The research story

When you turned on the tap for a drink of water, what came out? If you live in the industrialized world, you may take for granted your own personal river, piped to the bathroom, that delivers safe, relatively clean water 24 hours a day. Here in Dharwad, a medium sized city in Karnakata, India, most taps deliver no water most of the time. And when water comes, once every 4 to 15 days, it’s often laced with sewage.

Intermittent water supply is the norm in India, for a variety of reasons. Leaky pipes, illegal connections, and conservation are all rationales for intermittent water supply put forth by water managers, the Asian Development Bank, and local residents alike. In Hubli-Dharwad, twin cities an hour’s bus ride apart, most households pay a low flat fee of 90 rupees per month for their water, if their connection is metered at all. Nonetheless, this water is not cheap, because everyone has to pay for tanks to store it in, wait around for it to come, and fetch borewell water when they run out. For the rich, this means building an underground storage tank, buying roof tanks, and using a pump to pump water to the roof. The poor store water in barrels, buckets, pots, plastic water bottles–anything that will hold water.

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House in a wealthy neighborhood whith two roof tanks. Such homes typically have a 3000 to 10,000 L underground tank that holds enough water for 2 weeks or more. A pump lifts the water to the roof tanks, which connect to sinks, showers, and toilets.

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Drinking water storage in a small house in a low-income area. Metal kodas and kolagas store drinking water, while buckets and barrels store water for washing.

I’m here to study how much water people use–and waste–in intermittent supply areas and in pilot 24/7 (continuous) supply wards. The local water utility and Veolia, a French multinational, are collaborating to provide water 24 hours a day, a project that involves pipe replacement, tarriff increases, metering and, eventually, penalties for those who don’t pay there bills. The project is Indian test case for 24/7 water supply and public-private partnerships–the controversial “privatization lite” rolled out after the Cochabamba, Bolivia water uprisings of 2000. The triple goals are cost recovery for the utility, improved service, and better water quality. Three Berkeley PhD students (Zach Burt in ERG, Emily Kumpel in Environmental Engineering, and Ayse Ercumen in Public Health) have been working with professors Jack Colford, Kara Nelson, and Isha Ray to study the impacts of the change to 24/7 supply. Zach and Ayse are surveying 4000 households to assess the health and economic impacts, while Emily is measuring water quality under the two regimes. Two years into the study, they realized that figuring out how much water use in the unmetered intermittent wards was no small task, so I get to spend my summer here observing how people use water.

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I measure a drinking water storage container in a house in Hubli while buffalo keep watch outside.

Here’s a brief overview of this complicated system, and a rationale for the study. Pipes leak everywhere, but in Hubli-Dharwad they leak a lot–about a third of water is unnacounted for–lost to leakage or “theft”. But because there’s usually no water pressure in the pipes, they leak inward, so raw sewage from the open drains seeps in, then mixes with treated municipal water whenever that water flows. Ayse is testing the hypothesis that with continuous water service, fewer kids will get sick from contaminated water. Why? Because water quality in the pipes will improve, and drinking water will become less contaminated during storage (or, ideally, not be stored at all). Emily is looking at water contamination in both regimes, and trying to understand how and where contamination happens. Zach is trying to understand the full social and economic cost of water under both regimes, and to see how those costs vary across income, caste, religion, and social status. Three more Berkeley PhD students (John Erickson and Anne Thebo from CEE and Sharada Prasad from ERG) are, like me, here for the summer, working on different pieces of the water-wastewater puzzle.

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Anne, Sharada, Kara, and John hard at work in our Dharwad kitchen.

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John and Madhu collect a water sample in a low-income area of Dharwad.

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Kara Nelson explains rapid sand filtration to Sharada at a local water treatment plant.

Those are the Berkeley characters. In future posts I’ll introduce the Hubli-Dharwad collaborators–professors, students, engineers, bureaucrats, field investigators and research subjects (the last anonymously, of course). I’ll also spill ink for the nonhuman collaborators–the buffalo that graze the vacant lots in our upper-class suburb, the stinking waters that flow down the open drains, the monsoon clouds, the feral pigs, the traffic circle elephant, et al.

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~ by waterunderground on July 4, 2011.

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