Earth Day 2020: Exploring India’s Sustainable Management of Water

To celebrate Earth Day, we spoke with a few MIT students whose field research has helped better understand India’s water-related issues and advanced the country’s broader sustainable development goals.

Gokul Sampath, Ph.D. Urban Studies and Planning
Groundwater Management with J-PAL in Ahmedabad, India

Tell us a bit about what brought you to MIT and motivated you to pursue your current degree.

I came to MIT after working in the international development sector at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in India and at One Acre Fund in East Africa. At J-PAL, I designed and planned randomized evaluations to test incentives for groundwater conservation among small farmers in rural Gujarat, India. At One Acre Fund, I led impact evaluations of the NGO’s core program for farmers in Tanzania: an asset-based loan and training for high yield seeds and fertilizer. Through these experiences, I saw that rigorously collected data and careful analysis can maximize the impact of international development programs.

My first research project was a Fulbright grant that studied the effectiveness of well switching in response to arsenic contamination in ground drinking water sources in West Bengal. Since then, my interests had been focused on issues of water access in rural South Asia and Africa. As I began to spend time in urban centers, I started thinking about challenges of water supply in cities, and these problems would be rich for inquiry.

I came to MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) to get a better sense of the challenges faced by developing world cities in planning municipal water supply. DUSP appealed to me because here, I’d have the ability to tackle this problem using methodologies from across disciplines.

Tell us a little bit about your project. What drew you to this topic?

My current project is focused on municipal water supply and private water markets in cities. Irregular supply timings, low pressure, and high rates of leakage are characteristic of urban water supply systems in many cities of the global South. In Mumbai, India, where the water utility struggles to curb theft and rivalrous consumption, distribution loss has been estimated at approximately 40 percent. The poor quality of service provision has opened a market for small private water vendors, who offer more reliable access at higher rates than the city’s water utility.

My project looks at whether in the context of Mumbai, with difficulty excluding free riders and high rates of rivalry consumption, municipal water is better characterized as a common pool resource rather than a public good. I argue that municipal water in Mumbai demonstrates an upstream vs. downstream spatial inequality of water access, much like a canal irrigation system. I further claim that private water vendors resolve this spatial inequality by providing last mile service to under-served citizens at the tail end of the distribution network.

How does your work tie into some of the broader sustainable development goals in India?

Large Indian metropolises like Mumbai and Bangalore are currently moving aggressively to re-brand themselves as alpha cities and destinations for global capital. Yet the new five-star hotels, fancy airports, and brand-new metro systems are actually often under-girded by a reality of leaky pipes and intermittent supply that limit access to water. If India is to develop in a way that is sustainable and equitable, it must find a way to provide reliable water access to its hundreds of millions of urban citizens. Therefore, understanding where all the water is going and what role small private sellers in cities like Mumbai play in water distribution is critical for addressing this planning challenge.

Is there anything that surprised you/you weren’t expecting to find through your research?

The perception of public sector organizations is often clouded by unfounded assumptions that they are poorly run. However, I did not see any lack of effort, awareness, or new ideas from the engineers of the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Instead, I saw them as the glue keeping a precarious water supply system working (albeit intermittently) for millions of Mumbaikars every day. The water engineers have a real awareness of the problems and challenges in extending water supply hours in water-short areas, and they work hard to keep the water system running.

What do you like best about conducting field research? Could you share a memorable moment?

I’ve always believed that if you’re studying a problem where the research question is about the field, then you need to be in the field. The real interesting research questions emerge from the oddest details and snatches of information overheard. Sometimes conversations with a plumber laying a new water connection for a family, or other times by chatting with farmers about why they might have used more water to irrigate in the last month might be the keystone to an entire paper. I’ve always been a researcher who has liked to be close to the field. As a Fulbrighter in India, I spent almost 6 months living in a village in rural West Bengal while trying to carry out a research project there. It taught me that the best lines of inquiry in social science research are usually handed to you by your study participants in face-to-face conversation.

Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi, Master’s in City Planning
Betwa River Walk in Bundelkhand, India

Tell us a bit about what brought you to MIT and motivated you to pursue your current degree.

Radhika Singh, Urban Planner/Journalist: Radhika Singh is a master’s student of urban planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. She has previously worked as a correspondent for The Indian Express in Mumbai and as a project manager at the research-advocacy organization INHAF in Ahmedabad. She’s interested in planning for sustainable development that protects the country’s fragile ecology and wealth of biodiversity. Her current research focuses on water resource management and land use planning after natural disasters.

Shail Joshi, Urban Planner/Architect: Shail Joshi is a master’s student of urban planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He is a design architect by training and has worked on large-scale, low to middle-income housing projects in India. Informal settlements, WASH programs, and disaster management are his current research topics at MIT. His interest lies at the intersection of water systems and disaster mitigation through policy making. He is a passionate street and portrait photographer whose works have been published in the City Observer and Harvard Design magazine.

Tell us a little bit about your project. What drew you to this topic?

In late 2018, Veditum, a non-profit research and media organization in Kolkata, had floated a call for applicants to the walk along the Betwa, a river that flows through northern India. Veditum undertakes various research projects in an attempt to bring awareness to aspects of the environment, society, and culture that are often overlooked by mainstream media. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi were two of the four people selected to walk along the Betwa. Their goal was to understand its importance in people’s lives.

They started from Hamirpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where the Betwa merges with the Yamuna River. They traveled onwards to Bandhouli, close to the confluence of the Betwa and Dhasan rivers. The entire journey, around 130km, was carried out on foot. Joshi and Singh depended on villages along the way for food and accommodation.

Much of the Betwa runs through Bundelkhand, a region that stretches from Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh. Bundelkhand is one of the poorest and most drought-prone areas in the country, with a rapidly sinking ground water level and highly variable rainfall. Many of its inhabitants practice agriculture, in addition to herding and fishing. Yet it seems that very few people are actually talking to the residents of the region. The few newspaper articles that exist on the topic rarely go beyond detailing the agrarian distress of the region and reporting on the government’s solution. It is difficult to find people’s voices, opinions, or hopes for the future.

Shail Joshi: My preparation began much earlier than the commencement of the trip. In 2015, I had the opportunity to live in one of the villages of Uttar Pradesh and our selection for the river walk instantly brought back all the memories of that time. Walking in an unknown setting engendered a sense of fear in my mind. I had not heard of Veditum or Paul Salopek’s ‘Out of Eden Walk’ until the time we applied. Reading their stories and seeing some of their short videos, I became more confident and informed about the reason for walking, slowing down, and engaging with the communities.

Radhika Singh: As an urban planner, I was familiar with water systems and how they were managed in cities. However, I had not engaged much with rivers, which, in urban spaces, are often heavily polluted and generally uninviting. I wanted to learn more about the state of rivers in rural areas and the role they played in people’s lives. I was eager to know whether people thought that the controversial river-linking project would be beneficial to them. I also liked the idea of walking as the primary mode of traveling. The gentle pace would allow us to slow down and observe our surroundings, as well as stop to talk with people on the way. It would be the best way to understand how people lived in Bundelkhand.

How does your work tie into some of the broader sustainable development goals in India?

Besides its historical significance, the Betwa was chosen for the river walk because it is part of a controversial river-linking project. The Ken River in Uttar Pradesh, which the government has described as having a “surplus” of water, will be linked to the Betwa, which has a “deficiency” of water, through a 231 km canal and a series of dams, including a 77-meter high dam on the Ken. This would be the beginning of an astounding thirty-one river-linking projects planned throughout the country.

One of the goals of this river linking project is to address the water shortages of Bundelkhand, where farmers often do not have enough water to irrigate their fields. In addition to the fact that Bundelkhand receives less rainfall than most other parts of India, it is not able to retain it. The water runs off the area’s rocky ground quickly, leaving it as dry as before.

Other problems such as a growing population and the deforestation of forests lands that retain water have made the water shortage worse. A study by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) noted that Bundelkhand’s droughts are as man-made as naturally-induced. While climate change has led to a decrease in rainfall over the last few years, sand mining and other development activities have further dried up portions of the river.

If it is carried out, the river-linking project will cause enormous environmental damage. Over 9000 hectares of land will be submerged, of which 6017 hectares is forest land. Much of this land is situated in the Panna Tiger Reserve where up to 23 lakh (2.3 million) mature trees will be destroyed. This will lead to a loss of breeding sites for wild animals, disconnection of wildlife corridors and the degradation of the area’s biodiversity. Dozens of villages will be destroyed, displacing thousands of people along both the Ken and Betwa rivers.

Despite these reservations on the part of environmentalists and social activists, an indifferent government has carried on with its work. It promises the inhabitants of Bundelkhand that the river-linking project will help provide water in drought-prone areas and revitalize agriculture. Rather than promote small-scale and cost-effective solutions that collect, conserve, and utilize water more wisely, officials claim that this Rs. 18,000 crore (approximately $235 million) project is a one-stop solution to mitigating agrarian distress in Bundelkhand.

Is there anything that surprised you/you weren’t expecting to find through your research?

The act of walking along a river was itself a surprising and thrilling activity. We never thought of walking itself as a method of research of exploring, innovating, and ideating. We discovered so many stories on our walk about real on-ground issues that poor people are facing. We always knew the importance of water but this journey made us realize that for many it’s the way of life. They work every hour of the day for accessing enough water for domestic purposes. For urban dwellers like us this was not new but this surely gave us another reality check about our own privilege. This was an experience of lifetime and something we will never forget.

What do you like best about conducting field research? Could you share a memorable moment?

The sheer knowledge of not knowing what’s about to come is the best part of such field work. A memorable incident was when we ended up staying with a sand mining mafia. Every village we would go; we would stay with the village head. One of the village heads ended up being a mafia who was running an operation which we were also studying. It was scary initially, but after talking to him and few of the other men we realized that he was just another normal guy and circumstances like no money or resources had driven him to this life. It became important for us to not pass our value judgement on someone before understanding their own situation.