Originally posted at the AIF Clinton Fellowship blog

At Arghyam, I work on an initiative called the India Water Portal, which is an online platform for sharing water knowledge, stories, articles, and data. We’re currently in the process of transitioning from a knowledge base to a more community-driven site, and I’ve been working on finding ways for us to partner with other organizations, institutions, community groups, and publications. Right now we’re focusing on outreach in Bangalore, so I’ve been learning a lot about the city’s water and sanitation issues. Here is the Reader’s Digest version.

Water crisis

It’s common knowledge that Bangalore doesn’t have enough water for its residents. Piped water for the city comes from the Kaveri (Cauvery) River, which is currently in the news for a dispute happening between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. A lot of households on the outskirts of Bangalore do not have a piped water connection and rely on either bore-wells or tankers for their domestic water. The bore-wells are usually unregulated and dug to ludicrous depths – like 1000 feet – which depletes the groundwater at an alarming rate; this water is also of questionable quality. Additionally, these bore-wells often dry up quickly, because of the groundwater over-exploitation. The ‘water tanker mafia’ gets their water from these same unregulated bore-wells and sells it to households for up to Rs. 800 ($15) per 4000 litres.

To combat this problem, rooftop rainwater harvesting was made mandatory in Bangalore in 2009, but next to no one has implemented it. There are organizations in Bangalore like the Rainwater Club, and companies like Biome, who can advise people on how best to reduce, reuse, and recycle their water; however, there is a huge dearth of accessible and citizen-friendly information about this process. People who have actually had rainwater harvesting structures built in their homes also complain about the unavailability of reliable, affordable contractors.

To address some of these issues, India Water Portal is currently in the planning stages of a partnership with the alternative, an online magazine, to run a three- to six-month campaign featuring original online content on water issues, as well as offline events, contests, and general engagement with their readership; our goal for this project is to motivate people and institutions to undertake various water-related activities, including things like rainwater harvesting and water conservation. We also want to compile a list of contractors who genuinely believe in responsible water management and can provide this service to people at a reasonable rate.

Solid waste management

According to SAAHAS, a non-profit dealing with the Bangalore’s solid waste management issues, the city generates 3000 tons of waste every day, 70% of which is organic and therefore compostable. Towards this end, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) made waste segregation compulsory starting at the beginning of this month; now all households and institutions are required to separate wet kitchen waste, dry recyclables, sanitary waste, garden waste, hazardous waste, and debris. Farmers are in talks with the city to buy the wet waste to use as compost.

Despite the Bangalore government’s good intentions, the implementation and enforcement of these regulations has been – shockingly! – spotty. The new system makes byzantine something that should be straightforward, giving people an excuse to ignore the rules. Even people who are enthusiastic about waste segregation are unclear about what they should do.

As far as I can tell, wet waste is supposed to be collected every day and dry waste once a week. Neither are supposed to be collected in garbage bags but rather dumped straight from garbage cans or boxes into the waste collectors’ bins. Sanitary waste is to be wrapped in newspaper and marked with a red X. Apparently, the dirt and silt swept up from the floor every day fall under the category of “debris” and are supposed to be squirreled away until the BBMP can be called to collect them for a fee; I’m not entirely sure who is ever going to follow that rule.

Our own pourakarmika – waste collector – wants both our wet and dry waste to be handed over daily in plastic trash bags. She has made no mention of sanitary or hazardous waste. Even though I work for an organization that deals with these issues every day, I’m not really sure what I should be doing.

Bonus crazy things

Working for Arghyam, and reading about Bangalore’s water and sanitation issues, has brought out my inner hippie. Here are things that I am considering doing in the order that my flatmate Swathi finds increasingly worrisome:

  1. Carrying around one of those little fold-up reusable bags instead of using plastic shopping bags*
  2. Getting rid of paper towels, using rags and cloth towels instead*
  3. Using a menstrual cup (Diva Cup in the US, SheCup in India) or reusable cloth pads (Luna Pads in the US, EcoFemme in India) instead of tampons or disposable pads
  4. Using vinegar instead of commercial cleaning products
  5. Composting our own kitchen waste with the help of Daily Dump’s terracotta kambhas
  6. Using soap nuts instead of detergent to wash my clothes
  7. Patchouli! No, just kidding. I draw the line at deodorant – I need my Mitchum Power Gel.

* Many Indian households already do these things.