S01E14: Zen and the Art of Rainwater Harvesting

A photo of a man rowing a boat with the backdrop of buildings. Below it text reads: Episode 14: Zen and the art of rainwater harvesting.

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Arpita: W.H.Auden, the poet, once said ‘thousands have lived without love, not one without water’. In these times when we find ourselves parred down to those essential questions of who we are as a species and how we interact with the world around us in ways that might heal instead of harm – it seems fitting to come to this topic of water. Nothing really is more elemental – be it in the form of vast oceans, torrential rains, rivers gushing down from mountain tops to springs and geysers and lakes and wells – water is one of the building blocks of our bodies and our habitats.

This episode, like the previous one, was recorded pre-covid, but its relevance and urgency remains as we find ourselves midst monsoon, having just recently put behind us the experiences of cyclonic storms in West Bengal and Maharashtra, even as Assam finds itself reeling under one currently. Our conversation with S.Vishwanath, continues us down the exploration of this month’s theme of the frugal city and attempts to open new ways of understanding how we can temper our relationship with water – quench our myriad needs even as we respect and adhere to the limits and laws of the larger eco-systems. I hope you enjoy the conversation!

Deepika: In the last episode I met architect Chitra Vishwanath who was talking about sustainable cities and what that means so I think it was fate that you ended up doing this second interview with her partner.

Arpita: Yes, after you met Chitra Vishwanath and told me all those lovely things about their ecologically friendly home and office, I was of course excited.

Also, Vishwanath, her partner who I was going to interview, is regarded as one of the foremost experts on rainwater harvesting (RWH) in India. Over the last 34 years he has been the Ex-Secretary General: International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, trustee and advisor to many prominent NGOs, he writes extensively on the issue of water and is currently a Trustee for The Biome Environmental Trust and a Director with the Biome Environmental Solutions.

Vishwanath: My name is Vishwanath. I’m a civil engineer and an urban planner by qualification. I’ve been working the sector of water and waste water and sanitation for the last 34 years with special focus on Bangalore city as my laboratory.

Deepika: The story of Biome – both the trust and the architectural firm – are intertwined within the larger lives of this couple, right. Together they have charted what to me seems a really lovely journey to explore sustainability in Indian cities.

Arpita: Today we’ll look at their story from his perspective. Maybe I should begin with what got both of us intrigued – his famous online moniker – zenrainman?

Deepika: So did you figure out what the origin story of zenrainman is?

Arpita: Yes he explained it!

Vishwanath: There’s been a lot of serendipity on the way. I was not particularly interested in water as a sector during my studies or during my first job. But as part of my work with HUDCO – Housing and Urban Development Corporation – I had the opportunity to visit many villages and small towns all across South India. One could see that what was an impending crisis in the 80s and 90s itself. So therefore one’s attention got drawn to that particular area to see what communities and individuals could do to manage water better and therefore rainwater harvesting became some sort of an inquiry in my mind. With that Zen has been a philosophy which I’ve been particularly interested in since my youth and Rainman actually comes from the Dustin Hoffman movie quote, about the special child or special person who has this particular powers but is also especially enabled or disabled. So clubled those two together to become Zenrainman just to get an identity on Gmail and then it became my identity on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and so on. It’s been quite a nice journey that way.

Deepika: That’s a great back story to the name! So it was his job with HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation) that got him interested in water related issues?

Arpita: Yeah, he explained that back in those days, because of his job he was able to travel extensively through the southern states of India where HUDCO was undertaking a gigantic rural housing scheme in the 1980s.

Vishwanath: And one went to these housing colonies in rural villages of these four Southern States, one saw many of them lying empty. And the only reason was that there was no water. In a lot of places sheep and goat were tied, people would just use it as a storehouse and it became clear that unless we addressed water all the housing issues would stand as before. So one started to look at why, what was not getting delivered and one found out that it was actually a resource issue as much as a management issue and that groundwater, which is the dominant source of water in rural India and especially rural Karnataka and rural Tamil Nadu – that it was simply running out and in summer it was simply not available and therefore one started to figure out what should be done when ground water is running out and the interest in rainwater started.

Deepika: So how did he make the leap from rural to urban from there?

Arpita: I did ask him this of course, but I think later I realised that in some ways this question doesn’t really make sense. But we’ll get to that in time.

So this is the place in the story where things got familiar. You remember Chitra telling us about how they decided to try the idea of building eco-friendly houses by experimenting with building their own house?

Deepika: Yes, she’d said that no one was willing to build a house with mud blocks in the early 90s so they decided to do it themselves with their own house as the experiment. And what a beautiful space it is!

Arpita: Well Vishwanath’s engagement with urban spaces, as he explained, also began with this personal project.

Vishwanath: It started with us building our house in ’94 and so we wanted to make it as a eco-friendly as possible. So we were building with earth. We dug up a basement and we were building a house, but we could not access the urban utilities water because they would not give you permission to draw water for construction for house and it continues to be the practice. So we were buying water from a tanker because we didn’t want to dig a borewell and at that point of time when we were building this house it was raining and then you could see that the all the rainwater was running out into the drain and we had this tanker for which we were paying money, buying water. So we thought hey, let’s try and make sense of it. So started to look at the rainfall patterns, rainfall intensities and how much volume on a particular site and it was quite an aha moment because you know 30×50 plot it was about one and a half lakh litres of rain water falling in an year and we were just allowing it to go waste. So we started to do something about it – collect it, filter it, try to understand the quality, quantity, distribution. Therefore, rainwater harvesting started.

Deepika: It makes sense that it began as a way to figure out how to use the resources around them more efficiently. So they’d already begun embodying the principles of being ecologically sensitive, but did he say if there were any particular influences for where this came from?

Arpita: He mentioned how during their early days he of course didn’t have access to the internet and hence there were a lot of ‘serendipitous’ meetings with books by people like Rachel Carson and Laurie Baker.

Deepika: We talked about this in our last episode too. That all these influences encouraged and pointed to living simply, with less. And so automatically it meant less pressure on the resources like water being used, and more importantly how it was being tapped and used.

Arpita: Yes, and it seems to me that chugging along this path of exploring the various strains of ideas in his mind, he began the Rainwater Club in 1994. He was still working with HUDCO then and made the move to do this full-time much later.

Vishwanath: So the Rainwater Club was then this idea… great idea of the web, hey can knowledge be open source, can it be free, can everybody access it. So can we then form a club which is just a gathering of people on the virtual platform sharing ideas, experiences, knowledge – putting it all up there and taking it and running with it. That’s how the RWH Club started.

It compiled a lot of information on how people were doing rainwater harvesting, put it up as case studies, as stories, as videos, YouTube channel. And it sparked a lot of conversations globally and so I luckily went on to join the International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and became the Secretary General of the International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association. Where we were these global bunch of practitioners and academics wanting to explore and push RWH as a solution globally so that started with the RW Club we learned a lot from many countries.

Deepika: That was in the early days of the Internet, right? At the cusp of when India got access to it?

Arpita: Yeah he referred to this. And I think now we are all so used to having internet in our pockets that we forget what a tremendous shift it was in terms of access to knowledge, ideas, people, places… it allowed him to create an international community and build a pool of solutions and ideas.. he spoke to this with an example!

Vishwanath: So I went to China and saw the systems of RW cellars which they build in Gansu Province, which is one of the world’s largest program, 45000 ltrs – 60000 ltrs RW storage systems. But more interestingly I saw polyhouses these plastic houses storing rain water reducing drip irrigation to fertilize whatever was the crop growing inside it so they became energy and water independent.

So I got that idea to back to India the first poly-house RWH system with GKVK, The University of Agriculture Sciences and that happened because one saw it on the web, one went to China, one learned about it and one was able to come back here and translate it to action. Road run and RWH from the road was something else that we picked up from the web from China itself. Then we started to do it here in Bangalore.

Deepika: So the rainwater harvesting club in many ways allowed for an exchange of ideas.

Arpita: And it was this work which in time, as he said, got practically packaged and consolidated as the Biome Trust. It has a more formal structure now and he shared what his vision is.

Vishwanath: One of the key ideas is that it should be not too heavy scientifically. It should be more communication oriented and it should learn from people, what people do, quickly take it down as information which people share with others. So we trigger communities we help them understand what rain water harvesting is but people do the work on their own. The trust now is a combination of think and do, not a think tank, but the think-do tank.

Deepika: It’s something that’s always felt powerful- thinking and taking action and having one feed into the other. So now we come to the thick of it – tell me about the work they’ve been doing.

Arpita: Well before we get into that, he described the scale of the problem that we are looking at.

Vishwanath: So let me give you these kind of statistics. 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, a lot of water. We had about 500 to 600 dams. Now, we have 5500 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 for any country in the world.

So the demand of the economy especially energy and food has put a tremendous strain on our water resources and therefore water is run out because we’ve got the same endowment as during Independence, 4000 billion cubic meters or 4,000 cubic kilometers of rainfall. Now the challenge 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. And for that we need to be efficient with our water use and our crop production and we go to be smart about how we ecologically intervene in areas which are sensitive like for example our forests or the western ghats where we need to protect them so that our rivers flow and our water is protected.

Deepika: Right, the resources we have are the same, but with the population increase, the pressure on those resources has increased immensely. And looking at resources, it’s not unusual anymore to hear of cities running out of water. Last summer, Chennai was in a dire situation.

Arpita: And before that Shimla, where tourists were asked not to come because literally, there wasn’t enough water for the locals living there. So I asked him then how urbanisation, in particular, played a part in this scenario.

Vishwanath: Urbanisation means that there’s a concentrated demand of water resources and sometimes urbanisation also means that there’s a lot of wastewater flows. Urbanization also means industrialization and therefore industrial effluents coming in, but urbanisation is also positive in the sense that urban areas are the most efficient users of water in terms of physical water use and urban areas have the wherewithal the financial muscle and the intellectual muscle to be able to deal with water much better. A hectare of sugarcane production uses 2 crore liters of water and urban Indian consumes less than a 100 litres per capita per day for both life and livelihood. So urbanisation is a challenge but it’s also a huge opportunity at the same time.

Deepika: I’m not sure I fully understand the bit where he says urban areas are more efficient in water use?

Arpita: He did explain it. And this is the part where I realised how asking urban specific questions on water seems a little narrow as an approach cause one thing that is brought home at once with the topic of water is that approaching it from the artificial lens of human boundaries of rural-urban just doesn’t work. Rivers, underground networks of water, lake systems – these are highly interconnected systems where something that happens in one region be it rural or urban impacts the other.

Deepika: In a college film I worked on many years ago on rainwater harvesting, we looked at just that in the context of Bombay, where water is supplied from lakes a 100 kilometres away. We travelled to Vaitarna in rural Maharashtra which is one of the lakes and that journey alone brought home just how deeply connected we are.

Arpita:Yes, it’s odd to emphasise this but in the era of thinking that your water just comes from the twist of your tap – these interconnections are very important to acknowledge and re-engage with.

Vishwanath: Contrary to what people, the city is a very efficient user of water. The real problems in a river basin, the real problem in India with water is agriculture, which dominates water usage, 85% of water is used by agriculture and within agriculture if four crops consume 70 percent of the water in agriculture. Mostly rice, sugarcane, cotton and wheat. Now we’re growing sugarcane in areas where it’s completely untenable to grow sugarcane, ground-based irrigation. We grow more sugarcane than is necessary. We grow rice, we grow wheat, which is in excess, we export rice and wheat, some of it rots in our go-downs.

So the real challenge is how do you protect the livelihoods of a rural people without being surplus and wasteful with our water use. Urban areas have a challenge in my opinion of a lack of investment in infrastructure, which means that we invest little in getting universal water access to everybody and universal access to sanitation connection, where we pick up all the storage, collect it, treat it and then release it into the environment. So if we get our investments right and if we get our agricultural pattern right, we don’t have a water crisis, but if you don’t get agriculture, right, we have a unending crisis.

So this city is now a global city and is providing jobs for everybody but it’s woefully badly planned for the space of expansion that its going through.. and especially with water infrastructure we are caught in a bind because there are ecologists who argue that its local lakes and local rain water which is going to support the city. Whereas the infrastructure guys argue that it’s the outside water which would support the city. Now if you don’t sort out that argument quickly, we have a problem of shortage as we are now facing.

Deepika: So what is his approach to this situation – do we have to choose between larger infrastructure projects and having water piped to cities from longer distances, or it is about the improved management of local lakes and rainwater?

Arpita: I think how he sees it, its a combination of the two.

Vishwanath: So my argument is this that we must look at local water but our lakes are more ecological and social spots. They’re not going to be providing water for the city for its drinking purpose. Rain water will need to be utilised to its optimum in terms of storage and recharge and we’ll come to that later but it will continue to be a supplement to the major water demand of the city. A very important supplement but still a supplement. But we will have to take more water from the Cauvery but we make sure that we treat the wastewater and send it back to the agricultural area so that it’s utilised productively and if that is done then the city has sustainability, but if it’s not done quickly, then the city will cry for water scarcity for some more time.

Arpita: I asked him if this scenario that he was explaining based on Bangalore, was also reflected in other cities across India. He said that while there were variations, this was a conundrum that was common to most cities.

Vishwanath: So the city has to start 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 and 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, but it’s inescapable that we will have to go far from out cities to get water.

Deepika: This makes sense, because cities don’t often have an equal relationship with areas around them and tend to be more extractive. So that relationship needs to change. but an equal distribution of resources and access to them is what we should be aiming for.

Arpita: I think through the long history of his work, he has been able to engage at various levels from policy to the ground. Yet he did emphasis the need to put more energy behind local work that’s happening.

Vishwanath: There’s been an unfair investment in the broader larger infrastructure without looking at the potential of the local. So, 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. It can, but what you see is when you look at the city as a whole: the first charge should be for the local and the second charge, that is when it’s inevitable, should be for the larger infrastructure. How do you tie these two together in planning and design and management terms is not something that is happening in India at all. So it’s always either or. The votaries of the environmental movement argue local local local; the votaries of the large infrastructure argue dam dam or reservoir. But what’s the combination between the two which works ideally and which is sustainable? That’s not been explored enough and therefore that exploration starts with understanding what the local can do to its full potential and then to fit it into the overall paradigm of sustainable water management for the city.

Deepika: So when we speak to the local, do you mean pre existing lakes, wells and tanks? Because I remember coming across these water sources in Mumbai like Banganga which was part of a temple complex and historically a sources of water for local communities.

Arpita: And the same is true for Bangalore where the old lake system was built for irrigation purposes and back then when the population was really low it could also manage supplying the drinking water. But in the context of the current population, Vishwanath said that if the lakes of Bangalore were to supply drinking water, it wouldn’t last for more than 15 days. So considering this, he felt that the role of lakes needs to shift now.

Vishwanath: So they have been great cultural spots. We’ve celebrated festivals around tanks; we have gone and immersed Ganesha idols and immersed flowers after poojas and all that. We will continue to do that. But we have to do it in an environmentally benign fashion. The tanks will become community spaces where local neighborhoods will gather for cultural events, for public events and celebrations. They will also be ecological spaces with birds, small mammals, reptiles will be celebrated as part of the city itself. Painted storks, pelicans coming in, cormorants. So it’s a joy. So these will be the ecological and social spaces of that nature. They should not be imagined as drinking water sources. If we link all the tanks and make sure that the raj kalves (storm water drains) are protected they will become excellent flood mitigation structures. The city needs flood mitigation structures. So they’ll become.. they play a role if needed. Then they will be excellent spots for fishing providing livelihoods, fish and protein to the city, when fishermen fish in sustainable manner. All those roles are very much essential to the quotient of happiness for a city and the quality of life of a city. But it’s not for drinking.

Deepika: I see why caring for these spaces and supporting them is crucial. For flood mitigation as he says but also as spaces that can encourage biodiversity. But then where does the city turn to for its water supply? What’s the solution?

Arpita: The solution he has put so much weight behind through his years of work – rain water harvesting.. and he defined it for us.

Vishwanath: So rain water harvesting is defined as a process of collecting and storing water for future productive use. Now storing can be in some tanks or tanks or rain barrels or HDPE tanks or the storing can be in aquifers below the Earth, which is what you would call groundwater recharge. In India we understand groundwater recharge is also rain water harvesting. Globally it’s understood as managing for recharge.

Arpita: So as he explained it, before you take up rain water harvesting – you first have to understand and map the distribution and the total volume of rainfall in a city to see how that water can then be productively used. And of course this will be impacted by the nature of urbanisation and how much built up area there is.

Vishwanath: If a site is not built upon, 10% of the rain goes into the aquifer and recharges the groundwork – a maximum of 10. It could be less. About 15% runs of from the site and goes into the storm drain network. And about the rest of the rain, about 75% stays in the soil up to 1 meter and evaporates or evapo-transpires because you have trees, bushes and shrubs and grasses which do that.

Once you’ve built on the site, now there is absolutely no recharge because you built and paved up a hundred percent of it. There is no evapotranspiration because there’s no grass, bushes or shrubs. 90 to a 100 percent of the rainfall goes into the storm drains. Where it was 15 liters before now it is 90-100.

Deepika: Okay, that’s a huge difference when it’s a built up site. so essentially where 15 litres was going into the drain, it’s now 90 or 100 percent.

Arpita: Right, and that’s why you have urban flooding and at the same time water shortage. Because your ground water is not getting recharged. Rainwater harvesting is a way to address this differently.

Vishwanath: Now rainwater harvesting says let’s use this water smartly. Let’s try to store this water and if we can’t store the water let’s recharge the water into the aquifer. How do we do the recharge? We made something called a recharge well, which is three feet in diameter and about 20 feet deep lined with the rings. The traditional well diggers do it. We’ll come out that later. But all you need to do is build a recharge well and put all this one and a half lakh litres into the recharge well and it will all sink into the earth making sure that the aquifer is filled up and is available to us as a city for later use in summer or other particular times. It’s a simple way of collecting and storing rain for future productive use.

Deepika: So the recharge wells he’s talking about – that related to the million wells project you had told me about?

Arpita: Yes, I found it particularly interesting as its simultaneously a livelihoods project as much as its a rainwater harvesting project.

Vishwanath: The million wells project we launched for Bangalore looks at the traditional well-digging community called the manuvaddars. These people have been digging wells, cleaning wells, deepening wells for about 800 to a 1000 years all across India, and in Bangalore for 300 to 500 years. Now, they are out of a job because nobody’s building wells. Everybody’s drilling a borewell. So how can they be productively used in making water security and ecological security for the city? Like I explained if they become part of the rain water harvesting system, and if every plot in Bangalore and there are 2 million plots in Bangalore. If every alternate plot in Bangalore, 1 million of them build a recharge well and make sure they send in a 1,50,000 litres of water into the ground, then the city will not run out of ground water. If we don’t do it then we will run out of water. Now if the million recharge wells are put in place, there would be no flooding in the city of Bangalore. That’s its added benefit and it’s mandatory now as per the policy and the building by-laws. That you need to do compulsory rainwater harvesting. Follow the law give these guys who are digging wells a chance at a livelihood and build water security for yourself and for the city. That’s the goal of the million wells project.

Deepika: So how many out of the million have they got to?

Arpita: He said that as per last count they were close to 1,20,000 which is about 12% . He explained how it was a matter of putting the city’s energies behind the project.

Vishwanath: In this office where we are sitting and having this conversation, we have a well and the well has water. With 20 feet, we have forgotten memory of it. So we say hey, let’s identify these pockets where the wells are there and the aquifer is high and you can use the water and clean it and deepen it and recharge it with rain water. So the well diggers have a chance.

So you bring these 10,000 or 20,000 open wells which have water into business: supplying water, supplementing the Cauvery water. If I have a well and it has water but my neighbour does not, let’s share that information and the neighbor can dig a well and recharge it. The street can then do it. The ward can then do it. It can identify areas where the aquifer is high and start using the resource, right? So if we grow from these pockets of open wells and start expanding it, we will get to a million pretty fast.

Arpita: He went on to give the example of how a combination of reviving pre-existing wells and digging new ones changed how Cubbon Park, one of the largest parks in Bangalore, was able to rethink its use of water.

Vishwanath: Cubbon park was looking for water. The heart of the City Garden of 220 acres. They did not look for wells. So when we spoke to the old gardeners and talked to people, we found seven open wells and we cleaned it up. And now in Cubbon park those seven wells are providing a 1,00,000 liters of water everyday. The groundwater table is high. Then Cubbon park did 64 recharge wells, which we helped them do that with friends of lakes and others. So now it’s going to recharged every drop of water that falls into the park and its wells will be used for all the water requirements. Well not all but a majority of the water requirements of the park itself. IIM Bangalore did 64 recharge wells and put it.. now its borewell levels have come up and its now getting sufficient water for the recharge. Wheel and Axle plant of the railways cleaned up 4 old wells and is digging up new open wells to get 3 lakh litres of water from these open wells and they don’t want the Cauvery water from the BWSSB, they have saved the 3 lakh litres for others to use from the Cauvery. There have been examples after example in large areas and in small households where wells have been revived and started to provide water. We need to expand on these success stories.

Arpita: This may not seem like an insight, more like an obvious truth but still when he was giving this example of Cubbon park, it struck me that there’s something very powerful to the image of a well versus that of a borewell.

Deepika: What do you mean?

Arpita: I simply mean that a well in its structure and design is a two way street. It is simultaneous about input and output, a quality of openness is built into it. Whereas a borewell is structurally one way, extractive.

Deepika: That immediately reminded me of step wells that you see in Mughal architecture as well- the baoli built in the Purana Quila in Delhi or at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. The very design and aesthetic of it allows for an engagement and conversation with water beyond the mere extraction of it.

Vishwanath: So a bore well is very costly nowadays, you could go a 1,000 feet deep. So it cost you about 4 lakh rupees to dig a borewell, and then you are unsure if you will strike water and you’re unsure if you strike water how long will the water last. The quality of the water that comes out will have high salinity and sometimes fluoride. Whereas, an open well is annually replenishable. It’s not that an open well will work everywhere. But it will work in particular aquifers and would work pretty well. And you will be taking out the water that you yourself have replenished..and therefore you are sustainable. With a borewell that’s not the case. So therefore we need to get back to the culture of the open well in terms of metaphorically understanding what open wells are – annually replenishable water instead of the borewell. But even borewells can be recharged so we can do a combination of both open wells and borewells but giving first charge to open wells and looking at borewells as the second alternative.

Arpita: I also asked him about the work he’s been doing with lake groups around the city. I had read that he had been involved with the restoration of Jakkur lake and he explained it.

Vishwanath: So the lakes have a particular propensity in urban areas that they are recipients of wastewater usually untreated waste water. If you have to create a paradigm for protecting our lakes we have to deal with these waste water that flows in our storm water drains, lines, which are not perfect. One idea is to get the wastewater, treat it to adequate standards, send it through a constructed wetland and allow it to fill the lake so the lake is full. To transform waste water into a resource, which keeps our lakes full with its fishes with its birds, with its biodiversity as well as replenishing the rain water.

So one of the first works was in Jakkur which was an institutional collaboration with BWSSB, BDA, BBMP and Jal Poshan, which is community group that is managed by Dr. Annapurna Kamath. But together we trying to see whether we can adopt this principle of what’s called the integrated urban water management to restore the lake and now if you go to Jakkur you will see it teeming with painted storks and pelicans. So that’s a rejuvenation. That’s been seen as a model which is being replicated in Delhi, Agra and many other cities like Hyderabad where people have come and taken a look at it and learned from it.

Arpita: And the transformation was intense as he described it.

Vishwanath: So the before of it was that it was a pristine lake with large paddy fields then it deteriorated as the area urbanised and became a recipient for solid waste, construction waste and untreated wastewater. Finally now, it’s treated wastewater and the lake is always full and they call it a biodiversity hot-spot in the recharge zone.

Deepika: I couldn’t help notice how through our entire conversation on the work he’s been doing the past 34 years, there was this strong emphasis on mentioning the contributions of and collaborations with other people and communities. Is that a very conscious part of his approach?

Arpita: Yes definitely. From what I saw and heard…this community based approach is embedded in his work. It really seemed to me that the zen in his online persona is also very imbibed in his approach to work and life as a whole.

Vishwanath: So overall the Zen approach, the philosophy is that when good people do the work, the people say we did it ourselves. There is some powerful message in it. It is very difficult in this day of branding and identity for you not to claim credit for the work that you do but we as Rainwater Club and Biome Trust are happy to give the complete credit to farmers, well-diggers, community organisations to say they did it and that we were at best facilitators of knowledge, facilitators of connects with people who do the work but allow people to own and champion the work which they actually.. they have done. Now if you’re willing to allow credit to be taken to others by others, then you can get a lot done.

Deepika: That’s really beautifully put but its a hard one isn’t it? In the kind of world we live in, you don’t hear this very easily but it does make sense. I think this was the fundamental ethic of the development sector and of the conversation around empowerment.

Arpita: Yeah, and its a powerful one cause taking ownership of a project, feeling like you’re a stakeholder in the running of something valuable to you and your community is a powerful story that not only becomes the sticky glue that keeps communities together but also helps ensure the longevity and maintenance of the undertaking itself.

Deepika: So how does he imagine a water resilient community or city to be?

Arpita: I think this element of people taking responsibility of their own resources is certainly an important aspect of that imagination.

Vishwanath: So there are multiple layers to water resilience. One starts from personal responsibility and a sense of design on architects and engineers and planners to make sure that we maximise the resource that is local. Yeah, so which is rain water, groundwater, treated waste water and the nearest lake. So every citizen she has to engage with the rain water that falls on their house. But also the community lake can make sure that both are working well. But at the same time you have to hold our institutions responsible and accountable for the services they deliver so therefore we need to put pressure on the institutions to be transparent and open about the systems that put in place. About the tariff system, about the resource system and the kind of efficient way that they want to work with it. So if we get the governance and the institutions, right? And if you get personal actions and community actions, right then you have sustainability.

Deepika: It’s interesting that he talks about personal responsibility because rainwater harvesting can feel like a somewhat impersonal issue. What I as a citizen can do, isn’t as obvious. So what did he say about it?

Arpita: He defined the kinds of personal action that citizens can take to improve the city’s water resilience.

Vishwanath: So every household should use water efficient structures, devices – showers, taps, flushes, washing machines. Every household should look at recharging aquifers as much as possible. Every household should..and the individual should look at engaging with the nearest lake and becoming part of the friends of lakes community group, which is cleaning it up in terms of the solid waste management and lake rejuvenation. They should demand from the ward committees that they be open and transparent about the connections that are there in the ward and what the problems are and what the challenges are and how is it going to be addressed. And they should engage with the water utilities of local governance to say: Hey, please tell us what are your plans for the city in terms of accessing water and for treating wastewater. Make sure that you put pressures so that they collect and treat every drop of waste water and make sure that they’re taking water from the Cauvery, they are held responsible for the *unclear* of the Cauvery.

Arpita: Sometimes when you think about water and its management at a city level or national level, with all the complexity of the interconnections between urban and rural, it can feel overwhelming to consider where to begin.

But focusing on what you can do.. even little things like switching to water efficient devices like aerators or putting a drum below an external pipe, is a surprisingly great place to start and begins to change how we think about and engage with the water in our surroundings and in our taps. In our bonus episode with Vishwanath he talks about this in detail. The important thing as he says is to begin to participate.

Vishwanath: We have to make a beginning. I think in a city like Bangalore, for example, there are many groups which are doing this. So many groups are engaging with lakes, many groups are getting into rainwater harvesting. There are levels of engagement with people have based on the time available to them or their interests, but if you don’t engage with the city, you are doomed to live with what you get.

Outro: In our upcoming extra, we ask Vishwanath what specific actions can be undertaken by us as citizens to change our relationship with water and begin to utilise it in the most optimum manner. He has some very interesting tips and tricks for us – so don’t forget to listen in! And of course we always love hearing back from you, so do follow us on our social media spaces or continue to share your thoughts and ideas with us at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.