Micro Solutions To India'S Macro Problems - Part 3 (6 June 2014)
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Micro solutions to India's Macro problems - part 3 (6 June 2014)

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Senior Technical Writer
When we look around, it looks as though there is no area in this country that is free of inequities. Education, housing, water, transport, waste management - every field has a problem that looks too huge to ever be solved. At such times, maybe, one could be forgiven for the 'India ka kuchh nahin ho sakta' syndrome - a very depressing thought indeed!

Then comes the thought that where there is a problem there is a solution too. Maybe, not an obvious solution, nor, maybe a conventional one, maybe not even a complete one, but a solution none-the-less.

This is the third in a series of blogs "Micro solutions to India's Macro problems", where I have made an attempt to look at some of the nagging problems that we, as a country, seem to be losing out to.

Darkness exists only when there is no light. As soon as we create light, the darkness is dispelled. Everybody knows this.

What if we did not know that something called 'light' exists? We would not know how to remove the darkness - would we? Darkness would, then, be an unsurmountable problem.

We have all read about how man must have discovered fire by accident. Two suitable objects scrapping against each other created a spark, which must have then ignited some combustible material and created a fire. He must have soon realized that the fire had two properties that could be useful - heat and light. In all likelihood, it must have been a twilight fire that showed him that its property of light gave him the ability to see even when the sun was no longer in the sky. That it could be used to cook meat might have been another accidental discovery when a piece of meat fell into some embers and came out easier to eat!

Before he saw fire for the first time, could he have even imagined that such a thing existed? And that it could help extend visibility in the absence of the sun? Before he discovered these uses, could he have even imagined that such a thing as cooking food and seeing in the dark were possible?

And before he found out these uses, wouldn't darkness and tough meat have seemed like insurmountable problems?

Water, flood and drought seem like similar insurmountable problems today. An exploding population, increasing concentration in urban areas, while water resources remain constant, seems like problems we can never solve!

But are they really unsolvable? Could it not be that conventional thinking is limiting us and preventing us from finding a simple solution to tackle a major part of these problems?

Taken as a whole, India has enough water for all its needs. The problem arises from the seasonal availabity, and distribution inequalities. Whereas, the monsoon brings copious rains to several parts of the country, there are other areas that remain bone dry for decades even during the monsoon. There are river belts that have plentiful water all the year round and others that have excess water only during certain times of the year. If we could normalise these imbalances, we could go a long way towards solving a part of our water woes.

The government today has resurrected the river linking project once mooted decades ago. Whether it is a feasible project, how long it will take to start and complete it, are all yet to be seen. In the meantime, the general public faces its daily water shortage with stoic silence.

Is there something that can be done now, to, if not solve, at least, improve our water availability issues?

Solving the water problem has, in the past, always involved building dams. Building of dams always seems to create strife between people in the upper and lower reaches of rivers. The decades long, unsettled dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is a case in point, of a solution creating problems in its wake. Dams, being large structures that have the ability to completely deny water to the people in the lower reaches, sow the roots of the strife.

What if we could achieve the same effect that dams achieve today, without building dams? What if, some of the water, could be conserved and stored along the entire length of the river, without building dams, and the rest could flow unimpeded on its natural course? Would that not give a more equitable distribution of available water?

Is that even possible - you'd ask! And I'd say - eminently so!

In the olden days, temples always had a pond next to it. Most villages, even when situated close to rivers, had small ponds where water was collected and stored. A concept similar to these could be a quick fix solution that could help manage our water crisis while the bigger projects run their course. It could help us harness the excess water that our monsoon brings and make it available to areas that experience less abundance! In fact, we already have an example of this in the canal systems that are bringing water for irrigation to farmers in several states.

Building canals is something we already have experience in. If this capabilty could be used to create small and medium sized water bodies away from the main river systems, India as a whole could accrue multiple benefits, ranging from expanding areas for agriculture, fighting soaring temperatures in the hotter regions of the country, to reducing flooding and alleviating drought. Keeping the water bodies small would also prevent geological instabilities.

Most of the rivers in northern India flood every year. The level beyond which a river becomes a dangerous force is well known.We could use the existing knowledge about canal building and combine it with our knowledge of what levels of water in rivers are safe to work together to solve our flood/drought connundrum.

Is it not possible to create spill-over canal systems that begin diverting the excess water shortly before the water levels reach the danger mark?

Is it not possible to create shallow channels (not concrete canals) well above the level of the riverbed, but below the danger level, so that, as soon as the monsoon fills the river to a predetermined level, water automatically spills over into these canals? These canals could lead to artificial water bodies created well beyond the usual flood plains.

Several such off shoot canals, strategically built along the lengths of the rivers which are prone to flooding, could potentially begin removing excess water long before it can reach danger levels. I am sure once this concept is implemented, it can be refined further, based on the impact achieved. In fact, this could be extended into a grid of interlinked small and medium water bodies that serially get the spill-off when the primary water body fills up almost to the brim.

Neither the channels nor the water bodies need be concrete structures. They could mimic natural streams and ponds, without rigid sides or bottoms. Cost of creating these channels and ponds could be greatly reduced by leaving the bottoms and sides like those of natural streams and ponds. This would have the additional benefit of allowing the water to percolate through the soil and improve its quality. Where these canals pass over aquifers, percolation would aid in recharging them.

In effect, rather than linking the rivers, we could extend the reach of the rivers safely, to include more and more areas, and to gain benefits from the water that would otherwise create havoc.

  • In the long term, besides reducing the extent of flooding, a large volume of water that would otherwise run into the sea, could be distributed to the parched areas of the country.
  • Building of the canals could generate short term employment.
  • New water bodies could, over a period of time raise ground water, promote the growth of vegetation, aid a little in reforestation and add to the efforts to counter global warming.
  • As more and more areas became green, more land could be made habitable, aerable .....
  • And best of all, it would only be the excess water that gets tapped, leaving the normal course of the river undisturbed and areas in the lower reaches unaffected!

The possibilities are immense.... We have two opposing problems that could be partially solved using one solution - the problem of floods in some areas and the problem of drought in others. Separately, these problems seem insurmountable, as they are really vagaries of nature, but tackled as two sides of the same coins, could be tackled with a single solution.

All it would need is a little effort from citizens and a little interest from the powers that be.