Sustainable water supply: Two divergent ancient paradigms

Almost two millennia ago the great city of Rome started feeling the pressure of rising demand of water due to ever increasing population. There wasn’t enough water to go around. The city’s burgeoning population had made Rome the first metropolis spanning across seven hills with close to a million residents.
Engineers were summoned to find a solution to the problem and they started looking for alternatives to the local wells and ponds. They hit upon an idea to source water from afar. Springs in the hills miles away from Rome were scouted, surveyed and then engineers went about building an intricate and complex system of water supply to the city. Known as aqueduct they were an engineering feat still marvelled at by anyone and everyone.
They not only helped tide over Rome’s water crisis but also created water surplus and a whole water profligate economy developed around this abundant water supply. Most of the water was used for public baths and in some cases individual houses too received their own supplies.
However, in the sixth century when the power of the city was on the wane the vulnerability of these aqueducts played a major role in the eventual downfall of the city. The Germanic tribes that repeatedly attacked the fortified town one day decided to go for the jugular.
They systematically destroyed the unattended or poorly defended aqueducts. This resulted in immediate loss of supply of water that the residents were used to. Within no time the city crumbled and its population declined as abandoned it.
On the other hand 800 years ago in the desert land of Thar in India a fort city Jaisalmer was struggling with water scarcity. It’s an area where rainfall is scant. It receives only 16.4 centimetres of rain and out of 120 days of official monsoon season the maximum duration of rains in Jaisalmer is never more than 10 days. Water levels are at times as low as 400 feet.
To deal with this daunting challenge the king Mehrawal Ghadsi commission a pond that was three kilometres long and one kilometre wide. That wasn’t all nine more ponds, with varying sizes and depths were created to store every drop of water that fell in the nearby area. Surprisingly the catchment area of this pond was spread in 120 square kilometres.
Out of 800 years of Jaisalmer’s existence the pond has supplied water for slightly more than 700 years. At its peak the pond had a small garrison where troops were stationed to look after the water resource.
Today, however, the pond is suffering from neglect. A major chunk of the catchment area has been over by an air force station and cooperative housing societies. The small garrison is in ruins. With the demise of kings the guards have also become history. Still the shrinking pond has enough resilience to supply water to the city. But for how long is anybody’s guess.
The above mentioned examples are two different templates of ensuring water supply to an urban settlement. Of course comparisons are odious at best and Jaisalmer is no patch on Rome in terms of its size, importance and grandeur, yet the comparison is being made to discuss two varied options and their merits.
While the aqueducts were an engineering marvel they were the most vulnerable chink in the security of Rome. As modern management experts are now beginning to realise the longer the supply chain the more vulnerable it is.
Meanwhile the practice of having natural supplies depots close to urban consumption points are also a good way to bring down that urban settlement’s overall environmental footprint. This si the reason almost all the Asian societies worked towards solutions that were promoting shorter supply chains and ponds were the best way to do that.
It was due to this thought process every city in India till as late as 19th century had a string of ponds and other water bodies spread within and at the periphery of the city. The capital, Delhi, once had more than 350 ponds, baolies (elaborate and wide deep wells) and lakes around it.
However, since last 80 years all the societies and governments in Asia as well as around the world have willy nilly accepted the Roman model of sourcing their water from far off places. This is the reason canals and huge pipeline projects and dams have become the order of the day.
Growing urbanisation too has led to an ever increasing population density within the urban areas. Mindless and haphazard urbanisation has spelt doom for the traditional water bodies. I remember when I was a kid living in the city of Varanasi (Benaras or Kashi) there use to be a beautiful pond with well constructed red sandstone periphery around it.
When I was five I saw one day trucks started arriving dumping city waste in the pond. My father was aghast. Within no time the pond was filled with waste and it became a favourite haunt of vultures. Stench emanating from that dump used to be unbearable. My favourite place was now a living hell.
Luckily my father was transferred and we came to another city. 25 years later I visited the same place out of curiosity to know what happened to that pond I so loved. To my amazement I saw a series of apartments built right over the same place.
The people that lived there didn’t even know what was beneath their houses. Only an old acquaintance who was left knew about it and we silently sat together to remember those days. However, instead of any fondness melancholy took over our conversation and we thought it better to leave the past where it was – buried under the modern apartments.
This is the story that has been repeated everywhere with frustrating regularity.
Water supply lines that were closer to homes have been thoughtlessly destroyed to create real estate at every inch and quench the thirst of the arriving residents is now being fulfilled by hundreds of miles of canals and pipelines.
But these complex systems are as vulnerable today as they were during the Roman era. Today Germanic tribes may not destroy them but rural population that is being deprived form their rightful share can one day revolt against the system. More than that, the threat of climate change and overall shrinking of the supply may make the long supply lines unusable or uneconomic.
In such a scenario the water managers, engineers as well as real estate agents will have to seriously think whether it is wise to promote Roman model of water supply at the cost of Jaisalmer model or can there be a synthesis between the two, to meet the growing demands of ever increasing urban population.

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About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
This entry was posted in Sustainability, Sustainable development, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sustainable water supply: Two divergent ancient paradigms

  1. honeythatsok says:

    Really good article. Thank you for posting 🙂

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