If someone were to ask you what features you would like to include in your dream house, what would you say? Ample sunlight, a lot of green space, or maybe your very own vegetable garden? Hyderabad-based architect and designer, Kalpana Ramesh probably had these in mind as well when she was designing her house in 2010. But the number one feature on her list was something most of us would never dream of pencilling in – a water tanker-free house.
Ramesh’s home in Gachibowli, Hyderabad, serves as a model for urban water conservation, and has been featured in local and national news channels. She frequently has visitors who want to study her techniques and implement her ideas. Her efforts did not end at her doorstep, and she worked to make her entire residential community less dependent on water tankers. Today, Ramesh leads Water Initiatives for SAHE (Society for Advancement of Human Endeavour), a Hyderabad-based NGO, where she has been instrumental in water conservation projects like ‘Save 10K Bores’ which worked to revive defunct borewells using rainwater. She is also leading the ‘Live The Lakes’ initiative to restore and revive lakes within the city. First her home, then her community and now the city itself – Ramesh is making sure that she leaves no bore, lake or rainwater harvesting pit unturned. ‘Be Your Own Water Warrior’ is her motto, and she lives by it every day.
In this interview, Kalpana Ramesh talks about a tailored approach for urban water conservation and how effective use of spaces can enable better water management in cities.
You began your water conservation journey in your own home. Did you ever think you would be spearheading conservation projects across the city at the time?
That was certainly not the plan initially. I think it was just the shock of seeing entire cities dependent on water tankers that set this journey in motion. I was born and raised in Bangalore. It is my opinion that people there are more inclined to green spaces. Even the smallest of homes have some area allocated for gardens. I have seen a Bangalore where there were cleaner lakes, water supply was ample, and there was greenery all around. Probably all this was frozen in my mind when I moved to the US for seven years, and then to Singapore.
When we decided to move back to India in 2000, my husband and I chose to settle in Hyderabad. There, we witnessed firsthand the dependence on water tankers. I realised that this is the case with Bangalore as well. I tried to encourage rainwater harvesting in the apartment we lived in initially, and they dug up a pit just to satisfy the mandate. The pit was not even assessed for how much water it could store and the ensuing impact. That’s when my husband and I decided that when we build a house, it would be a water tanker-free house.
The rainwater harvesting structure that we have built can store up to 25,000 litres of water. We use coal and sand to purify this water, and when we got it tested, we found that it was potable quality water – right pH, no toxicity, and had the perfect TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). I also grow my own vegetables using recycled water. We have been living tanker-free for eight years now, and this got me interested in promoting rainwater harvesting. What steered me towards various conservation projects was attending the TEDx Salon event in 2016 at the Gandipet Lake. In the 1920s, Gandipet Lake was sufficient for the entire city of Hyderabad, at the time of the event, it was completely dry. For me, that was the tipping point. I knew that from then on water conservation would be my main goal.
What do you think about the water crisis our country is facing today?
The current water crisis does not come as a surprise to me. Hyderabad is one of the cities mentioned in the NITI Aayog report to reach zero groundwater levels this year. But this is not an issue that has cropped up overnight. As I mentioned earlier, the Gandipet lake was sufficient for the city of Hyderabad in the ’20s. The water source then moved to Himayat Sagar, and then about a 100 km away to the Singur Dam, finally reaching the Nagarjuna Sagar. The population of Hyderabad today is about 1.3 crores, and we now get our water from the Godavari-Krishna belt, which is about 200 km away from the city. Where do we go next? Basically, as and when we keep using up one resource, we move on to the next one without making an attempt to address the issue or replenish the resources. Of course, we have reached a crisis.
We see extreme water shortage on one hand and urban flooding on the other. Rainwater harvesting becomes vital because it provides water security right away. It also recharges shallow groundwater, which reduces groundwater contamination as we don’t have to dig so deep into our aquifers for water. Most importantly, harvesting rainwater prevents urban flooding. Ten years ago, this approach alone would have been sufficient to avert a crisis. Not anymore. Without looking for remedies, we have chosen quick-fix options that have led to a dependence on water tankers.
What is greywater, and why should urban India pay attention to repurposing this water?
Greywater is basically the wastewater which comes from your showers, sinks and wash area. This constitutes about 80% of your household wastewater. This is a significant amount of water that can be repurposed. Interestingly, when I wanted to recycle greywater in my house, I could not find an organisation that does this for smaller households.
After a lot of looking around, I found a company in Pune that helped us set up a filtering system using carbonate filters and barriers to remove hair and other particulate matter. I then made sure that the filtered water was transferred to an overhead tank from where it would be used for washing purposes as well as watering the plants. I have also set up drip irrigation to effectively use this water in my garden. We are able to save about 200 litres of water daily in this manner.
This is why I want urban India to be paying attention to this water. With just a few steps, it is possible to have more water security. Even if your water usage is 30% less than what it used to be, it will have a drastic impact on the city's water consumption as well as the power consumed to bring this water in. You will always have greywater, so why not repurpose it.
As an architect who is also a water conservationist, what advice would you give to people planning their homes?
I think we have to move beyond just implementing one or two measures and work towards a more integrated approach. Rainwater harvesting, sewage treatment, adding sprinklers to individual taps, greywater recycling – I would suggest that in consultation with the builder, find an approach based on your requirement and your resource availability.
If you live in an apartment complex, installing water meters will significantly impact water consumption. Water meters immediately reduce consumption as people become more aware of their usage. Recharging borewells in the society and using recycled water for the community gardens are also steps one can consider. Apart from using recycled water, how we water plants also matters. As of now, they are watered from the top, which impacts the topsoil and encourages the roots to grow laterally. But if the water is provided through pipes that go a metre below the soil into a gravel bed, the roots will grow downwards and deeper into the soil. This will, in turn, aid in shallow water recharge and prevent topsoil erosion.
We have to reimagine urban spaces to conserve water and harvest rainwater. For example, car parks are great places to create storage for rainwater. In one car park, you can save up to 34,000 litres of water. In my design studio, we have come up with 19 different ideas across budgets for urban spaces. That is the kind of tailored approach we need.
Please tell us about the work you have been doing in restoring the Kudikunta Lake in Kondapur, Hyderabad?
This is part of the ‘Live The Lakes’ initiative with SAHE. We picked the 8-acre Kudikunta Lake for restoration as it was a dead lake, and I thought if we could show some change here, it would encourage people to pay attention to the lakes around them. We had done a pilot restoration of the lake which was initiated in 2016. But to be honest, the actual work began much later. I spent almost nine months building a community that would be a part of this restoration; a Lake Protection Community so to speak. About 25,000 people live around this lake, and the idea was to get them more involved. There was indiscriminate dumping of fish, chicken and vegetable waste in the region, which we put an end to. We have performed more than 32 rounds of cleanup, in the process getting rid of 110 tonnes of plastic waste from the lake area.
The next issue we tackled was sewage water. Many builders were disposing sewage into the lake, simply because they did not want to build an appropriate disposal line which would cost them money. People wrote to the GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) to get the drains legalised, basically out of the lake and into the sewage system. This greatly reduced the amount of sewage in the lake water. But in addition to this, sewage from the road was also overflowing into the lake. This was happening because of poor maintenance of sewage lines; we had to get hold of old city maps to locate manholes to clean up these lines. In some cases, roads were built over the manholes, which meant we had to break the road. We found three critical manholes in this manner that needed cleaning.
We also set up a small paddle aeration system on a floating island which is connected to a solar panel. This aerates the lake water. Changes in the water quality resulted in increased biodiversity, and we soon found fish in the water and the presence of migratory birds in the region. We are now planning to extend this work and do a complete restoration in collaboration with IICT (Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) Hyderabad and Khar Energy Optimisers, a private organisation. We aim to use phyto-remediation – a technique that uses plants to purify the water. We would also like to plant more greenery and create walk bridges for people to use.
Your initiative Rainwater Project was recently recognised by Ink@wash, a platform encouraging innovation in waste management and water conservation/sanitation. Please tell us about this project.
The initial idea was to create a network of plumbers and social entrepreneurs who would help people with their rainwater harvesting structures. SAHE, in collaboration with the JNTU (Jawaharlal Nehru Technological Institute), trained about 35 plumbers in a two-day workshop on rainwater harvesting techniques. We created a website where people could register a request for rainwater harvesting solutions, and someone from the network would pick up the query and help with the process. It was a well-rounded plan, but in reality, we ran into all kinds of issues. The queries were not properly addressed, or the budgets provided were very high. Issues and challenges kept cropping up, and I decided to take matters into my own hands and streamline the whole process.
I established the Rainwater Project, a social enterprise to help set up scientifically validated rainwater harvesting structures and provide maintenance services. I was joined in this endeavour by young entrepreneurs who are interested in making water conservation a priority. Think of this like Urban Clap (an e-portal connecting customers with professionals) for rainwater harvesting. We are also in touch with builders so that we can add water harvesting structures to upcoming and ongoing projects in the early stages of construction.
The other approach that we are looking at is involving school students. In a discussion with one of the schools in Hyderabad, we suggested that 250 students from the 7th and 8th grades become part of a water entrepreneurs program. They will be encouraged to come up with conservation ideas, some of which we will hone and implement. We also want to involve restaurants, theatres, colleges and schools in our water harvesting efforts, working in a phased manner through the city.
Community involvement has been at the heart of all your water conservation projects. How difficult was it for you to reach out to people?
Reaching out to people has always been very challenging. In my community, for example, people were convinced about conservation efforts only once all the bores in the neighbouring communities went dry. That is when they realised that the time to act is now. We constructed a few rainwater harvesting pits, injection bores and set up a treatment plant to recycle sewage water. Once people saw the impact and how it reduced the dependency on tankers, they were happy to do more. Unless people are personally affected by the crisis, they do not feel the need to act. They love the idea, but they are not aware of the amount of work these processes involve.
The problem is that we can afford water tankers, which distances us from the core of the issue. It may be convenient, but look at how much we end up spending – monthly power bills, tanker money and hospital bills because we are consuming contaminated groundwater. Only when people look at the economics and the health aspect, does it make sense to them. But that does not hit them right away. Sometimes I feel there has to be a drought for people to wake up.
If awareness is one thing, the awareness to do it right is another thing altogether. In relation to rainwater harvesting systems, people often complain that these pits which are meant for storage are not retaining water. This means you have to check the soil and understand the ground strata. These structures are often made because people want to just tick a box. My request to the urban dwellers is to pay attention to these structures. Build them the right way and make sure they are maintained.
Any interesting incidents that you would like to share from your journey?
I believe actions speak louder than words. I would like to share two incidents here to encourage the reader to act. There was a 20-year-old tea shop on the Kudikunta lake, which was an encroachment on the lake bund. We requested the shop owners to contribute by simply reducing their plastic consumption, which added to the plastic waste near the lake. But after one year, seeing our work in and around the lake, they decided to shut the shop. The second incident also took place at this lake. As we were working to make the lake sewage free, overnight, a new sewage line was introduced by a builder. On enquiring, we got to know that it was an OYO Rooms venture. I wrote an email to Ritesh Agarwal, founder of OYO, and he immediately connected me to the Telangana OYO head. In no time, the sewage line was removed, and a legal drain was constructed.
Both these incidents show that when you take a step in the right direction, people will follow suit. We don’t have 30-40 years to change things, whatever efforts we need to put in, we need to put in now. It is time for mass action.