By Jena Laske
November 6, 2019
Once known as the Garden City for its lush green landscape, Bengaluru’s fresh water is fast disappearing. Lakes have gone dry due to development and drought. Rapid urbanization has led to green spaces being razed for infrastructure projects and residences. Groundwater is vanishing.
With government authorities unable to meet growing water demands, an ancient community of well diggers are being called upon to help. They’re using their hands, along with their knowledge of soil and rock to build open wells that channel rainwater back into the ground.
“These barefoot hydrologists are Bengaluru’s hope for restoring its fast sinking groundwater table,” said Shubha Ramachandran of Biome Environmental Trust, a nonprofit local group established in 2007 that specializes in solving the city’s water crises by inspiring community action and informing government policy. The Trust conceived the initiative One Million Wells for Bengaluru to replenish the shallow aquifers and to conserve water in periods of drought.
This return to primitive water harvesting techniques to solve a modern water crisis is timely. Nearly 40 percent of city residents rely on groundwater to meet their needs. Estimates report that Bengaluru, with a population of 12 million, will run out of groundwater in 2020.
Well digging is a traditional skill passed on by family members over generations. Long before a central authority piped water into the city, the mannu vaddar (soil priests) dug, built and maintained open wells. “Open wells were a cultural treasure that merged art, mythology, architecture and hydrogeology,” said Ramachandran. The nature of the open well created sustainable water use because people observed the level of the water and understood seasonal variations in supply – that is, until modernization and technology changed things.
“When piped water came to the city and water started being managed by an authority, people didn’t see open wells as trustworthy sources of water anymore,” explained Ramachandran. Neglect filled the open wells with trash and other contaminates.
Popularized by technology in the 1980s, borehole and tube wells drilled farther, faster and deeper to access groundwater. In communities where municipal pipes didn’t reach, boreholes became the chosen well. Open wells were forgotten. The Bhovis, masters of the soil, retreated into farming and other earth work.
Bengaluru experienced explosive growth of private tube wells over the last 20 years – from about 5,000 to more than 300,000 (Jan-Olof and Sharatchandra, 2017). The municipal authority did little to regulate groundwater extraction. It didn’t take long before wells ran dry.
Biome Environmental Trust started looking at what the community could do to meet the water demands that government was unable to meet. The Trust began an education campaign to teach about the cultural tradition of open wells. They published comic books about bore wells, water conservation and rooftop rainwater harvesting. They informed government policy which encouraged households to reduce and reuse water and mandated that properties of a certain land mass in designated areas would provide recharge wells.
These shifting government policies and changing public perceptions have revived the Bhovis’ traditional livelihoods. It takes a team of four to five men anywhere from two to 10 days for an entire operation. “Digging these wells requires a certain kind of strength and skill because they are deep – beyond 10 to 15 feet,” said Ramachandran. “It’s a tricky job.”
The Bhovis’ believe that no machine can match the techniques of their hands which dig a well perfectly with water percolating from all sides (Biome Environmental Trust, 2019). Yet, exploration is underway to try and mechanize the process. “Eventually some kind of technology is likely to replace their work,” she said.
Returning to the old method of well digging is not without challenges. The shift from open wells to bore wells left a gap in knowledge. The youth of the trade do not have the same understanding of soil as their elders, notes Ramachandran. Additionally, it is more desirable to get an education and an office job than to continue the well digging tradition. “You have to catch them quick before they leave,” she said.
Given the generational shift and propensity for technological solutions, it is not clear how long the well diggers’ trade will last. For now, one well at a time, the barefoot Bhovis are helping quench Bengaluru’s thirst.
To learn more about Biome Environmental Trust and the work of the Bhovis visit http://biometrust.org/
(2019) Our Open Well Heritage. Biome Environmental Trust.
(2019) Randchandran, S. Personal Interview. Biome Environmental Trust.
(2017) Jan-Olof Drangert, & Sharatchandra, Addressing urban water scarcity: Reduce, treat and reuse – the third generation of management to avoid local resources boundaries. Water Policy, 19 (5), 978-996.
Photo credit: Biome Environmental Trust