Guest Blog: India Needs Community-Scale Approaches to Building Resilience and Reliability

Posted by on Apr 22, 2016

by Ramana Koti

January 2016 image of a building in Visakhapatnam, India, damaged by the 2014 cyclone Hudhud. Photo: Ramana Koti

January 2016 image of a building in Visakhapatnam, India, damaged by the 2014 cyclone Hudhud. Photo: Ramana Koti

In my time spent in India before moving to the United States slightly more than a decade ago, there was never any expectation of a 24/7 supply of power and water. To deal with planned or erratic loss of power, we kept candles and handheld fans nearby. Municipal water supply only lasted an hour or two every day or every other day, so we hoarded water in as many containers as possible. During interruptions to the already-intermittent municipal water supply, we relied on water trucks (government or private), a manual community groundwater pump at the end of the street, or the kindness of a neighbor with a private groundwater well.

During a visit to India in early 2016, I noticed that the way people dealt with interruptions had changed but that they were not any closer to having a continuous 24/7 supply of water and electricity. Most homes and apartments had gotten a small battery backup (also known as an inverter) that could run a couple of ceiling fans for a few hours. However, the backup often falls short of requirements, just like the hoarded water containers often did. My mom shared with me that she was ironing clothes one day when the battery set off an alarm and she had to immediately call customer service. Apparently, there was loss of power that she wasn’t aware of and the iron drained the backup supply from the battery in a matter of minutes, causing the alarm to go off. Situations like this are not uncommon.

Water for non-potable purposes is still hoarded. For potable water, regardless of supply consistency, most people do not rely on the quality of the municipal water. People that are considered middle class and above usually just drink bottled water or use their own Reverse Osmosis (RO) water purifier. In some instances, as addressed in the book, The Big Thirst, there could be bottled water supplementing the RO water purifier, because water purification runs on power that is subject to frequent loss. A debilitating side effect of not maintaining a 24/7 water service is the cross-contamination of water supply pipes by sewage pipes. When the two pipes run adjacent to each other, water supply pipes are protected from cross-contamination by the pressure necessary to move the water; lack of that pressure leaves water supply pipes vulnerable. Beyond reducing contamination, it is believed that consumption of water would decrease if there was a 24/7 supply and people were not forced to hoard it.

Reverse osmosis (RO) water purifier (left) and 5-gallon (20-liter) water bottle (right). The bottled water costs about $1 as long as the used bottle is exchanged for a new one. Photo: Ramana Koti.

Reverse osmosis (RO) water purifier (left) and 5-gallon (20-liter) water bottle (right). The bottled water costs about $1 as long as the used bottle is exchanged for a new one. Photos: Ramana Koti.

For my hometown in India, Visakhapatnam, the need for resilience became very apparent after the 2014 category 4 cyclone Hudhud. High reliance on the individualized and privatized solutions, pictured here, was pervasive. The lack of trust in municipal and community-based systems discourages investment, which precludes improvements in reliability. The cycle continues. It has been over a year and recovery from Hudhud is still in progress.

Imagine an ongoing malaria epidemic or the possibility of one occurring. Now pick the best possible solution:

  1. Reduce water stagnation in your home/business and get your own mosquito screens and repellents.
  2. While doing ‘a’, remediate any community-level water stagnation that can promote mosquito growth.

This is a crude analogy but I believe community-scale solutions can accompany or even obviate individualized resilience strategies. Besides dealing with the overall issue more directly, community-scale strategies have the potential to create a safety net for the poor and the vulnerable who cannot fend for themselves. Two examples from a recent article on core issues to tackle for resilient design illustrate this point well:

  1. The 1995 Chicago heat wave affected low-income neighborhoods disproportionately. However, low-income neighborhoods with greater community interaction and organization fared much better than those without them.
  2. In the 2012 case of Superstorm Sandy, a research survey found that recovery has been slower in areas where people expressed less trust in other people.

While on my recent trip to India, a friend described the circumstances leading to his mother’s death. His mother, who was already unwell, went into the bathroom one night with a lit candle after a loss of power. She fell asleep while in the bathroom and her saree caught fire from the candle. Upon realizing what was happening, the family doused the fire and took her to the hospital but she later succumbed to the burns. Despite being an isolated, anecdotal incident, it points to the limits of individual responsibility.

A high-ranking Indian official was interviewed on water issues and stated that money, technology, and knowledge of solutions were not the impediments, but that it was the absence of a collective will to solve the problem. I think this reasoning is common to several problems India is facing. I know I’m just scratching the surface of a large research project whose completion is necessary for concrete recommendations. For now, as a concerned citizen and a well-wisher, I can only hope that both Visakhapatnam and India are able to find a way to build community-level trust, resilience, and a 24/7 supply of electricity and water in the near future.

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The author Ramana Koti is a Building Performance Analyst at the Atlanta office of the architecture and planning firm Lord Aeck Sargent. He can be reached at rkoti@lordaecksargent.com or https://twitter.com/rkoti_.

3 Comments

  1. Good article Ramana Koti garu…..but i would also add….in India…situations keep varying drastically from place to place….i feel there is too much of diversity in all aspects which also hinders to community unity. However I absolutely agree to your last Para – “money, technology, and knowledge of solutions were not the impediments, but that it was the absence of a collective will to solve the problem. I think this reasoning is common to several problems India is facing.”

    Everyone complains and talks about the problems, but no one thinks or acts on collectively solving the problem…..

  2. Very pleased to read an article about the problems faced in the “less” developed world. I live in Mexico and here we face some similar problems: We have an increasingly “High reliance on the individualized and privatized solutions” because of the receding capacity of the Govt. at state and federal levels to provide services for citizens. The wealthy “middle class” some 10% of the population, have turned to private providers for drinking water (education, health, transport etc.) and are showing increased interest in PV electric generation. Cohesive community level response is hindered by low levels of community trust in the 10% middle class.I live in a city of over 4 million in the desert region of northern Mexico and the governor is pursuing a plan to buy water from 1000Km away to augment the city supply. No attempt is made to reduce fresh water consumption nor reduce leakage because there is no money to be pocketed by governing and political officials in reduce, recycle etc. But a 1000Km water system would supply un-measurable kick backs.
    Resilience is also about government competence.

    • Steven, thanks for reading and commenting. The commonality of issues points to the smallness of the world we live in.

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