Micro-level water-resources engineering

1. Introductory:

It’s the “Holi” day today—one of the two Indian cultural reminders that the summer is almost at the door-step. [The second reminder is the “Gudhi PaaDawaa,” the Indian lunar new year’s day, which follows after a lunar fortnight.]

The hottest—and the most water-scarce—days of late-April, May and early-June are in the coming.

This period also is the last opportunity in the year to undertake any appropriate water-conservation work.

Those who have browsed my personal Website would know that surface-flow and ground-water seepage has been a topic of some definite research interest to me. [Off-hand, I think I also have passingly mentioned about it on my blog in the past.] … That way, I haven’t actually pursued any concrete research about it; it’s just been in an exploratory stage. I do plan to do something about it once I get some right kind of students to guide along these topics, preferably ME students (from several different disciplines; see my research description at the end of this post). [BTW, even though currently I am jobless, I do anticipate to get a job in the next cycle of academic appointments that occurs sometime around the summer vacations or so.]

In the meanwhile, I have been going over some popular as well as scientific writings on the subject, thinking over the issues involved, and bringing some clarity as to what in particular I can do about it. My research would involve only computational modelling. In particular, I wouldn’t at all be interested in the sociological/governmental aspects of it, though one must be aware that they exist, and one must have at least some background kind of a sense of what they are like.

There has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of these initiatives/work. Three stand out, in the chronological order: (i) Rajendra Singh’s work in Rajasthan, (ii) Anna Hazaare’s, in Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra, and (iii) Suresh Khanapurkar and Amrishbhai Patel’s, in Shirpur, Maharashtra.  As usual, media’s coverage of these efforts is mostly superficial, partial/incomplete, and skewed.

Here are some of my notes after browsing about these three efforts.

1. Rajendra Singh’s work:

Rajendra Singh has by now become something of a celebrity among the NGO-type of social workers; today he even attracts the wide-eyed young (and mostly clueless) volunteers from the urban areas.

I would strongly suggest you to pursue your own browsing about Singh’s work, starting, e.g., here [^], before reading further.

Please do that first, in order to realize the extraordinary perceptiveness of this piece, written by Amanda Suutari and Gerry Marten, here [^]. I don’t know who the authors are, except for their profiles here [^]. The main article at both the links is the same.

IMO, this piece is the best among all the articles available on this topic on the Internet. Yes, this piece, too, has some pinkish shades at places. “Commercial mines” is far wider a term that seems to have deliberately been put to use here; the mines actually were relatively small, shallow, and only for the marble stone, not for other minerals. That said, still, the aforementioned pink is rather rare in that article, and it occurs mostly in some minor places that are fairly well isolated. I mean, the entirety of the article itself has not been deliberately painted with a background pinkish wash of sorts. And if you go through the article ignoring these isolated streaks of the pink, then there is a wealth of accurate observations, and minute but relevant detail. The article truly stands out from the crowd.

As far as Singh’s main work goes, from an engineer’s point of view, here are some of my unanswered questions or points:

The remote rural area of Rajasthan that Singh famously went to (and stayed in) is not in the Thar desert, but in the Aravali mountains. From the Google Earth perspective, this location is just about a stone’s throw from Jaipur—and also from the then still surviving forest park. The “before” photos, too, show some greenery on some hills—not those seemingly endless yellow and wavy sand dunes flatly spreading everywhere up to the horizon. Why must every media report emphasize “Rajasthan” as a whole, when they talk about Singh’s work? Why don’t they say the half-green Aravali parts near Delhi and MP? Two further sub-points:

  • How effective would the collection of the falling rain be, if the region weren’t to be mountainous?
  • To what extent does the geological structure of the mountains and the flatter land help make Singh’s approach successful? The upper layers there are alluvial.

The usual criterion of repeatability or replicability: Singh did achieve repeated success in other villages too. In fact, in hundreds of other villages—800+ villages, in fact! Good! No, Great!!

Still, notice, all these villages lie in the same region—a comparatively very small part (area-wise certainly less than 5%) of the entire state of Rajasthan. Did Singh, especially after the Magsaysay award (2001), try something about 400 km west? at least about 200 km west? Why not?

Why does the media still insist on saying that it was a success in the arid lands of Rajasthan—as if all the representative parts of Rajasthan had been successfully demonstrated to benefit from the scheme?

In summary: Singh did demonstrate the very feasibility of this micro-level approach, going against the then existing engineering wisdom. Congratulations! Singh also did replicate his initial success at hundreds of other locations in Rajasthan—though not at a majority of places—or even a representative minority of places—in that state. Our optimism should be guarded. [Also, though I didn’t mention it, observe the government tried to spoil Singh’s work. When governments enter the economy, they are like that, regardless of who peoples the government.]

2. Anna Hazaare’s “Work” in Ralegan Siddhi:

Ah, Anna Hazaare! … I have written about this fellow before. Regardless of that, let me say, it’s impossible to hold a lasting grudge against this guy. The main reason is that one doesn’t hold grudges—there is no need to do that if you are willing to pass your moral judgements. The other reason is supplied by his personality: his appearance, mannerisms, language, “thoughts,” actions (remember him running after breaking his fast in Delhi?)… All such things included. …

… Hazaare’s is a personality of a very exceptional kind: he is a walking & talking, breathing & living, caricature. And he also is very forceful about what he does. … A forceful 3D living caricature that is busy building castles in the thin air at all times. How would it even be possible to take him seriously? Not unless the media makes an elephant out of him, and then insists on using the TV to make it sit in the room—your living room.

But let’s keep that aside, and let’s try to look at his water-conservation “work” in Ralegan Siddhi. How successful has the effort been, given its geographical and other contexts? A few notes of mine follow:

What is the extent of the greening that has been effected in Ralegan Siddhi? How does it compare (keeping all other factors equal or comparable) to the average greenery within an area of 50 km radius? Or even the other drought-prone region right in the same district? Answer: not at all impressive—if you are an honest observer, that is.

If Hazaare were not to arrange to divert water from the conventional irrigation canal running nearby to Ralegan Siddhi, if he were to rely only on his local, micro-level, water conservation schemes, how successful could he have been? About 25–30%, at the most, of what you presently see there, some engineers estimate. If he now were to agree not to take any water from the nearby Kukadi project canal, how long would it take for the existing Ralegan Siddhi greenery to turn yellow/brown? My estimate, after discussions with some engineers: about 5 to 10 years, with the lower side being much more likely. Note, this is a period far shorter than the one for which Hazaare has been continuously lauded in the media (and in the successive state governments) for his water-conservation “work.”

Replication: The Maharashtra government has wasted 100+ crores on this “Gandhian”‘s hopeless dreams. Why couldn’t they achieve success anywhere else—not at a single site elsewhere? Hazaare’s and media’s answer: It’s all Maharashtra government’s fault. (LOL!)

Note, Singh did succeed in hundreds of other villages—initially (and for a long time), without taking a single penny from the government funds. Hazaare did not succeed in a single other village, despite hundred+ of crores.

Summary: Idiocy, hypocracy, and media hype. Plus, shameless loot of the credit actually due to the conventional irrigation engineering.

3. Suresh Khanapurkar and Amrishbhai Patel’s work in Shirpur:

OK. With sections 1. and 2., we are already done with the notable works done in the 20th century. Both were (or at least have been called) “Gandhian.” Now, we enter the 21st century, and the matters do get a bit more more complicated—also, better funded, better documented, and on the whole, more interesting, anyway.

Summary: Khanapurkar is a geologist, and has retired from a government job. He has been an RSS guy. Amrishbhai Patel always has been an Indira Congress guy, an MLA too. But, he is a Patel. [Aakar?] As to their work: as (almost) always (at least in Maharashtra), when it comes to some secular/non-religious kind of a social work, first, someone from the Congress leads the way; if successful, The Family is given the entire credit; then, the “jholawaalaa”s eagerly follow; then some RSS guy enters the scene and attempts some improvement on the original theme, which often is unsuccessful, or at least, it is not just as successful; then the pinkos use the RSS guy’s failure to attack the RSS; then the RSS/RSS guy make(s) deal with the government/local powers; around this time, the RSS recedes into the background and the RSS guy finally begins to shine in the limelight; then more funds follow; then some more critical “jholawaalaa”s follow, and, simultaneously, the other pinkos and the reds wait and watch.

With the pressure of providing a very short and succinct summary being out of the way, we may now look at the situation from the engineer’s perspective.

While covering Hazaare’s “work,” I did not care to provide any link. The resources are over-abundant, and, as expected, none covers the ground reality the way it should be. For example, none discusses the extent of contribution of the Kukadi project canal; none mentions the hundred+ crores already wasted by the successive Maharashtra governments on Anna’s day-dreams “thoughts.”

In contrast, for the Shirpur pattern, there is an objective need to provide links. Reasons:

  • The Shirpur pattern has been tried elsewhere with some success, e.g., at the initiative of the NCP in the drought-prone areas in southern Maharashtra.
  • There is a BJP government in the Center, and a BJP-led government in the State.
  • The new BJP budget at the Center has announced thousands of crores for micro-level water-resources management: Rs. 5,300 crores nationwide, i.e., about 850 Million US dollars—say, almost a billion dollars.
  • The Shirpur pattern is open to a critical scrutiny, and not just of the same kind as Singh’s work invites, viz., the relevance of the geological factors, and the feasibility (perhaps with local adaptations/changes) or otherwise of replication. In addition to those two factors, the Shirpur pattern also remains open to an additional serious criticism, one concerning the undesirable and highly under-appreciated side-effects. And, this point acquires urgency because of the first three points.

Hence for the Shirpur pattern, I sure wish to provide at least some links. These follow, with a few notes of mine:

Here is a typical introductory sort of an article on this topic that would appear before the state/central governments began supporting the idea: [^]. I anticipate that much better written (and better-formatted) articles would arrive in the near future.

The model seems to work also elsewhere: [^].

Again, a perceptive piece, despite the fact that it seems to come from someone with pinkish inclinations: [^]. The author for the preceding piece is one K. J. Joy [^]. His name means that he must be at least a pink if not a red. [Aakaar?] He is something of that sort! “Privatization can do more harm than good” [^]. OK. Humour apart, even if his understanding of the terms such as “rights” (i.e., more properly, “individual rights”) and “privatization” does not seem to be sufficiently clear, it still does not mean that his article itself isn’t studious or valuable. Do go through the article; highly recommended.

A well-informed criticism; note especially the important and relevant geological points: [^]

An article that cites some actual geological data. Though the data are far too coarse-grained to be of any direct use in any micro-scale schemes, the article at least cares to look into some factual data. … You are not surprised by the author’s background, are you? [^]

An indication of the kind of complexity there is, in implementation: [^]

An example of the usual “our region didn’t get its share” [^]; such things seem to have begun already! Note, the demand has been made without pausing to think anything about whether or how the approach might at all work in a given area. I am not saying that the approach wouldn’t work in Marathwada—another region of severe droughts. In fact one of the links I gave above already indicate some success for this approach in that region too. Here, I am just highlighting the kind of artificial tensions that come in whenever governments interfere with the economy. And, I am saying, without being cynical about anything: “more research is necessary.”

4. A word about my planned research:

Here is an outline of the way my planned research might go:

  • Initially, (i) build a computer model of the surface topology and the underground geological strata and structures for some area—this could even be an imaginary geographical area!; and then, (ii) develop/adapt algorithms to simulate groundwater seepage after precipitation in this area, running the simulation for, may be, a decade or so. The quantities for the precipitation and the surface flow would enter the model simply as assumed boundary data, that’s all.
  • Add features to incorporate small check-dams or other structures at various locations and scales, and study their effect on groundwater seepage and water-table levels.
  • Add the features of the surface water flow and study aspects such as flooding vs. seepage, etc.
  • Then, take a focus area—an actually existing drought-prone area—and study its precipitation and geological features, build models, run simulations, and make some recommendations for locations of check dams and other structures/features.

The above is a broad conceptual outline that I currently have in mind. In the actual research, some components of some of the steps may get mixed up, and some other steps may get added in, e.g., a step of: simulating the effect on groundwater seepage and water-table levels, due to closure of an aquifer that got exposed due to digging of deep trenches while implementing the Shirpur pattern.

The research should actually begin after I land a professor’s job. In the meanwhile, enthusiastic engineers with programming knowledge may feel free to approach me—but only if they are willing to work hard, and for free! … When I play, I play, but when I work, I really work. Usually, that means hard work, at least compared to many, many others. So, don’t approach me unless you already know what it takes to do hard work over a considerably long period of time—at least months. (As far as I know, no smart work ever comes before at least a certain quantum of some very hard work has gone before it.) Also, I have no money to support you—or, for that matter, as of today, even myself! But if it still is all OK by you, and you still wish to do something in this direction working with me, then do feel free to drop me a line. Use email or comment form (and feel free to mention that you want to keep the comment confidential—comments here are moderated). I am serious about this stuff.

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A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “yeh shaam mastaani…”
Singer: Kishore Kumar
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

[I guess the post already is in a fairly good shape. I would update it only if I find some more interesting links etc.; otherwise, I would leave it alone as is. I mean, adding updates for streamlining and clarifying are much less likely here. Anyway, bye for now… ]