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February 2007

 

A central water organisation for the Auroville area: luxury or necessity?

- Carel

With the completion of the Matrimandir and the resumption of land purchase, Auroville is on the verge of a leap forward.
But what is the solution for Auroville's and the region's water problems?

The contamination and depletion of the ground water resources of Auroville and the surrounding region have been of concern for many years. In 2002, Auroville's Water Harvest in collaboration with several French scientists studied the reasons for the groundwater contamination in the Kaluvelly watershed. In 2003, German engineer Harold Kraft presented a proposal for an integrated water management for Auroville. As Kraft's report had not taken into account the needs of the surrounding villages, several other reports followed. In September 2004, a self-appointed ‘Auroville Water Group' organised a seminar on ‘Sustainable water resources management for Auroville and its Bioregion' in the Tibetan Pavilion. The seminar was followed by a visit of the President of India to Auroville in November 2004. The President expressed his confidence “that Auroville, in cooperation with other organisations, will be able to find a lasting solution to the water problems of the region.”

Since then, the Water Group has been focussing on two lines of action. One is to order a pre-feasibility study on available water resources for Auroville and its bioregion. This report is being made by Dutch engineer Jeen Kootstra. A second focus is to study how a water organisation for Auroville in conjunction with surrounding villages could take shape. This work has been undertaken by another Dutch national, Eri Salomé. Both projects are funded by Vitens, a Dutch water supply company. Vitens is also funding a pilot project for an integrated water supply system for the nearby village of Kottakarai .

In mid January 2007, Eri Salomé presented the report on his work. His main conclusions are that water sustainability for the area is still a far-fetched concept and that a central water organisation that deals with all aspects of water management in Auroville and the surrounding villages is required. Groundwater in the Auroville region is being over-exploited; while Auroville's regional reforestation and rainwater harvesting work have made an impact, groundwater depletion still exceeds recharge. Awareness of the need for water conservation is minimal and no regulations exist to minimize over-consumption. A central water organisation for the region should ensure an improved and continuous water supply, proper rainwater harvesting, demand management for households, industry and agriculture, and waste water and solid waste management. The initiative for such an organisation, writes Salomé, should come from Auroville.

‘The elephant’, the first truly collective water tower. Photo by Shiraz.The situation in Auroville

Even though Aurovilians wherever possible recycle their waste water and most houses have some sort of rainwater harvesting system, most Aurovilians tend to use too much water. Consumption patterns are excessive [see box]. “Auroville, recognized by the Government of India as ‘one of India 's spiritual gifts to the world,' should do better,” says Salomé. “There is a particular laziness in not adopting water saving practices in households, and many Aurovilians do not sufficiently realise that they should function as an example to the surrounding villages.”

Individual initiatives

The absence of a central water organisation in Auroville is perhaps a major reason why high water consumption has never been checked. Auroville's growth has been organic and has only to a very limited extent been guided by the Master Plan. Almost every community has developed its own water supply consisting of a well and a pump, powered by a windmill or electricity connection, and in some cases, by a standby generator. In the course of time the astonishing number of 186 wells have been dug, most of which draw groundwater from the same aquifer. As each community carries the complete costs of water supply, a sense of ‘ownership' has developed. Currently, each community decides how to share water and pay for the expenses of the water supply – most often only electricity charges, occasionally including a small operation and maintenance budget. Whenever a system breaks down, the community residents have to pool resources to install a new one. There is no central support.

Collective approaches

Some communities have now opted for a more collective water supply. A major development was the building of the collective water system nicknamed ‘the elephant'. The system, fed by four wells, has underground and overhead water tanks and now supplies water to 6 communities. Other collective approaches have been initiated by the Auroville Planning and Development Council (APDC) and its predecessor, the Interim Development Council. They banned the drilling of new wells without permission and pre-financed new wells in the Residential Zone so that more houses could be built. The APDC also suggested studying whether it is feasible that water from the groundwater-rich Auromodèle area be used to supply the city, which is groundwater-scarce. The APDC's ‘Water Awareness Team' (WAT) has started an awareness campaign to make Aurovilians conscious about their water usage.

All these collective initiatives have naturally led to the question should Auroville not have its own central water organisation to regulate supply. Though the need for it is increasingly being acknowledged, the idea has also evoked negative responses. Quite a few Aurovilians are reluctant to lose control of ‘their' water supply and be dependent on an organisation outside the boundaries of their community.

The situation around Auroville

From the discussions of Salomé with presidents of the panchayats (village councils) of the villages around Auroville, it appeared that Auroville's water situation is heaven compared to that in the villages. Village distribution systems are all in poor shape, are often abused and fail frequently. House connections hardly exist; instead the villagers rely on public taps that provide water for a few hours each day. Ammas and children carry water home in plastic kujas. At the tap they have to wait their turn. Many villagers fear lack of water. The water quality is poor due to poor distribution systems: effluents from leaking sanitary facilities or contamination from solid waste and chemicals used in agriculture find their way into the water. In most villages, water quality is also bad due to saltwater intrusion into the groundwater.

Ideally, say the panchayat leaders, people should have house connections; in practice, they would already be happy with more public taps. All panchayats welcome intervention from Auroville and believe that Auroville should help, not only by installing proper water distribution systems to meet increasing demand, but also in creating more awareness of the need to protect the water sources and open ponds of the villages from pollution. Salomé warns that as the situation in the villages is so much different from Auroville – a water consumption of 40 lcd (litres per capita per day) against the Auroville average of 250-300 lcd – social unrest may occur if the differences remain too large for too long.

‘More water' is also a focal point for the authorities from Puducherry and Tamil Nadu. They are not only aware of the depletion of the water resources, but also have to meet an ever-increasing demand. Their focus is on implementing groundwater recharge programmes by making rain water harvesting mandatory, promoting the renovation of ancient water tanks and promoting the recycling of grey water. To a limited extent they are involved in demand management, particularly by promoting alternative irrigation methods and growing less water- demanding crops. “Regional authorities are generally very limited in their possibilities due to the political impact of nearly every action and limited budgets,” writes Salomé. They are well aware that the main cause of groundwater depletion is the free electricity provided to farms and the lack of incentives to save water or electricity. But no politician is willing to face riots because of imposing charges on electricity consumption in agriculture, however minimal.

When talking about the position of Auroville in regional water management, village panchayats and regional authorities alike emphasise that Auroville could and should set an example. As a first step, the pilot project in Kottakarai [see box], if proven successful, should be duplicated in other villages. At a later stage, a full involvement of Auroville in the water supply of the villages would be welcomed.

A central water supply rganisation

“The giant challenge of managing water resources in a sustainable way in Auroville and its surrounding villages,” writes Salomé, “can only be met by a strong water organisation that is respected not only in Auroville but also by the villages and regional authorities.” Increasingly, water is the guiding principle in the development of regions. Administrative boundaries are not relevant. Shortages and pollution of ground water are collective problems. Moreover, the wider region around Auroville will develop at a fast pace. Large projects such as the extension of Puducherry airport, the extension of the Buckingham Canal and the new railway line connecting Puducherry to Mahabalipuram and Chennai will have a tremendous impact on the urbanisation of the region. “Auroville,” writes Salomé, “cannot be permitted to fail developing an organisation that can defend its interest.” Such a central water organisation should ultimately take responsibility for all aspects of water management, not only in Auroville, but also its surroundings.

The organisation could start small to prove its viability. External funds can be raised to kick-start a diversely qualified six-member team. Within Auroville, it could start where the water supply is under threat and where new developments are planned. Gradually, it should take over and link community water supply schemes and plan the development of water resources and a water supply network for the future city. It would be responsible for water savings campaigns, set standards for water budget per capita, and develop an all-Auroville financial strategy including setting proper water fees.

Ultimately, the organisation should also be responsible for proper rain water harvesting, waste water management and groundwater recharge.

Around Auroville, the organisation should first be involved in the Kottakarai integrated water supply project to develop expertise in dealing with the surrounding villages. Afterwards, it can expand. From the outset, however, it should be authorised to represent Auroville – at a later stage the surrounding villages – to regional and national authorities.

It may be a long haul. But, says Salomé, chaos is the only alternative and delay is a luxury Auroville can no longer afford. The organisation should be part of Auroville's structure soon – preferably well within two years.

Water usage in Auroville

Based on figures from the years 2004 and 2005, an average consumption of 180 litres per capita per day (lcd) has been calculated. This figure, however, is estimated and not based on meter readings – many communities do not have a water meter installed and those that have complain that the water meters fail after a few months to provide reliable readings, due to turbidity in the rainy season and sludge deposits.

Detailed water use figure from water meters in Auromodèle community show a much higher average usage of 300 lcd. The Invocation water system, calculated for a usage of 150-200 lcd, also supplies an average of 300-350 lcd. Both cite water usage by domestic staff and for gardening as reasons for these figures..

The Kraft study used the figure of 150 lcd; the Auroville 2004 Master Plan assumed 200 lcd: 130 lcd for domestic requirements and 70 lcd for gardening, construction etc. Indian city standards are 135 lcd, European city standards 125 lcd or less.

 

Auroville Foundation initiatives

The Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, Mr. Ramaswamy, has announced that he intends to propose and get funding for the implementation of a water organisation that would be in charge of the water sourcing, storage and supply of an Auroville population of 5000 people, the coastal villages of Chinnamudaliyarchavadi, Periyamuda-liyarchavadi and Bommaiyarpalayam, and the inland villages of Kuilalapalayam, Edaiyanchavadi, Kottakarai, Irumbai, sanjeevinagar, Alankuppam and Rayapettai.

 

The Kottakarai integrated water supply project

The neighbouring village of Kottakarai supplies water twice a day for about half an hour. The water quality is poor. The water infrastructure is bad and there is pollution as effluents from bad sanitation, poor solid waste management and chemicals used in agriculture leak into the damaged distribution network.

The project covers all water aspects: water distribution, sanitation, water harvesting, irrigation, reuse of water, and solid waste management. Awareness and involvement of the villagers is a main component. Not included is how to use less water for agriculture.
The Kottakarai integrated water supply project, funded by Vitens, will take about one year. After that, it may be extended to include two other villages. This will require the interlinking of village ponds, developing rainwater harvesting systems on a regional scale, and constructing collective waste water and solid waste treatment systems. In this phase, farmers will also be assisted to develop interest and find funding for sophisticated water reduction systems and growing special crops that require less water. In this way, the first overall water management organisation in rural Tamil Nadu will be created.

 

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