome only considered civil engineers to get the job done; however, they learned quickly that water must be tackled with an interdisciplinary team. Everything mattered, from the design of the system (engineers) to maintenance (community and management) to policy and economics (water laws and access). Luckily, we came to Bangalore with a highly interdisciplinary team, and we all took away important ideas and generated new questions.

The competition for space in Bangalore is fierce in the city. If a lake is not used for irrigation, the lakes are dried up and built upon. Today we looked at a lake in the process of revitalization, thanks to the birders. Unfortunately, the activists are now in conflict with fellow fishermen. The fishermen think the birds take away the fish while the birders think that too much activity scares the birds away. We have a livelihood and a love for nature and beauty that clash with each other. Here, we tend to value livelihood over passion, even if this passion is what gave the fishermen their fish.

The stream is treated with wetland species that uptake phosphorus and nitrogen, but the plants may become overgrown, which makes maintenance difficult. Besides the locals, maintenance is also an issue. Wetland restoration only works if phosphorus and nitrogen is removed, and if plants die, all of those nutrients return to the lake and pollute the stream. So far, the government has supplied workers to assist, but there is no real incentive for them. People who are directly affected by water may also care and weed the plants, but from my own experience, volunteering doesn’t last very long. Eventually, someone or a community must be accountable for wetland maintenance and that could mean fighting some snakes along the way.

Biome also assists communities that could not be attached to the main city’s water. In Rainbow Drive, a wealthy community, wells and septic tanks were installed to treat and recharge the groundwater. The community also contributes money for upkeep and meters the water to determine bills. The system was so effective, someone began selling water from the recharged groundwater outside of the village bounds. This brought up questions of ethics. Is this ok from a legal perspective? In the Indian constitution, water is a basic right for citizens, so if the man if offering a service to others while also profiting, should there be repercussions? In my opinion, this is a wealthy community that can pay for these systems and depending on the price, this man is either Robin Hood or a Robber Baron. If we say that he is stealing, then we’ve created private water for rich people. If he is charging a high price for water he did not pay to maintain, then he is exploiting poor people.

Above, is a photo of the aboveground outlet for the septic tank. Wastewater flows through the septic tank where particles settle. Then water is pumped into a garden with native species capable of filtering phosphorus and nitrogen. The species do not sit in soil but instead in water, and rocks cover the tops of the roots to prevent mosquitos. The filtered water is then pumped back to a tank that can be reused for gardening or toilets.

Lastly, we looked at water quality sensors from the company Caddisfly who uses colorimetry to identify fluoride in the water. A reagent was added to the water solution and a sensor was attached over the camera. Then an app diagnosed the concentration of fluoride in the water. We concluded that trained water testers would benefit the most from this kind of water testing since they would also be able to solve the problem. Overall, we consider India to be a developing’ country, but so many practices in the West can adopt the practices that we saw today.