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World Water Day: A fireside chat with Prof. M S Mohan Kumar

Photo: H.S. Sudhira / Research Matters

This 22nd of March, on the occasion of World Water Day, Research Matters caught up with Prof MS Mohan Kumar, a Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. He is also the Chairman of the Indo-French Cell for Water Resources and an Associate Faculty at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR) at IISc and an ex-Secretary of the Karnataka State Council for Science & Technology.  Apart from his role at the institute, Prof. Kumar has also extensively worked with government bodies such as the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board (KUWSDB) and Bangalore Development Authority (BDA).

Q1: The entire Research Matters team wishes you a happy World Water Day! To begin with our conversation, like the saying goes “charity begins at home”, could you please tell us what households in the city can do to conserve water?

Thank you for the greetings and I also wish you the same, we should all celebrate world water day very well, in the sense as you rightly started this dialogue, with proper conservation measures. Having said that, yes, each one of us have our own roles to play in conservation. That depends on the way that every family or organization or the city at large responds. Conservation can start with just lesser usage of precious water. And equally important is (the) right quality (of) water for the right kind of usage, in the sense if we can afford to use a lesser quality water for certain purposes, we shouldn’t be using high quality water for such purposes. That itself is a simple measure of conservation.

Q2: One way to conserve water would be to harvest it. Could you please tell us what measures one could take at a household level to harvest water and why do measures like rainwater harvesting face many blockades, and are often difficult to implement?

That is a very important thing. In fact, if you look back a few years, I should also mention that I was heading the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, till recently, about 6 years. When there, one of my colleagues, Mr. Shivakumar, took a lot of interest in bringing this up. Based on that work, this was made some sort of a mandatory - rainwater harvesting I mean. Having said that yes, a very large program was taken up in training people, like plumbers and others.

Anything if we want to make it mandatory, we should be fully geared up. Is the system ready to change over from tomorrow? If that’s not there, then it’ll only become a policy. Having said that, a lot of attempts were made to make it a more popular activity and trying to save (water), in Bangalore. And who ever have done that, they’re quite happy about it. There are still quite a few who have not done. The reasons for them not doing (so is) probably (something) they have to answer. It’s very difficult to think about why they haven’t done it and what their problem is. Is it simply that the technology is not available, which is not true. Is it because they could not find the right plumber to do their job, I doubt it is. Is it just carelessness, a ‘chalta hai’ (it happens) attitude. But having said that, at every household level, at apartment level especially, people are extremely conscious now. If they start making it (implementing rainwater harvesting), I think we’ll see a lot of difference. 

Q3:  Rainwater harvesting is said to be cost intensive which often dissuades people from implementing harvesting methods and instead forces them to buy water. Could incentivising such practices persuade more people to invest in Rainwater Harvesting?

Thank you for the question, In fact this came up in BWSSB in which I was also a part indirectly or directly. Thinking that subsidy will always win the thing, may not be correct. Having said that, definitely there must be some motivation to do, one must be able to push them and make it happen. Always counting cost, what would’ve happened or what may not happen with money may not be the right thing to do. As it is, many of us are spending a lot of our resources, directly or indirectly. Even if I don’t build a big tank, we would be spending the money in some other way. It could be in getting the tanker, spending a lot of energy in some other way, all that’s happening. But if we can harvest it (water), and contribute indirectly by not drawing more water from the grid and you maintaining (it) yourself, I think environmentally it’ll be a very positive contribution.  

Q4: Do you think government policies are required for people to adopt better water management practices or do you think people would themselves realize that water is a scarce resource and needs to be better managed?

It’s both in fact! In the sense, when there is some sort of a directive, a policy or something like that, there are many people who are law abiding and follow guidelines. They feel that when the directive comes, they feel that they should fall in. That’s the type of feelings. Till that point, they don’t think it’s their job. Having said that, there are a lot of communities, communal housings, and apartments etc., where they’ve taken it on themselves to do this. Just to showcase that they are able to harvest, use that water in a better way and they’ll have a better quality of life. And sometimes, it also comes due to their necessity. In the sense, for whatever reason, either they’re not on the grid or their supply is limited or they’re foreseeing that their supply will not be much better than what it is, they’re getting into some of the activities like we’re talking (harvesting), which has really benefitted them.  Now they will be like ambassadors or people who tell if you do these things, it’ll really help.

Q5: In your various roles in academia and government bodies, including that at BWSSB, what are some of the aspects that you have learnt for implementing better water management practices for a large city like Bengaluru?

Whatever I speak now, though I have a lot of roles in BWSSB, whatever I express, are my own views, as a man working in water area. Having said that, I think BWSSB is trying to do its best, in terms of bringing in more water or what is required and plugging in leakages, where it is required. At the same time, we’re also trying to bring in recycling or reusing of water. One standing example is Cubbon Park recycling plant venue, if you’ve seen, this is way ahead of its time. It was thanks to BDA which built it and now BWSSB is running that. Most of Cubbon Park is run by recycled water.  So that means one way you’re putting water back into the system, so these are all some positive things which are done.

Having said that, still I think they (BWSSB) need to really catch up with a lot of technology, because technology is moving very fast. The new way of handling water, water problems are there, so we must be able to catch up and at the same time, even people who are dealing with that, day in and day out, must be equipped with the technology. Only then will they be able to address simple things like sitting here one must be able to get on a mobile, (see) what is happening to Bangalore water system, at least at a big scale if not at a small scale. If you start seeing it and if we start putting it on a dashboard, we’ll know what’s happening.

Q6: Do you think, that from an academic perspective, there is enough research happening  in the area of water? Technologies like Internet of Things could revolutionize water management practices, but yet seem to be underutilized so far. What do you think is necessary from a science and technology perspective for better water management?

What is happening is, many of these things, like the example you took –IoT, will allow us to really get in to know what is happening to the water system and when we bring such things, it’s not only water managers or civil engineers or geologists, it not only their job. When we look at it, it’s the job for information engineers, communication engineers, control engineers; it could be chemists, microbiologist... the list is long. So when these people join in, obviously there will be out of the box ideas. Then trying to stitch this in a IoT platform, trying to address issues will make a lot of difference.

First of all, what is happening right now is all of us are not fully informed. That itself is a real bottle neck. If each one of us is informed about what is happening to our water system, how much water we’re getting, how much we’re using, at different levels -- it’s not only BWSSB I’m talking about, it could be other organizations, could be big campuses like Bangalore University or IISc or Infosys -- but when each one of us are informed, at every level, then probably we’ll be able to contribute in our own way.
Probably we need to show how much money we’re losing – I don’t think any of us will be ready to throw our money across and walk away isn’t it?

On the science front, there are a lot of things going on, but a lot more people need to join, lot more newer area(s) people have to join, that’s what I meant when I said it’s not only a single discipline, it’s a multi disciplinary approach. When people talk about big data – when we try to bring in all this data information, we’ll understand what is happening to the whole system, that would be fantastic. One could take proper decisions when we know these things.     

Q7: Finally, on the occasion of World Water day, what message would you like to give to the citizens of Bengaluru?

First of all, I wish everybody a happy World Water Day. Firstly, as we rightly started this conversation, we should conserve water and as much as possible – people are talking about smart cities – I feel it should be more like sustainable cities. We really need to sustain with our available resources. If only really required, try to bring in resources from outside. And equally important (questions), at every level (are) - can we save? Can we use our resources judiciously? How do we bring in better efficiency or how do we increase our efficiency, in (managing) our water systems?  If only we do that, I think it’ll be much better.

Of course this time it so happens that the theme for World Water Day is ‘waste water’. So it’s not really waste water, we need to bring back the waste water into circulation, either through recycled water, or what people are talking about nowadays – used water. We need to bring the used water back into circulation.