Thursday, 16 February 2023

A day with Ramesh

Today we traveled to Chele Kere, a lake on the northeast corner of Bengaluru to meet with Ramesh, a well digger who we learned was Ramakrishna’s brother. He was working on digging 15 recharge wells for a park on the south side of the lake (13° 1' 31" N,  77° 38' 41" E). His crew had just started working in the area earlier that morning, but had already almost finished digging one well and had started on two others. The crushed rock had already been delivered and sat in several large piles nearby. We learned that while BBMP had facilitated the recharge wells, the funding actually came from the NGO United Way who found donors and contracted with Ramesh. He showed us around the area where the wells would go, indicating where soil with a cracked surface indicated that water had pooled in a low spot and dried up sometime in the past.

Digging a recharge well and cracked ground evidence of a low spot

We learned he employed 40 well diggers when he had work, but that he had spent the last month without and most of his crew had resorted to construction or general labor to make ends meet. He definitely felt pressure to find work to keep his crew busy so they could all provide for their families. He told us about a few of his previous projects, digging 300 recharge wells in Lalbagh Park last November and December and another digging 160 recharge wells in a layout. Those projects had provided a lot of reliable work for his crews and also gave him the opportunity to share his contact information with park visitors who had later contacted him to do several private wells.

Ramesh’s crew digging recharge wells

We left the park and, after a brief stop for an early lunch, we followed Ramesh to a well rejuvenation project northwest of Manchenahalli. An engineer had purchased 10 acres for a small herd of cows and wanted to rejuvenate the existing well. It had fallen into disrepair and been filled with silt, and debris. The top stone pitching had collapsed and it was overgrown with bushes and weeds. His crew had already cleared the brush and excavated down about 12 feet. The well was approximately 15 feet in diameter and Ramesh told us he thought it was about 30 feet deep.

Removing silt and debris from an old well

Unfortunately the project relied on power that was sourced from a nearby powerline that was used to power an electric winch and a pump to dewater the well. The power was only on from noon until 4 pm and after dark. This meant that the crew only had 4 hours to work a day with daylight, and it was during the hottest part of it. They had wired a lightbulb on the end of a stick to easily show if power was available. 

Whenever the bulb illuminated the crew would quickly pump the water out of the well and begin digging, filling up large rubber containers made from old bus tires  and using the electric winch to pull them to the surface where they were emptied before being sent back in the well for another load. They were making good progress until the power unexpectedly went out, stopping progress for 20 minutes. Everyone climbed out of the well and found shade until jumping back to work the moment the bulb was illuminated again.

We were able to interview Ramesh, between him helping his crew to make sure the pump was working properly and stopping to drink tender coconut water from fresh coconuts that a local villager brought out to the well. We gathered information for a well-digger biography as well as exploring any struggles he faced in his work. He mentioned he missed climbing down in the well and digging himself. He enjoys working on open wells, building new ones or rejuvenating old ones. He takes pride in his work and wants to leave a finished product that looks finished. He also has 2 children, but he’s unsure that they will follow his footsteps to be well diggers. 

Group picture with Ramesh’s rejuvenation crew

The power shut off promptly at 4pm and the crew was done for the day. They had made significant progress cleaning out approximately 8 feet of silt and debris from the well. We took some pictures with the crew and a closeup photo of Ramesh to use in his bio. A couple of his crew jumped the nearby fence to walk to a river that's a couple hundred metres away to rinse off from working in the mud. Before we left, Ramesh walked us to the opposite side of the property where we peered over the fence and saw a neighbor’s well that was overgrown. Ramesh was hoping he would be able to get the contract to rejuvenate that well while he was in the area.

18/2/23 Update:

Ramesh brought in a portable generator to enable a longer workday. At approximately 30 feet, the well narrowed to approximately 8 feet in diameter.

Photo of the narrow section of the well.

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Cubbon Park & Russell Market Well Visits

After a morning of classes, Sophia, Chloe, and I met up with Ayushi to visit several open wells in Cubbon Park and Russell Market. I had seen several open wells in Cubbon Park previously while exploring the park on a weekend and an employee from the NGO SayTrees had shown me a photo of the well in Russell Market after it had been rejuvenated. I was looking forward to seeing the wells, particularly the one in Russell Market as the photos I’d been shown of it were of a beautiful well that had been creatively restored.

We walked through Cubbon Park, stopping near a concrete lid that we thought might be a recharge well–a quick smell test quickly dispelled the notion as we realized it was just access to a sewer line. We then approached the first of 7 open wells inside the park. We were unable to get a water sample for TDS readings but we were able to lower a tape measure from under the leaf screen through the metal grate to gather a water level measurement for all but two of the wells. We struggled to find one of the wells, labeled on the map as “Cubbon Park Recharge Wells - Open Well Three. When we approached the location found on the map, what we found instead was a sprinkler trickling a small stream of water into a small depression–obviously not an open well.

The pinned location of “Open Well Three” and the actual well once we found it.

We continued walking through the park and stumbled across the missing well approximately 200 meters northwest from where it was pinned. We made note of its true location and measured its elevation, size, and depth of water below ground level. We finally made our way north to catch autos to go to Russell Market. After a brief ride, we arrived and began making our way to where the well was. As it came into view, I was immediately shocked to see garbage floating on the water surface inside the well.

The well was unique in that the nearby arterial, MF Norrena Street, encroached on the west side. A steel and concrete structure had been built to support the road over the edge of the well and a metal grate had been installed about three feet below ground level to prevent someone from falling in the well. There was a leaf screen over the metal grate but the water level in the well was high enough to cover the screen and grate with a couple inches of water.

Photo of Russell Market Well and of me measuring the TDS.

The water was close to the surface so we were able to reach down and test the TDS (317 PPM.) While doing so, several people wandered over, curious as to what we were doing. In our conversation with them, we discovered that the well is believed to predate the British in the city and that the British used the well’s water for their calvary’s horses. They told us that it was connected to 7 other wells in the area, but that some of them had been closed. It would be interesting to locate any of these other wells and verify their condition.

While we were talking around the well, a young boy with a large jug ran up, jumped down onto some garbage on top of the well’s grate, and filled the jug. I was surprised to see anyone using water from the well when the water’s surface was covered with litter. We asked him what the water was for as he climbed out with his jug of water, and he responded “washing clothes.” I was relieved that it wasn’t being used for drinking or cooking, But I found myself grateful that the well, despite not looking pristine, was still getting used by the community.

It’s been about a year and a half and the well is definitely cleaner than it was before being cleaned. But there remains a drastic contrast between it and the other rejuvenated wells we visited earlier in the day. I think one major difference that could lead to this is ownership. Nearly every well we monitored in Cubbon Park included a conversation with a park employee to ensure that we weren’t going to harm the well (or in one case, that I wouldn’t injure myself.) In Russell Market, There was no one around when we were there who had taken ownership of the well to make sure that it was maintained.

Since the visit, I have read several articles about the well’s rejuvenation. Despite the garbage, the well in Russell Market still remains beautiful, but it isn’t the spot that the articles I’ve read dreamed it would become. I think facilitating ownership by the community or by an individual might be key in transforming it into the idyllic place that it has the potential to be. Unfortunately I’m unsure as to the best way to achieve that.

Group photo of GCIL Interns with Ayushi in front of the market

Monday, 6 February 2023

Kodichikkanahalli Community Well Rejuvenation

Today we visited a well in Kodichikkanahalli where we got to witness our first well rejuvenation! This well is a public well that is 150+ years old. The well is about 50’ deep and 9’ in diameter. This well rejuvenation will not only clean out the well, but also add a tank and public tap so that community members will have free access to the well water for household needs. Currently, community members get municipal tap two days a week, so this well will be a great new water source for them. It was very interesting to be at the well for long enough to see the pile of trash from the bottom of the well grow and grow as bucket loads were removed. By the end of the day, Ramakrishna’s crew had removed the extent of the silt and garbage from the well. They would be returning the following day and that by that time it should be recharged to about 30’ of water. It will take a few more days to organize the pump and wiring to make sure the well is fully functional, then the community will be able to use their new well! 

An aerial view of the well during rejuvenation. Notice the bucket to remove silt and debris.

Ramakrishna and his crew standing in front of the well and behind the pile of silt and debris they removed from the well that day.

After speaking with a woman living near the well, we learned that the well used to be used by the community. She said that even just 30 years ago, the neighborhood used to be very forested, but rapid urbanization brought more water infrastructure, and the well fell into disuse. She expressed excitement about the well being rejuvenated and seemed very happy with how it was being executed so far.

We took our visit as an opportunity to also interview Ramakrishna for our well digger profiles that we are working on for Biome. As always, he was a pleasure to talk to and learn more about. He was very eager to talk about past jobs he has worked on, and also got into some of his difficulties finding well digging work until he was connected with Biome. He expressed extreme gratitude for all that Biome has taught him and the opportunities that have been brought to him after being affiliated with Biome. Ramakrishna also talked about his interest in old wells and how he enjoys the history behind them. As always, it was very inspiring to have a chance to speak with Ramakrishna and hear about his love for wells and how passionate he is about his job.

Jody, Chloe, and Sophia standing on the well with Ramakrishna and his crew.

It felt great to complete our first interview for our well digger profiles. All of us also had a great time learning about the rejuvenation process with Ramakrishna and found it very exciting. We are looking forward to meeting more of the well diggers in Bangalore!

This well is located at 12.8986625° N, 77.6157692° E.

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Lalbagh Park Visit

Today, we visited Lalbagh Park with Suma and Neelima. First, we visited our first step well, which is located near Lalbagh Lake. The well was rejuvenated by Biome this past year. It was previously contaminated with leaf litter and in need of desilting. Suma led the way along the outside of the well through piles of leaves, stomping to ward off any nearby snakes. We made our way safely to the well’s entrance, where we then navigated the ropes for the safety and shade nets that prevent debris from contaminating the open well. 

The entrance to the open step well at Lalbagh Park.

Once under the netting, we had a clear view of the 25 ft wide, 30 ft deep well with stairs descending down the sides, disappearing from view into murky water about 20 ft down. Jody adventurously made his way to the bottom of the stairs to take a TDS measurement (159 PPM), but I stayed at the top and even made sure to grip the wall when I had to go down a few more steps to be visible in a group photo. 

Jody, Chloe, Sophia, and Neelima in the open step well at Lalbagh Park.

After we emerged from the well, Suma took some time to give us more details on the ‘Million Wells for Bengaluru’ campaign. She explained that two of the main aims of the campaign are to create more public awareness about the shallow aquifer and to give livelihood to traditional well diggers. We have been learning a lot in the past few weeks about the importance of well diggers, so it was interesting to also hear about public knowledge of the shallow aquifer. While open wells connected to the shallow aquifer used to be a big water source, once Bangalore began getting water from the Cauvery River, people started using shallow aquifer water less and less. Now, many people do not understand the effectiveness of recharge wells and open wells. The campaign, with the help of Biome and many other NGOs, will hopefully help to bring back this public knowledge of wells so that people can make informed decisions about their water sources. 

We then visited two smaller open wells in the park. Suma explained that both of the wells were filled with lots of trash. One of them required 10-15 tractor loads of trash to be removed! We also heard a slightly happier story: that only two days after restoration of the last open well we saw, there was 10 ft of water in the well. She said that you just need the wells to be rejuvenated and the water will come.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

TC Halli, Tindlu, and Handenahalli School Rainwater Harvesting Systems

Today, we visited three government schools in Bangalore, focusing on their different rainwater harvesting systems. All three of these systems had been installed in the last year. The first school we visited was TC Halli Government School. This school is an example of a sloped roof rainwater harvesting system. We learned that Biome had helped to install a rainwater filter, underground sump tank (4400L capacity), recharge well (3’ wide, 20’ deep), and a new overhead water tank for the roof. The school has a pre-existing borewell that they still use. Rainwater and borewell water are both used for daily use such as cleaning, gardening, dish washing, toilets, hand washing, etc. The handwash station was replaced to reduce water loss from dishwashing, and resistors were installed in the taps. The school uses RO water for drinking and cooking.

Toilet unit, showing the gutter connections to the rainwater filter, as well as the handwash station.

Left: Sump tank. Right: Recharge well.

The second school we visited was Tindlu Government School, which uses a flat roof rainwater harvesting system. Similar infrastructure was installed at this school. Since the roof area is reasonably large, the underground sump tank had a much greater capacity, at 12000L. A rainwater filter and recharge well (4’ wide, 20’ deep) were installed, as well as a handwashing station. Resistors for the taps were installed during our visit. This school also uses RO water for drinking and cooking, but meets all other water needs with either rainwater or borewell water. While we were at Thindlu the headmaster and students were very welcoming and also invited us to visit the school’s art room, where we saw some very impressive artwork!


Left: Recharge well. Right: Sump tank and hand wash station. 

Rainwater filter. Y-joint shown.

Student art classroom.

Our last visit was to Handenahalli Government School, which is an example of a flat roof rainwater harvesting system utilizing an above ground sump tank with a capacity of 5000L. This school also had a newly installed rainwater filter and recharge well. Similar to the previous schools, this school used RO water for drinking and cooking, and borewell or rainwater for other purposes. We observed students washing their dishes after lunch in the new handwash station fixed to the sump tank. Resistors were also installed during our visit. To end our day, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of rice and sambar with the school’s headmaster and teachers. 

Students using the new handwash station. Above ground sump tank and rainwater filter are visible behind.

Borewell and recharge well.

Overall, this was a very informative day and it was very interesting to see three new and different rainwater harvesting systems. It was great to see the student’s interactions with these systems as well. We learned that in many schools, they will train students to take care of the recharge well and sump tank, which we saw at Thindlu. Bhavani explained that the youth are the future of water conservation and that starting water education in schools can hopefully shape behavior at home as well.

Friday, 27 January 2023

Well Documentation Near Madiwala Lake

 Today we went to south eastern Bengaluru to meet with Neelima at Madiwala Lake. There we met with a well digger, Ramakrishna, who had been instrumental in digging several new wells and deepening another in the area. The first well was used for the nearby public bathrooms and for landscaping. The well was also used to recharge the groundwater by directing the rain from the bathroom roof into a silt trap and then into the well. When we looked in the well, we noticed that there was a small amount of leafy debris that had gotten through the mesh covering the well and was floating among a murky film on the surface. Ramakrishna was frustrated to see the well that he had worked so hard on wasn’t being properly maintained. He pointed to the bathroom roof that had leaves and foliage on it indicating that the lack of maintenance extended beyond the well. The vegetation on the roof, he explained, would block the gutters, clog the silt trap, and lower the water quality in the well if not cleared off before a rain.

Ramakrishna peering into the well with film floating on the surface, foliage on the
bathroom roof that needs to be cleared off.

We wanted to record some data about the well including water depth below ground level, well depth, well width, TDS (total dissolved solids), well use, etc. Neelima had brought a TDS meter, and we already had a tape measure, but we had forgotten to bring anything to collect a water sample with. A brief look around found the bottom of an old plastic bottle and some twine that we used to lower the bottle into the water. The TDS was slightly above optimum range but the water smelled clean, albeit slightly discolored. We measured the rest of the available data and asked Ramakrishna about the soil conditions he encountered when the well was dug. I was impressed by his detailed memory and knowledge–even a year after he had dug the well. 

Measuring the TDS of the first well and looking out over the beautiful Madiwala Lake

As we walked to the next well by the lake, Ramakrishna quickly passed us on his motorcycle. I was a bit surprised as he rode past the park entrance onto the smaller pedestrian path just past the park security guard. Neelima explained that the entire community loved Ramakrishna because of the wells he had dug in the area, they would let him do anything. The next well had a beautiful square stone wall covered with a metal grate and more mesh to keep leaves out. When we got there, we saw Ramakrishna sweeping all of the vegetation off of the mesh to ensure that it was clean. Neelima said that he regularly will return to wells he’s worked on, unpaid, just to make sure they are being maintained and to offer advice to stakeholders if the wells needed anything. We measured the water elevation and Ramakrishna turned on the submersible pump to get us a water sample. He guided us around a building, showing us another recharge well he’d dug. Before we left, we took several photos of us standing in front of the stone well.

The water at the second well looked much cleaner-and had a lower TDS. Group photo of us with Ramakrishna.

We walked to a nursery where we saw the last well near the lake. He had remodeled it from a shallow recharge well into a deeper well that could be used to water the nursery’s plants. It was 10 feet in diameter and Ramakrishna explained what we couldn’t see; during the rejuvenation, in addition to desilting the 10 foot well, Ramakrishna had dug a smaller 13 feet deep, 5 foot diameter well in the bottom of the original well for a total depth of over 20 feet. As if to illustrate this, The nursery worker came over with a piece of string tied to a rock and lowered it into the edge of the well to show us how deep the water was. There was only 3 feet of water. Ramakrishna took the rope from him and swung the rock out to the center of the well, dropping it with a splash. It sank much further, proving the presence of the smaller well. When he pulled it up, he measured the length of the rope by holding it up to the tip of his nose. When I laughed, he looked at me and said “five feet” and indicated he wanted me to check. I used our tape and measured 5’ on the nose–excuse the pun.

The 10 foot well with the submerged 5 foot well in the bottom.

Neelima joined us in our taxi and directed our driver to a delicious restaurant for breakfast where we were joined by Ramakrishna. The food was amazing. During breakfast, Ramakrishna scrolled through photos on his phone, showing us different wells he had dug and examples of different soil types he had encountered while digging some of these wells. In one example, he showed a photo where the well had been dug through 8 different vibrant colors of soil in only a few meters depth. Another showed a unique well he had dug with a local university to gather samples of buried flora from differing depths. A photo looking up from the bottom of a deep, narrow well proved that this wasn’t an occupation for the claustrophobic.

After breakfast we went to what is thought to be one of the oldest wells in Bengaluru. It’s an unassuming stone well nestled between small homes next to a busy street. It was covered with a rusty metal grate and had litter floating in the water inside. Ramakrishna explained he had planned to remove the garbage and desilt the well in the past few weeks but due to an electrical problem with his pump, he had been forced to postpone and hoped to get it done next week. We again measured the TDS and water level, this time putting a small amount of water in a bacteria testing vial to determine if the water is safe, as the community would like to use the well water for drinking. The water in the vial should turn black within 48 hours if the water is unsafe.

The old stone well, a sample of the water we pulled from it, and the bacterial testing vial.

Lastly, we went to the home of an IT worker who had contacted Biome about groundwater seeping into his basement garage. The home was constructed 10 years ago and the entire neighborhood is built on a filled-in historical lakebed. During construction, two borewells were dug to depths over 900 feet, and both were dry, indicating that the deep aquifer is very far below the ground surface. Due to groundwater encountered during construction of the home and the presence of a shallow aquifer, an open well had also been dug to provide water for construction which is still used for flushing toilets and landscaping. Neelima suggested having the well water tested to see if it could be used for more activities such as cleaning, laundry, and possibly even drinking after minor filtration. Any additional water that could be used out of the well might lower the groundwater and potentially eliminate the seepage. Other options that were discussed involved much more work and the associated cost could quickly skyrocket.

As we left the home, we saw a water truck delivering water to homes just up the road. It was fascinating to see multiple different water issues all in one small area: dry bore wells, flooding basements, and a lack of available water requiring the truck. It was a fitting finale to a day where we’d seen wells in various stages of maintenance being used to manage water sustainably in several different ways. I think we all gained a greater appreciation for some of the water problems facing Bengaluru and some of the solutions being implemented.

Before we said goodbye to Ramakrishna, I asked about worker safety. How does he check for bad air before descending in a well? He explained they lowered a lit candle, if it stayed lit, that meant there was oxygen and it was safe. I also asked how he ensured that the wells won’t collapse on his crew as they are digging. He replied that well diggers understood the stability of the soils that they work in. They could tell which soils risked collapse and which were safe. They know the geology of the areas that they work in to such a degree that they can generally anticipate if a well can be dug safely and even provide an estimate as to the depth of well needed to reach groundwater. He mentioned that they appreciated harder soils even though it required them to use heavy metal bars to break up the ground, as it meant the soil wouldn’t collapse.

I find myself wondering how we can best capture and record all of the information that the well diggers have. Their knowledge of the different soil types, the geology under Bengaluru, the understanding of how and where groundwater flows under and through the city. How can their experience be shared with others working in the field to maximize efforts to bring about sustainable solutions that can be used to solve the problems that we are facing. The amount of expertise that is available is staggering, and it would be a waste to not take advantage of it or, even worse, lose it.

A water sample was taken from the old well at 12°53'55.2"N 77°36'56.8"E and used for a bacteria test:

After 48 hours
After 72 hours

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

School Rain Water Harvesting System

Today, Chloe and I started out the day by meeting Rakshitha at Sonnappanahalli Government School. We jumped right into learning about the rooftop rainwater harvesting system that had been installed by Biome. This system starts out by collecting rainwater from the roof of the school, which is then fed into a pipe system that leads to a Y-joint. The Y-joint allows for rainwater from the first rain that may be contaminated by debris on the roof to be diverted to a reject pipe. After the first rain, once the roof surface is clean, the rest of the water is directed through the other arm of the “Y” to a filter that directs the rainwater through three layers of filtration media: larger stones, charcoal, and smaller stones. After filtration, the water flows into an underground sump tank with a 12000L capacity. Rakshitha explained that this capacity is determined by analyzing annual average rainwater volume. The water in the sump tank then goes into a recharge well that is 4’ in diameter and 15’ in depth. Upon inspection, the recharge well seemed to have very clear water! 

The rainwater harvesting system’s Y-joint and filter.

It was very exciting to see a rainwater collection system in use and Rakshitha was very detailed in her explanation of the system. We also learned that before the rainwater system was installed, the school was facing water scarcity and was getting water from tankers, which is quite costly. Currently, the school uses water from the recharge well for washing dishes, gardening, and other cleaning uses. The rainwater would be safe for drinking if it were boiled, but the school still uses reverse osmosis water for drinking purposes, as do many peri-urban areas of Bangalore. The water collected from this rainwater harvesting system is currently meeting the school’s needs for about 100 days out of the year. 

I loved being able to see the implementation of a rainwater system and it was very fascinating to see how the school uses it. It made me very excited to visit other schools next week and see how their rainwater harvesting systems have been implemented and how they are using them. 

After a nice lunch, we headed to an open well nearby. To our excitement, Mr. Shankar, a well digger who we had met briefly the previous day, was at the well we were visiting. This was quite a nice surprise, as he was very eager to share information and insights about the well. This was probably the largest well I had yet seen, at 25’ in diameter and 65’ in depth! Mr. Shankar passionately showed us many aspects of the well, including two small spouts of water entering the well from the shallow aquifer, which demonstrated that the water table was rising above the well’s current water level. This well is currently providing water to a nearby hotel, college, and a couple of apartment buildings, with plans to also pump water to the nearby village, consisting of about 200 residents.  We then traveled a few hundred meters away to another well of similar size. To Chloe’s, Rakshitha’s, and my horror, Mr. Shankar immediately began walking around on top of the metal grate covering the well opening. After some words and encouragement from Mr. Shankar and his jumping up and down to prove to us the structural integrity of the grate, we joined him on the grate for a photo. I can now say that I have stood on top of a 100 year old well! 

Chloe, Mr. Shankar, and I on top of the second open well we visited.

With the combined knowledge from Rakshitha and Mr. Shankar, I learned lots and am looking forward to more visits like these. It was very inspiring to spend time with Mr. Shankar and see how undeniably passionate he is about his work. This last open well visit wrapped up our first Wednesday with Biome, and I couldn’t be more excited for the many days to come!