Water Conservation : The Journey Continues

As more people join in, this journey is destined to become a movement one day

Water is the precious elixir for all life on our planet. It is the most dynamic force of nature that has the power to shape our geography, nurture our civilizations and sustain all human activity.

My name is Sunil Sharma and understanding water resources has been my life’s passion. As a child, I remember playing with water – drawing small canals in the sand. I was fascinated to see water flow through my creations as I poured a small pitcher of water into these canals and made it drain into a small pit at the end. As a kid, sitting next to the pit seeing the water get absorbed and leaving the pit empty seemed like magic to me.

For the last three decades, each year I spend a part of the profits generated from my other business ventures into experimenting on the soil and water relationship in order to understand, develop and implement new systems for artificial ground water recharge.

In 2001, I founded SILVERON – an organization dedicated to designing and developing rainwater harvesting solutions. I have been sharing my work and experiences with people through lectures, seminars and discussions at various forums including this blog.

Water Crisis

Over the past few decades, I have seen the emergence of a water crisis – an environmental catastrophe where the lack of clean water is putting an immense economic and social burden on our rapidly urbanizing communities.

As humans, we have a tendency to put our self-interest above everything else and take actions only for our direct benefit, be it social or economic. As a society we have become unconcerned, insensitive, casual, unimaginative and even unintelligent while soon approaching a day with ‘zero’ water.

Individuals and corporations cause immense harm to the environment when they are driven by only their financial motives. From illegal tubewells that siphon off precious groundwater through the water-tanker mafia, industries dumping toxic chemical waste into our rivers and water bodies, illegal logging and mining that destroy our forests and watersheds – the threats to our environment are far too many.

Need for Change

The water crisis is a ticking time bomb that threatens our society’s existence. The need of the hour is to create a movement where we take up the cause of water conservation en masse. However, this movement like other environmental struggles requires the involvement and participation of large sections of our society.

Part of the reason why water conservation is not high on our agenda is due to the government short-term approach of treating water as simply a utility service that it needs to provide. With this approach, the government undertakes costly infrastructure projects to fetch and haul water to population centers from reservoirs far and away whilst simultaneously overlooking people’s encroachment and over utilization of water resources available to them through illegal or overused tubewells, inefficient irrigation systems etc.

To address this impending mega water crisis, the government must revisit its strategy and appropriately incentivize water conservation efforts. It is time that the government realizes that appropriate direct financial benefits like proportionate relief in state or local taxes, discounts in utility bills and/or direct financial rewards are the only means that will motivate people to adopt water conservation and rain water harvesting efforts on a large scale.

For example, people install solar panels on top of their houses not just because they provide clean energy but because the energy thus generated is “free” and has financial value when sold back into the grid. Likewise, people also invest in windmills to earn money from selling the power generated.

While the deteriorating state of our water bodies and a rapidly declining water table are putting our society on suicidal path, as individuals people often ask a simple common question – “Why should I spend money in construction of a Rain Water Harvesting structure when the rain water recharged into the ground by me does not remain in my premises and not benefit my bore well exclusively”?

This says it all but this is not the end of it.

Conservation In Action

It is SILVERON‘s commitment to keep working towards designing and developing solutions for ground water recharge by the cheapest available alternatives at places where the rain water collects.

Ground Water Recharge Through Abandoned Tubewel

As an example of this, on April 26th 2019, in far off villages in the arid state of Gujarat we are attempting to develop scores of abandoned tubewells as ground water recharge structures. These tubewells were built in 1977 at different villages to extract ground water and have been abandoned thereafter as the water table in the region declined.

Rain Water Harvesting is a site specific work and the most appropriate site specific design needs to be developed in view of the available opportunities. There are millions of abandoned dry tubewells and open wells in the country. What if we are able to recharge ground water aquifers through each one of them!

This video demonstrate that we need to be positive and optimist to succeed. We can surely turn the table if more and more people join hands and work. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and together we can march forward singing the famous lines – “we shall overcome

We shall continue this journey, as more people join in it surely will become a movement one day…

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The Flood Drought Fire Cycle

A vicious cycle that must be stopped.

Global warming and changing climate is having a major impact as many parts of the world face prolonged droughts or uncontrollable wild fires or damaging floods along both coastal and inland regions. It is a vicious cycle affecting the natural system and unfortunately the area of impact keeps increasing at an alarming pace.

Flooding is a result of excessive flow or accumulation of water in a particular area due to rain or other reasons. Flooding creates an ecological imbalance by adversely affecting the soil & plant relationship, since all plants require air especially oxygen to a greater or lesser depth in the soil for growth.

The waterlogged soil resulting from flooding is nearly saturated with water such that the aeration is restricted and anaerobic conditions prevail. With this depletion of oxygen in the root zone, the micro organisms which support plant growth are affected adversely and in turn the plant growth is restricted.

Water-logging also reduces the temperature of the soil and increases dampness which disturbs the biological activity in the soil. Water logging restricts all operations related to soil enrichment and soil development. In irrigated agricultural land, water logging is often accompanied by soil salinity as waterlogged soils prevent leaching of the salts imported by the irrigation water and the adverse effects are accelerated by the salts brought from lower parts of soil by the capillary water.

This increase in salinity not only interferes with the absorption of nutrients by the plant roots, thereby damaging the plantation but also spoils the physical state of the soil by making it less permeable for water and more suited for runoff which in turn hurts the adjoining land and vegetation.

Even fodder grown in such soil may cause diseases in livestock.  In our observations and experience over 30 years, we have seen that flooding has a prolonged negative impact on the soil. This may not be apparently visible in the initial years but in the long run flooding has a tendency to degrade the soil quality by consequently reducing the water absorption capacity of the soil.

Drought is a result of little or no supply of water in a particular area due to poor rainfall or other reasons. A drought removes water from the root zone in the soil and in prevailing natural drought conditions or man-made conditions requiring extraction of large quantity of ground water causes a sustained lowering of the water table and takes away the soil moisture farther away from the roots.

A drought leads to wide spread drying of the entire forests or grasslands, turning once lush-green forest covers teeming with wildlife into desolate wastelands. This makes huge quantities of dry wood fodder available for fire and we have seen massive forest fires raging for months together.

Fire requires favorable conditions like open air and availability of fuel. Wildfires often start from a lighting strike or can be caused (accidentally or deliberately) through human activity. Once a wildfire picks up enough momentum, thousands of acres of land can be engulfed in its path. Wildfires cause massive ecological damage to the flora and fauna, livestock and humans inhabiting the region.

Once the thick forest cover at the base of a hill is consumed by a wildfire and barren land is visible – all natural barriers creating hindrance to the downward flow of wind or water from the hill disappear. Now free flowing wind & water take the rich top-soil along with it and this water can flood downstream areas. This has a dual effect – with every removal of top soil, the revival of plantation becomes more and more difficult and the chances of the forest going back to its old form are reduced drastically. The water flooding downstream area has its own negatives as discussed above.

We at SILVERON have developed a unique rain water harvesting design which has the potential to obstruct this vicious cycle and to even break it if our design is implemented at a large scale.

What is special about SILVERON design?

  1. The SILVERON recharge shaft does not require flooding of ground with water. In fact where ever there is flooding , our design provides passage for that water to get into   the soil.
  2. The SILVERON recharge shaft does not dictate the recharge location or depth to the percolating water. The water can be absorbed by every favorable soil formation throughout the depth of the recharge shaft, starting from the root zone itself. This naturally supports plantation and vegetation in the area around the recharge shaft. 
  3. The SILVERON recharge shaft provides easy passage for rain water to filter through and percolate down wards while simultaneously also being absorbed through the walls of the shaft.

Because of the uniqueness of the SILVERON recharge shaft design, the rain water which falls on the ground at a distance from the shaft, while naturally struggling to percolate in the soil can detect the soil made soft and wet by the water absorbed from the shaft and form underground capillaries to reach the recharge shaft and supply its water to the recharge shaft, even when it is not observable from the surface.

Impact of SILVERON recharge shaft on the ground:

A very apparent impact of the shaft design is visible at Hero MotoCorp plant at Gurgaon, Haryana where the soil surface of the front lawn used to frequently waterlogged with rains and caused flooding in the garden. This resulted in the grass becoming black and unhealthy.

The field shafts constructed by SILVERON diverted all the collected water into the ground thus preventing flooding. This design also enriched the root zone with water which supported plantation and resulted in the development of the beautiful healthy green lawns as is evident in the photographs.

The dry grass and trees are fire hazards - the green grass and trees are the savior.
Dry grass and trees are fire hazards – the green grass and trees are the savior. (Source: Friday Gurgaon)

Thus, the unique potential of the SILVERON rain water harvesting system allows for enriching the ground water aquifers and provides a strategy to obstruct and break the vicious cycle of Flood-Drought-Fire-Flood by implementation on a large scale.   


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Tanka System – A Basic Rainwater Harvesting Technique

Rainfall is the main source of water for augmenting ground water levels, soil moisture and surface water. Water is essential for agricultural activity, for growing fodder to feed livestock and to fulfill domestic requirement of all humans.

Rainwater harvesting has been a natural tendency in all ancient Indian and other civilizations in different parts of the world and has been practiced for more than 4000
years because even in those times the people recognized the fact that without water no form of life is possible on earth.

The Indus Valley Civilization settled on the banks of the Indus River and other parts of western and northern India about 4500 years ago had one of the most sophisticated
water supply and sewage systems in the world

The people of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan designed, developed and constructed many different structures for Rain Water Harvesting and among them; the most Common Rainwater collection technique has been through the ‘Tanka’ system

Tanka is a paved underground tank of differing shapes from square, rectangular to usually cylindrical, having holding capacity ranging from 1000 liters to 1,000,000 liters

The traditional construction material also varies from simple mud plaster to lime mortar or cement mortar. On top of the tank there is a roof cover with mild slope towards the center where there are inlet points to let the rain water falling on this catchment surface flows into the Tank (Tanka). There is also a covered opening from where the water is drawn using a rope and bucket as and when water is required.

Apart from the roof surface of Tanka which acts as catchment for rain water, even rainwater from house rooftop, courtyard or artificially prepared catchments flows are diverted towards the Tanka

The water collected in a Tanka is highly valued commodity for every member of the family and is used carefully so as to ensure that it lasts for many months – sometimes even till the subsequent monsoon…

A Tanka and the water it brings to households in an arid zone provides water security and saves family members (specially the rural womenfolk) from the burden of traveling long distances to get water for every day requirements.

SILVERON, in the year 2003-04 built two Tankas funded by Coca Cola India at Kaladera village and these were inaugurated by Hon’ble Justice B.N. Kirpal, former
Chief Justice of India.

Rainwater Harvesting Tanka constructed by Silveron at Girl’s School (Storage Capacity of 100,000 liters water).
Rainwater Harvesting Tanka constructed by Silveron at Girl’s School
(Storage Capacity of 100,000 liters water).

SILVERON did not build small prototype models but instead constructed big practical structures which are still operational. The rain water falling on the roof of the school/college building also finds its way into the tanks.

Apart from collecting rain water in the Tanka – Team Silveron also made provision of taking the over flow of the water from the Tanka (in the event of heavy rainfall) by a PVC pipe to a Ground Water Recharge Shaft near the school hand pump.

These two Tankas were built in educational institutions so that the students could see and understand all aspects of rain water harvesting from roof top catchment – channelizing the runoff – storage on surface – recharge into the ground.

Such old time water harvesting systems can still be seen along Naneghat in the Western Ghats. Every fort in the area had its own rain water harvesting and storage system that are still in use today. Forts like Raigad in Maharashtra and Jaigarh at Jaipur near Amber have tanks built in their courtyards that collected and provided water.

Seeing the Tanka from the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India to the Tanka at El Morro Fort, old San Juan, Puerto Rico we must salute the spirit of our ancestors and attribute the Tanka as a rainwater harvesting technique ingenious to the men who desired to survive in the toughest conditions.

The rainwater storage system in the Castillo San Felipe del Morro Fort explained
The rainwater storage system in the Castillo San Felipe del Morro Fort explained

Rainwater can be a reliable source of water if collected from runoff areas such as roofs
and other surfaces and stored appropriately. If the catchment area is big, this system can provide huge quantity of good quality fresh potable water.

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Water Wisdom – Step well (Bawari)

Hundreds of years ago, the only way to travel was on foot or ride on animal back or animal drawn carts. Traveling from one place to another would be taking days or weeks or may be months hence the step well (Bawari) became an important landmark site for the traveler since it had water as well as rooms/corridors to cook food and rest during the night.

Centuries ago the ground water extraction was only from open wells manually or with help of animals. Even the quantity of water withdrawal was much less than the natural recharge of rain water hence the water table was high and water was available just a few feet below the ground. In such circumstances if a big diameter well was dug to even a depth of 30 to 50 ft, it naturally got filled with water, thereafter steps were constructed from ground level till the depth of the well so that the traveler could walk down till the water level and draw water. Corridors and rooms were constructed around the water body as resting space for the travelers.

Every step well also had an open well connected to it and naturally the water level in the open well was the same as that in the step well and those travelers who had bucket etc. could draw water from the well too and even farming was done using water from these open wells.

Constructing a step well was considered a great act of charity hence step wells were constructed in large numbers not only by the ruling king as a social benefit project but also by rich traders from share of their business profits.

We observed that some step wells were ground water level dependent and were dug in alluvium and their base was permeable. Such water bodies had visible water till the ground water level was higher than the depth of the step well but as the water table declined below the base level of the step well these step wells became dry and devoid of water, as they  stand today.

Some step wells were dug only till a level where natural hard rock was encountered hence these step wells have uneven hard rock non permeable base.  SaraI Bawari and Kale Hanuman ki Bawari are two such historical 15th century Step wells (Bawari) at Amber, Jaipur. Restored & rejuvenated by SILVERON from 2005 and thereafter and it will be interesting to note that both these step wells hold good quantity of water even today.

To be able to do any restoration and rejuvenation work, team Silveron had to empty the water from the step well. This task was difficult since there was regular inflow of water and streams of water could be seen gushing in from the side walls at various levels from 5 to 40 ft. below the ground surface. Multiple dewatering engines were deployed day and night during the entire work to keep the water level low in order to be able to work.

These step wells are surrounded by multiple rocky hills and rain water which collects in large pockets at higher levels forms minute channels just under the surface of the ground at various levels and flows towards the step well.

As the step well fills with water, the collected water in the step well tries to go back from the same inlet points and this works as a plug to stop the in-flowing water, hence Bawari does not over flow and when water is withdrawn the same quantity is replenished.

Sarai Bawari - Restoration work in progress.
Sarai Bawari – Restoration work in progress.

kalehanumanji-bawari-restoration
Kale Hanuman Ji ki Bawari – Restoration work in progress.

Though the current times of fast pace travel and water supply pumped directly into the home may have made the Bawari (step well) irrelevant but they will always remain a heritage site and will continue to speaks volumes about the wisdom and caliber of our ancestors.

 

restored-bawaris
Restored 15th Century Stepwells – Sarai Bawari & Kale Hanuman Ji ki Bawari

 

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Water harvesting – reason for failure

In the pursuit of designing a flawless rain water harvesting design, team SILVERON focused on choked and non functional structures to understand the reasons of failure.

It was observed that artificial ground water recharge systems designed with slotted pipe work efficiently in the first few days of rain and there after their intake efficiency reduces rapidly and finally water starts holding in them.

slotted-designs-structures
Slotted-pipe design based rainwater harvesting structures

Our study of the problem showed that in this structure design the rain water is directed to flow into the pipe with slots. This water fills the pipe and moves out of the slots to fill  the space outside the pipe and form a water column around the pipe up to the same level as that of the column inside the pipe.

The soil particles get suspended in the water column outside & both columns recede simultaneously. The suspended silt deposits inside as well as outside the pipe, blocking the slots at the last part of the pipe.  With every inflow of water, this process is repeated till all the slots in the pipe is chocked with silt and finally the pipe becomes a closed pipe – This invariably leads to system failure.                                                                             

In this system, it is expected that mother earth will absorb water as soon as it comes out of the slots while ignoring the basic principle of nature that ‘water seeks it own level’ at the first opportunity.

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