By Sirus Libeiro, Ph.D. Candidate, City and Regional Planning

University of Pennsylvania

September 3, 2019


Fig 1: Field study site (Highlighted)

In recent months, the concern over the fast depleting reserves of both ground and surface water in India has come to the front. According to the Composite Water Quality Index Report (2018), more than 600 million people are exposed to ‘high to acute’ water stress in the country. The scenario is not so different at the international scale as well, with a quarter of the world’s population subjected to a similar risk. In particular, the acute groundwater stress and its relationship with supplying dense urban centers in India have been highlighted. There has been a call for urgent action to formulate a roadmap for a more sustainable approach to water sources. In the case of India, it is predominantly a groundwater economy, using about 25% of  groundwater extracted at a global scale. This dependence on groundwater is not restricted only to rural areas, with urban centers deploying a combination of private, semi-private, public wells and borewells to extract water. The recent events in Chennai, highlight the dire future that lies ahead, if the question of underground water health and sustainability is not addressed in a judicious, fair, and sustainable manner.  Far from reducing this proportion, it is very likely that rapid urbanization, specifically in the periphery of existing urban centers in the country, combined with climate change and inadequate infrastructure, will put additional stress on existing water sources and their quality, further exacerbating people’s access to this critical resource.

My doctoral research focuses on the evolving conflict and negotiation over groundwater and historically common-pool resources in Vasai-Virar, a city within the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. This region  has experienced rapid urbanization over the last two decades. From a population of 0.7 million in 1991, the city has expanded to 1.2 million as per the latest census data (Census, 2011)1 . My research focuses on a cluster of village communities along the western coastline (Fig 1) and the changing nature of politics and discourse around water preservation in the region.

Emerging in the 1980s, several community-led organizations coalesced around the question of illegal groundwater extraction in the region, leading to massive protests, and eventual banning of the activity and demarcation of the surrounding region as a protected zone. Since then the socio-political realities within the villages and the neighboring city has changed significantly, exerting newer and more intense pressures on the land and water resources. While the village communities were predominantly engaged in agricultural, horticultural and fisheries related activities in the 1980s, the communities have since then transitioned out of these activities, seeking employment in Mumbai and neighboring urban centers.

Fig 2: One of the few remaining Bawkhals (traditional water wells)

A consequence of this transition from agricultural activities to the service sector has affected the mode of political organization and water conservation advocacy in the region. A part of my research involves following the work of the voluntary citizen-scientists2 who approach the question of  water from differing perspectives. The role of citizen-led effort3s has increasingly being highlighted within urban centers in the country, and internationally. These individuals have formed loosely based organizations, jumping off the institutional history of earlier social-movements around questions of water quality, availability, protection of common-pool water resources, and underground geology. Their activities include collecting data about water resources, water quality testing of wells and awareness sessions at the community level about ground water and the importance of conservation of water resources.

It is necessary to understand the avenues which allow these individuals to come together and form these informal associations. My research indicates that kinship relations based on religion, community, marriage, and geographical proximity allow these networks to foster. The availability of social media also enables them to communicate in an efficient manner, as well as organize regular meetings. The membership of these groups also overlaps with other concurrent groups who come together to carry out ‘nature-related activities’4 which include trekking, bird-watching, and documenting the biodiversity of the region.

One of the major concerns for these citizen-scientists is the protection and revitalization of the traditional water bodies ‘Bawkhals’ in the region. Bawkhals are unconstructed wells which were used for irrigation, domestic use and drinking water sources for animals (Fig 2).

Fig 3: Bawkhal in disrepair and fenced

On average, each cluster of villages used to have at least 10 to 15 Bawkhals. With the changing socio-economic profile within the villages, and rising incidence of private borewells, their engagement with these Bawkhals changed over time. Slowly, they fell into disrepair (Fig 3), often being used as the dumping grounds for the community.

There is also a tendency to reclaim this common-property to ‘generate’ more land for social activities within the villages. The citizen-scientists I interviewed have been engaged in the process of protecting these critical water resources by regularly tracking these sites, enumerating them, and engaging in community meetings to highlight the critical role played by these water bodies.

Another related lacuna which emerges is the stark absence of data on existing water sources, and a nuanced understanding of underground geology in the region. There is no available and easily accessible data on aquifers present in the region5.  The available data on Bawkhals and private wells is not always accurate, and the disparity between official records and voluntary surveys reflect this inaccuracy.  Further, any strategy to demarcate and protect recharge-zones6  would require a micro-level understanding of hydro-geology of the region. In such a scenario the well-intentioned efforts of private individuals and small-scale organizations would be unable to effectively track or implement conservation efforts.

Finally, another related issue that water conservation activists face is that of perception and changing desires. In my interviews and participant observation, I encountered a common perception among the residents in the region that underground water was unfit for consumption, leading to a dependence on private filters within households. This perception is compounded with an increasing desire for piped water among the residents in the villages, further weakening their incentives to work towards preserving existing water bodies.

In summary

  • Despite citizen scientists’ well-intentioned efforts, there is a serious lack of capacity in the volunteer driven model of collecting and dissemination of information on groundwater quality, hydro-geology, and common-pool resource protection.
  • The way forward would require a concerted effort by local governments, in consonance and collaboration with these ground-level actors, to leverage local information to devise strategies for water-management at the micro-level.
  • Any attempt at formulating a local-level water strategy would have to take cognizance of the complex hydro-geology, political and social realities of the region. At least for hydro-geology; detailed and regular data-collection exercises would have to be incorporated into practices of everyday governance.

The future focus of my research will look at how calculations of caste, class, and religion shape or enable the efforts of these citizen-scientists in not only data collection and site selection, but also with building coalitions towards the larger goal of water security and sustainability. Further, I am interested in exploring what role or position the local government adopts given the imminent water crisis emerging from other parts of the country. 

Sirus J Libeiro is a PhD Candidate at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation focuses on planning for a rural-urban transition and changing nature of water-conservation movements in the urban periphery of Mumbai.



  2. Corburn, Jason (2005).. “Street science: Community knowledge and environmental health justice.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. Based on interviews
  5. Aquifers are comprised of subterranean rock layer which contains water, which is the source for natural springs and well. Their functioning and characteristics is contingent on a range of factors; types of rocks, underground morphology, proximity of recharge zones etc.
  6. Relatively porous sections through which water enters the aquifers.