We all remember the recent drought that hit 90 Lakh farmers in Maharashtra. Now that monsoon is here, it will provide some relief to the farmers. But the state has been in distress for a long time now. According to a report by Bloomberg, The El Niño affected India with driest monsoon in 2015. 91 major reservoirs in India are reduced to one-third their capacity. Although, we as a society are helpless when confronting nature, there are things that can be done to ready ourselves against floods or drought.
The day when I had a conversation with Vishwanath Srikantaiah, I realized how even facilitating and showing the right direction can help solve problems. There are thousands of people doing a million things to help themselves but we don’t know about them. I know how difficult it is for so many, to have the right options to choose from at the right time, that can help them achieve greatness, but, I digress.
This story is about a man who helps relieving people of their misery by informing and readying them against such adversities. Vishwanath Srikantaiah, 53, is a water activist and has been working in the space for over 27 years. Mr. Vishwanath is also a columnist for The Hindu, who writes weekly columns about water preservation. A Civil Engineer, and Urban & Regional Planner by profession, he has worked with HUDCO(Housing and Urban Development Corporation) for 14 years.
Vishwanath or popularly known as @zenrainman, started a club while he was in HUDCO.
“We started a small group called the rainwater club in 1994. We used to collect documents and information about rainwater harvesting and put it up on public domain.”
During his time at HUDCO, he travelled to many rural areas in South India.
“I’ve seen almost every alternate village in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa. I could see that water was a crises even then in 1980. The government’s response was limited. I thought most of the answers lay with the villages, community and people.”
The villages that he visited that were built by the government, and financed by HUDCO, had no electricity supply, roads, sanitation facility or any water resources.
“How were people supposed to live in such structures with no resources? We used to write to the government about the lack of these basic needs and in response, the timeline for the infrastructure to catch up with housing used to be 3-5 years, and by that time these structures degraded to an uninhabitable state.”
He met his wife, Mrs. Chitra Vishwanath at CEPT Ahmedabad, where she was pursuing architecture and he was studying urban planning. He left his job at HUDCO in 2000 to work towards solving the water crises. She started her own architecture firm, Biome solutions in Bangalore. They make houses and structures using mud blocks as opposed to bricks. Mr Viswanath, is a director of the trust at Biome Solutions.
He tells me how people need to be motivated and pushed to do something about such a crises by their own self, as people are much too dependent on government’s actions, in the face of adversity.
“When I visited some of these villages, residents used to tell us they hadn’t taken a bath since 2-3 years! The little water they got was from an agricultural borewell far away from the village. They got as little as 20 litres a day, which included drinking and washing activities. On top of that, it was at their landlord’s discretion whether he was kind enough to give them this water.”
In the year 2000, he decided to leave HUDCO and work full time with the rainwater club. Leaving a secure government job is a tough decision in itself, and so I asked him how he sustained himself after taking the plunge.
“In 1984, I had made a pact with my wife Chitra that I will continue my government job until she establishes her firm which will help us sustain, after which I will pursue this challenge. These decisions aren’t easy, but what you must realize is that you need very little to survive. What happens with a permanent job is that you get too attached to comforts, but when you see that it’s not challenging enough, those comforts have no meaning.”
In 2003 when Karnataka was hit by drought, they persuaded the government to build 20,000 rainwater harvesting structures.
“A thousand villages were chosen where the government built, rainwater harvesting structures in 20 houses in each of these villages. We advised the government how they could build, design and help them identify people who would build it for them.”
He recounts an incident of a village where he had advised villagers to revive their open wells, but they didn’t take the heed to his advice and three years later, when the borewells dried up, residents of the village approached him once again, this time, more hasty.
“They asked me, if they could clean the open well and restore it. Mene unko bola, mujhse kya puch rahe ho, aap behtar jaante ho, aapke paas jo kua hai wo 100 saal purana hai.” (Why are you asking me, the wells you have are 100 years old, you’d know more about the wells than I would.)
The villagers cleaned the 30-40ft debris of the wells. Each of the wells filled up with 6,000 and 10,000 litres of water. But it was heavy water, still they used it for washing purposes. He advised them to build a percolation pond to recharge the wells. When the rains arrived in the month of November, the percolation pond and both the wells filled up with water to their capacity within 3 days! The elders of the village said they hadn’t seen the wells full, since 5-6 decades. The water they now had, with their current usage rate was good enough to survive for the next 3 years!
When other villages learn about these incidents, they take ownership of preparing themselves instead of depending on external factors.
Let alone rural areas, urban areas in states like Rajasthan and Karnataka are rife with water crises. Popular by the name Zenrainman, Mr. Viswanath is on the board of Arghyam as an advisor. Arghyam facilitates groundwater and sanitation projects, based in Karnataka.
Bangalore, a city which is 920 metres above sea level has no river passing through and draws major portion of its water through Cauvery river which is a 100 kms outside the city.
He got an opportunity to be on the committee which was working on the river harvesting policy for Bangalore. They mandated the construction of recharge wells in the policy.
“I remembered a man named Muniappa, from the Mannuvaddar community which used to make open wells, who had approached me and asked me if I wanted a well. I found the question ludicrous, someone coming up to ask if I wanted a well. The Open well culture had gone out of existence after the ’80s, and this man was looking for work. When I got a chance to be on a committee that was working on a river harvesting policy for Bangalore, we made the construction of rechargeable wells mandatory. ”
Post this policy, Mannuvaddar community got employment and livelihood by making rechargable wells in the city. These wells accumulated potable water from rains. As you read this, this community is creating thousands of wells, even moving outside Bangalore, to Hyderabad and other villages reviving the rechargeable well culture.
“Among new developments, communities and groups of people are gathering around to protect lakes. We’re helping through a group called Friends of Lakes, who get together on weekends to clean the waste around lakes. We advice people as to what are their rights and how can they clean, protect, and treat sewage water to revive these lakes.”
He believes local sources can be utilized to reduce dependence on rivers in several states. Even facilitating can help a long way in averting water crisis.
Urban drinking and sanitation policy are the only way towards finding a permanent solution to these problems, be it drought or floods. Even smallest of do-it-yourself household solutions can help save water and money for a better future.
You can reach Mr. Vishwanath via twitter, youtube or facebook handle @Zenrainman.
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