The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What sets us apart? Clues to what makes communities sustainable- Water

This post marks the beginning of a series with one common theme..... highlighting the areas of living that set us apart from the way/s we lived in the past (and in some traditional/rural settlements that still persist), and which also mark us as unsustainable communities.
It is quite remarkable that factors that brand us as unsustainable, are perhaps more due to circumstances, living in these times, rather than one of a dearth of choices that can keep us from self destructing. I hope to cover, with some help from others here at IGH, a few cross sections to illustrate what sets us apart, and perhaps throw up some answers in the process. What makes us so dependent on those many supply chains of water, energy, food, etc that any sudden break in any of these result in a literal collapse of our world?.
This series shall cover some of these aspects/themes by looking at them through specific topics.Here is the first.
Water and communities
A kund in Himachal Pradesh
A quick glance at water in today's context. Let us start by looking at the water infrastructure- piped water to our homes from neighbourhood level water utilities, which are supplied by central treatment facilities, which in turn are fed by riverine systems. Cut to the past, say over a 100 odd years, and we find that none of this applied, to the extent that we did not even draw our water directly from rivers (or lakes for that matter). Even in the most dense of cities, Old Delhi, Old Ahmedabad, Old Bangalore, Old Benaras, historical towns of Tamil Nadu, hill towns and villages across the country, coastal settlements... all drew their water from the ground. What's even more interesting, is that this held true even if they were right next to a river or stream!! The forms may have varied, but the common fact that all these instances had local solutions.
Let us move on the next level of differences, how we deal with water conduits and bodies- concreted and tarred surfaces, concrete lined drains, reclamation of low-lying areas and ponds, and a plethora of other measures to drain out any rainwater to prevent 'flooding' and reduce diseases like 'malaria'. Cut to the past, and we have earthen and other permeable pathways, ponds to hold water, percolating swales and enough bio-matter that would help retain surface moisture and also helped prevent erosion.
Take a look at our current lifestyles- everyone has access to water indulgent luxuries from bathtubs to rain showers.... we even bathe our modes of transportation. Such a luxury simply did not (or, could not) exist. We are transfixed on the appearance of water in our bathrooms, lobbies and garden landscapes, instead of considering efficient usage. Consumption today, needs some serious introspection. We have moved on from consuming what we need to thoughtlessly catering to our whims. We can start by monitoring, and progress quickly to an equilibrium stage between what we sow and what we reap (so to speak).
Then are the hidden water aspects. Also known as virtual water, this is understood best as the total water that goes into anything, be it a product, a crop, an activity. For example, a cup of coffee is said to take about 40 litres of water to make!! Similarly, cereal, processed goods, clothes, the construction of buildings, roads, etc. all consume a significant amount of water. You could find tonnes about this on the net.... just try and make an estimate of your water footprint, and you will be astonished!! In the past, keeping the circles of dependency small, and the substitution of high energy industry with craft and some rather ingenious zero energy technologies, meant that their water footprint was much smaller. Surely, there are some lessons here.
The benefits of the earlier water equation are compelling. For starters, it was significantly lower in in energy consumption, both in building this water infrastructure and its operation. Traditional and historic water systems did not mean the release of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or, toxins into the ground.... today it does. In those traditional/historic instances, all controls were with the community and users. At the least that meant that one knew why we did not have water on a particular day, and one could prepare for that. Today, to simply inform the masses of issues related to water supply is a challenge, one which is also phenomenally resource consuming..
A Reverse Osmosis water treatment plant
The decentralised set-up also meant that growth of populations did not mean adding stress to, and therefore, an upgrade of the water infrastructure. Importantly, the past system meant constant recharge, and lower consumption, assuring more water for all. Currently, each of our 50 plus 1 million population cities, rely on individual sources of water!! Imagine the burden on those systems. What is our strategy to replenish those sources??? None exists. In these traditional alternatives the costs were significantly lower, and there was no need for extensive treatment at both the distribution and consumption ends. Today, we dump tonnes of chemicals (chlorine) to control germs, to curb suspended particles, and even to control odour. What's more, every home either has or is eyeing an RO like filtration system... one which spews out a minimum of 2 litres of extremely turbid water to give you 1 litre of filtered water.Where do you think this RO reject is heading? Down your drains into our ground water aquifers, or, dumped into the riverine systems from where we source our water in the first place!!

In the world of today, we have ignored our connect with the sources of water. Rivers are too distant to comprehend, so what do know about what it takes to source this water... laying the infrastructure, pumping costs, treatment, etc. We have ignored the health ground water table, considering what we can get from this unseen 'golden goose' (figuratively speaking) as spoils of existence. It is only now that we have begun to rediscover rainwater harvesting and recharge, something which happened by default in the past, and something that many of us are adopting only to comply to government law. But to be truly sustainable, we have to break these bondages of dependency on external inputs for water. It is also a fact that we are born into these times, and therefore find it difficult to understand such a (lesser known) past. That is the extent of our dependency and modern day conditioning. About time we break those shackles and take control!

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