We live in an apartment that is quite nice by the standards of our small Indian town. Two bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, big bathroom, and a balcony with a beautiful view of the Himalayas. Naturally, it has indoor plumbing. But what you might not expect is that much of the year, you turn on the tap and nothing happens. There is no water to flow through our pipes.
It comes for, say, half an hour every other day (sometimes every third day). We’re lucky in that we have indoor plumbing at all, though. In town I see people queued up at public taps with their empty jugs waiting to fill them up. But this year it’s gotten so bad, we, too, have on occasion had to queue up outside to carry water back into the house.
Our town suffers from the same sort of water-infrastructure problem seen in towns all across India. It’s ironic that there are chronic water shortages here, though, because I’m often told that this town receives one of the country’s highest annual levels of rainfall.
The real question: Why do people keep building homes here as if they assumed the ground might never shake and that the water and electricity were going to work 24 hours a day?
The causes for this problem lie partly with the macro-infrastructure and partly with the micro-infrastructure of individual homes and buildings. Most of the massive rainfall we receive runs off without being captured. Beyond that, the town’s storage facilities hold only a small amount of water – perhaps one day’s worth. A maze of individual pipes (pictured above) wends its way across town. They are stepped on, driven over, bulldozed, punctured, deliberately disconnected and subjected to all kinds of abuse on a regular basis.
(Listen to my audio essay “Water Wars.”)
All sorts of kludges and cottage industries have sprung up around this problem: One store in town sells plastic buckets of varying sizes and will install a little plastic faucet for you at the bottom. Instant running water! (It’s ugly, but I have to say it is really nice to have running water again.) Those who can’t afford to be without water, like hotels and restaurants, pay to have water trucked up from a rather filthy stream in the valley down below. The wealthiest drill wells, but no one thinks about how to recharge them.
We live in an earthquake-prone area whose buildings were decimated about a century ago in the last major quake to hit the area. Yet all around, buildings are being built with little or no regard for the risks: They’re built of brick, non-reinforced concrete or both. Even our place, nice though it appears, is made of brick covered in cement. I go to sleep each night painfully aware of what quake would do to this place.
Wood construction isn’t really an option in India, for several reasons: Timber is a scarce resource, it decays in India’s monsoons, and it’s not fireproof – an important consideration. Mud brick, a traditional building material here in northern India, has its pros and its cons, but seems to have fallen out of favor by those who can afford the more modern and seemingly solid cement and brick structures.
There are other, smaller issues as well, but ones that nevertheless need to be addressed. One rather unglamorous cause for water wastage here is that toilets aren’t installed properly, which prevents them from operating efficiently. They’re designed so that the bowl of the toilet is meant to be a certain distance from the tank. But when the guy who cut the hole in the floor doesn’t measure the distance properly and then has to make an extra-long pipe to connect the two pieces, there isn’t enough pressure. Result? Two or three flushes to get the job done.
Along the same lines, windows often don’t lock properly because latches don’t line up. That’s because windows are built on site, by hand from scratch. If windows have screens at all, they’re often designed backwards, so that you have to open the screen in order to open or close the window – letting bugs like potentially dangerous mosquitoes in every time. Another of my pet peeves: rooms that are (apparently) meant to be rectangular have no right angles at all.
Hardly a day goes by without some brief or not-so-brief power outage, as well. Naturally that’s par for the course in any country whose power infrastructure is overtaxed, and I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m complaining. I’m not, and that’s not my point.
The real question for me is: Why do people keep building homes here as if they assume that the water and electricity are going to work 24 hours a day and that the ground might never shake?
Homes here should be built a bit more off-the-grid, as if the builders were actually expecting the water supply or the electrical grid to fail at any moment. Because of course they will. To build a house that doesn’t factor that in is to build a house that is incredibly vulnerable, whose residents are left helpless and frustrated when the water or electrical supplies are unavailable — which is to say, very frequently.
Just to give a couple of examples, this year Bangalore, the IT megalopolis in the south Indian state of Karnataka, and Shimla, once the “summer capital” of the British Raj and now capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh, have both faced massive water shortfalls. In Shimla, residents have had to resort to scavenging water from rivers, according to one local newspaper report. And this is not happening during a drought — it’s happening during the rainy season.
Supplementing municipal water with harvested rainwater can help alleviate the problem immensely. If homes were designed to make better use of natural lighting and to include photovoltaic solar cells and a backup power system for things like lights, fans and water pumps, life would be so much easier.
Of course there are forward-thinking people here and there making use of rainwater harvesting, putting up the odd solar panel and so on. But right now they’re the exception. (These have become much more common practices for large businesses in India, though, because they’re used to thinking strategically and planning return-on-investment over a period of time.) Most homeowners I talk with either know nothing about these concepts, have only a vague notion, or can’t see the value in spending the money. Those who have implemented these things, however, are fanatically enthusiastic. That’s what we need much more of.
Fortunately, India’s city governments are leading the way. Bangalore has moved in the right direction, mandating rainwater harvesting. The cities of Vadodara and Mumbai now require it for new construction. What’s more, Mumbai has threatened to raise taxes on certain large existing properties unless they install rainwater harvesting. Unfortunately, one watchdog group in Mumbai claims to have found that most of the systems supposedly installed are complete fictions.
Still, I believe this will all change, for the better, on a massive scale. But it’s going to take a revolution.
There are a number of organizations and dedicated people in India and around the world doing some excellent work in regard to these problems. In the coming months, I hope to bring them together – and to you – via this website and our forthcoming radio show. The idea is to educate all of us about the possibilities and what’s happening, and to encourage a sharing and cross-pollination of ideas amongst people from many diverse disciplines.