Homes and gardens

Let’s go back to the open well

The open or dug well has served humanity for millennia. One of the oldest wells found in Germany dates back to 7000 years and more. In India itself, wells have been found in the Harappan civilisation sites such as Lothal and Dholavira.

Till the advent of borewells in the late 60s and early 70s, open wells were the only source of water. The advantage of the open well being that it could be dug with simple tools. In fact a community of people called the Od’s or Vaddars continue the practice of digging wells from centuries till date.

The open well made groundwater visible. It provided water but also communicated the availability of the resource varying by the season and by the year of good rainfall or bad. Humans had to change their behaviour based on the resource availability. Water had to be used with discretion in summer time till the advent of the rains and recharge.

Common practice

The open well also rewarded good behaviour. If a percolation tank was dug close by and rainwater harvested, the well would fill up and stay full for a longer time. This was in fact a common practice. To build tanks and to use the full well for both drinking water and for irrigation.

The well punished you for bad behaviour. If you put heaps of garbage nearby or allowed cow dung pits nearby the well would be polluted. Social fencing came up around the well. People took off their footwear before drawing water and never threw any garbage of waste into it. With the advent of the borewell, groundwater became an invisible resource. Now we no longer knew how much of it is there below the ground, how much we could use, how was it filled and what was the quality of the water.

Fluoride and arsenic started to appear the deeper we went in search of more and more water. It is common in South India to see borewell companies advertise that they have rigs which can drill up to 1,800 feet .

The borewell culture also meant that we started to tap the fossil water: groundwater which had taken centuries to accumulate now being used up at the rate of hours and minutes.

The end result of all this frenzied extraction and use of groundwater is that we may have more than 33 million borewells extracting more than 250 of water, making us the largest user of groundwater in the world by far and one whose dependency on it is now more than 65% of all water needs.

What does the future effort entail? We must go back to the culture of the open well. We must dig many such wells and tanks and recharge rainwater to fill our aquifers. We must reduce our extraction of groundwater to well below what is annually recharged.

A sensible water civilisation will discover the physical limits of water use , limit it to a certain portion of the rainfall in a year and begin to use and reuse water efficiently to turn things around.

Good job

The Vaddar community is doing just that in the city of Bengaluru and elsewhere. They are digging recharge wells and making sure that both rooftop and surface run-off is filtered and led into these wells.

The city of Bengaluru has 400,000 borewells. We need twice the number of recharge wells all connected to clean catchments, picking up rain, preventing urban flooding and placing the waters to slake the thirst of mother earth.

Water wisdom is in understanding the limits to the use of water, the importance of groundwater and rainwater, and working with skilled people and communities in replenishing and renewing the resource while reducing demand to sustainable proportions .

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 11:49:53 AM |

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