Building Water Resilient Cities

by Arpita Joshi

S.Vishwanath at the Biome office alongside a rain gauge.

One beautiful summer morning of April 2018, I found myself a few kilometers inside the Shimla Water Catchment (SWC) Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh. As we stood watching a grey-winged blackbird preen under an escaped ray of light surrounded by tall stately deodars and spruce, my guide leaned in and pointed in the direction of the tanks and the connected pipes that climbed out of the valley. This infrastructure was established in 1875 by the British to supply water for the then small settlement of 16,000 people that has since expanded to become the capital city of Shimla. The SWC is also a sanctuary from time. Cocooned within the valley, amidst the rustle of ancient voices of wind and earth one can forget what lies outside. Yet immediately on crossing the threshold of the SWC, the twirling road and the umbilically attached city tell the story of unfettered poorly managed growth.

Shimla is now a bustling city of roughly 1.7 lakh residents (2011 census) and the Shimla district sees an annual tourist footfall of a mind-boggling 34.8 lakh. While the SWC was a major source of water till 1992, according to a research report, growing demands has meant that it far from suffices for the city’s current needs. In fact, just two month’s after my visit to the city, news of a serious water crisis began to make its way to the newspapers. Photos of people standing for hours on ends in snaking queues, police escorted water tankers, closed schools – filled news feeds, even as citizen’s of Shimla began requesting tourists not to visit the city.

I think of this as I make my way to meet S.Vishwanath, one of the trustees of the Biome Trust, who has been the Secretary General of the International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and is a prominent expert on rainwater harvesting, waste water and sanitation. Shimla is far from being the only city in such dire circumstances. Just last year, experts warned that Bengaluru might become uninhabitable due to severe water shortages in coming years. In 2018 a Niti Aayog report outlined how ‘With nearly 70% of water being contaminated, India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index’ and that ‘54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020’.

Laying out the problem

“So let me give you these statistics”, Vishwanath says, once we are both comfortable settled in Biome’s officespace and I ask him how he frames the problem of water. “When we got independence India was about 350 million people, now we are 1400 million nearly. When we were independent and we were in the 60s, we were producing 10 to 20 million tons of grains. Now, we produce 230 million tons. We are one of the largest producers of wheat, rice. The Green Revolution unleashed hybrid unique varieties which demanded a tremendous amount of water. We had about 500 to 600 dams. Now, we have 5,500 dams on our rivers. We had less than 50,000 borewells, now we have 33 million borewells. We are the single largest user of groundwater in the world. We pick up and evaporate 250 cubic kiloliters of ground water every year. Our rivers are all dammed and dry, many of them are polluted.”

As he outlines it, over the last couple of decades the demands of an increasing population and a changing growing economy has put tremendous strain on existing water resources. The challenge as he puts it is, “for us is to do more with less water and to be able to revive or reverse: to be able to revive our lakes, to be able to revive our ground water”.

Urbanisation and water use

The city of Bengaluru has served as his laboratory since the past 34 years and I ask him how he understands the kind of urbanisation we’ve been experiencing in the country the past few decades from the perspective of water use.

“Urbanisation means that there’s a concentrated demand of water resources and sometimes urbanisation also means that there’s a lot of wastewater flows”, he says. He adds how with greater industrialisation, there are industrial effluents coming in which definitely need to be addressed. A 2016 Central Pollution Control Board report had revealed that 70% of sewage generated in urban India goes untreated.

Yet he views urbanisation as having many positives in terms of firstly, being more efficient in water-use compared to the rural regions and secondly, in having the financial and the intellectual muscle to be able to better handle problems related to water. “The real problem in India with water is agriculture”, he says, “85% of water is used by agriculture and within agriculture, four crops consume 70 percent of the water”. He points out that often sugarcane, one of the four, is grown in areas where it is untenable and other crops like rice and wheat are grown in excess – requiring large amounts of water that might have been utilised differently.

In urban areas, the challenge, as he views it, is more in the arena of investment in water related infrastructure. He says, “We invest little in getting universal water access to everybody and universal access to sanitation connection, where we pick up all the sewerage, collect it, treat it and then release it into the environment”. This he feels needs to change.

Understanding & addressing interconnections

Donella H. Meadows, one of the world’s foremost environmental systems analyst, in her book Thinking in Systems writes how ‘There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion’. With relation to urban water use, the complex interconnections and continuity become immediately evident in the conversation as Vishwanath explains how a response to the issue of water interweaves with a variety of other issues such as the conservation of ecological zones such as forests and lakes, better agricultural practices and equity in terms of resource access and use, to name a few.

Shimla is far from being the only city in accessing water from a protected region and a variety of other sources like dams and river basins outside of its official boundaries. In fact, most big cities in India access a combination of such sources. Mumbai, for example, quenches its daily water requirement through a combination of lakes and dams outside the city district. Hence, Vishwanath emphasises how systemic thinking needs to be applied and this relationship of extraction needs to be addressed. He says: “The city has to get responsible for the basin and it has to think about the integrity of the flows in the basin and the dam but also the people inhabiting the base. Make sure that there’s a compact between the city and the region so that there is equity delivered in terms of environmental justice and social justice in terms of access to water”.

Local action for water resilient cities

Vishwanath’s work has led to conversations and projects with a variety of actors in the sector of water, from local activists to policy makers addressing concerns at local and larger levels. Yet a large part of his work has been concentrated in the arena of the local. He explains his choice by sharing how he feels “there’s been an unfair investment in the broader larger infrastructure without looking at the potential of the local. We got to understand what the local can do and the local can do a lot. In many cases, it can make the larger infrastructure redundant. What you see when you look at the city as a whole: the first charge should be for the local and the second charge, i.e. when it’s inevitable, should be for the larger infrastructure.” He emphasises how the ideal should be combination of the two which is ultimately sustainable.

Rainwater harvesting (RWH), defined as a process of collecting and storing water for future productive, is in his experience, one of the keys to local action. He has been a facilitator of the One Million Wells initiative which is simultaneously a livelihoods (as a collaboration with the traditional well-digging community called the manuvaddars) and a RWH project undertaken in Bengaluru.

“Everybody’s drilling a borewell. So how can they be productively used in making water security and ecological security for the city?”, he asks. “There are two million plots in Bangalore, if every alternate plot in Bangalore, one million of them, built a recharge well and make sure they send in a 1,50,000 literes of water into the ground, then the city will not run out of ground water.” The added advantage is also flood mitigation for the city. While this idea has been absorbed into the policy and building by-lines of the city, it still requires greater political will and citizen engagement, he adds. As of now, 1,20,000 wells have been dug in Bengaluru under this project.

Vishwanath has also been involved in the revival of pre-existing wells within the city, such as the ones at Cubbon Park, which showcase emphatically how local action can transform water use and management strategies. Additionally, he has consulted with multiple citizen groups on the revival of city lakes and with communities which are trying to become more water resilient.

The role of the urban citizen

“In the Zen approach the philosophy is that when good people do the work, the people say we did it ourselves”, says Vishwanath, whose love for Zen led him to use the online moniker ‘zenrainman’ that he is often recognised by. This approach has defined how he has engaged with his sector, constantly playing facilitator and teacher in order for people to learn, imbibe and take full ownership of their rainwater harvesting projects, be it at the individual or the collective level. He has done this not only through the innumerable projects and engagements within the city but also online through his social media presence and his youtube channel where he educates and shares experiences and methods related to local rainwater harvesting.

“The moment you switch on a bulb you’re impacting water use somewhere. Whatever you eat, on your food plate – the wheat, the rice choice that you make – impacts water somewhere else down the line”, he explains. “We’ve architected ourselves as an economic society that has tremendous impact on water and we now need to reverse some of these things, to learn and to work effectively with nature to make sure that we restore our water bodies and that’s a huge challenge”. A challenge that he believes each citizen needs to take up.

He encourages and urges individuals to get started in any small way that they can – from using water efficient devices to taking small steps towards building RWH systems within their homes or even get involved in local lake groups. “Never think 100%”, he suggests, “think 30% or 40% and how to build on it to reach a 100%. Once you do that you start to figure out how much water you’re benefiting and slowly you can expand”.

Embodying sustainability

Stepwell at the foothills of Nandi Hills.

As I pack up to leave the office of Biome, we head down to see the well in the premises. Vishwanath lifts the cover and I lean over to stare down. As the light falls from above, the well turns into an eye looking out. Its stillness reminds me of the many stepwells I have visited, their immense beauty and profundity. I think back on the most recent encounter at the foothills of Nandi hills where a softshell turtle sat in meditative silence against the well’s green still waters.

I recently came across some hopeful bits of news which outlined the steps Shimla was taking to overcome its tremendous crisis. The multi-tiered response included: the creation of a Jal Nigam to bring accountability and management to water and sewerage management in the city alongside upgrading and developing the city’s water and sewerage infrastructure; shifting to volumetric water tariffs; educating citizens through jal sakhis on water conservation methods, among others. Yet as Meadows points out as being important when using a systems thinking approach: ‘You can’t navigate well in an interconnected, feedback-dominated world unless you take your eyes off short-term events and look for long term behavior and structure’. This has been the urgent reminder that both, the climate crisis and the current pandemic, have laid at our doorstep. Vishwanath’s work offer us some poignant pointers to how we can embrace longterm thinking and sustainability, not as a stop gap measure but as a way of life.

Arpita Joshi is one of the co-founders of The Curio-City Collective. You can listen to our podcast with S.Vishwanath over here and look up his work at