The Drop That Lasts Forever

Water Matters, a collaborative project between the U.S. Consulate General Chennai, the Smithsonian Institution and Care Earth Trust, explores challenges and opportunities related to sustainable water management in South India and worldwide.

By Brindha Jayakanth

May 2020

The Drop That Lasts Forever
Composer and musician A.R. Rahman at the Water Matters exhibition in Chennai. Photograph courtesy U.S. Consulate General Chennai

Water—from uncontrolled abundance to “Day Zero” scarcity—is a perennial cause for concern in South India. In summer 2017, for instance, faced with acute water shortage, several companies in the water-stressed cities of Chennai and Bengaluru were on the verge of relocating their offices and personnel to other cities. Local officials, thus, expressed interest in international technical expertise, especially in working models implemented in major cosmopolitan municipalities.

For the U.S. Consulate General Chennai, the moment presented a question: What if America’s technological and scientific experts, public officials and private partners could join hands with their Indian counterparts to address internationally recognized concerns about sustainable water management in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka?

The answer was the Water Matters project, which explores the historic and ongoing innovations in water management in the United States and South India. Started in 2018, Water Matters is a collaboration between the U.S. Consulate General Chennai, the Smithsonian Institution and Care Earth Trust, a Chennai-based nongovernmental organization. It seeks to educate, inspire and engage people of all ages and across sectors who need more information about water. Till date, Water Matters has included two Smithsonian-curated public exhibitions, a professional fellowship program, visits to India by East and West Coast U.S. water experts, a virtual secondary school curriculum, private-public partnerships, and traditional and non-traditional media campaigns.

“Our collaborative partnership with the Smithsonian Institution helped ensure the success of Water Matters,” says Consul Lauren Lovelace. “The Smithsonian is the largest museum and research complex in the world, and we relied on their wonderful legacy of partnerships and people-to-people engagement in India to help encourage honest and productive conversations about sustainable water management.”

Doug Herman, then senior geographer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, traveled to South India in early 2019 to lead the curatorial process for exhibitions in Chennai and Bengaluru, working with local environmentalists, historians, policy makers and other stakeholders. Distinguished guests who attended a reception at the Consul General’s River House residence recalled India’s lasting cultural and academic connections with the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s popular educational platform, H2O Today, also contributed significantly to the development of two world-class exhibitions–“Submerge” in Bengaluru, organized by the new Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB), and “Water Matters” in Chennai, organized in cooperation with Care Earth Trust. H2O Today panels were augmented by interactive exhibits, videos, artworks and a repertoire of events, including lectures, master classes, guided site visits and river walks, film screenings, panel discussions, storytelling sessions and musical concerts co-presented in the regional languages of South India.

At the exhibition in Chennai, for instance, visitors could try to lift varying sizes of water-filled Indian pots (“kudam” in Tamil) to get an idea of the daily burden of carrying water for women in water-stressed areas. At “Submerge,” master classes led by Fulbrighters like water researcher William Pennock, political ecologist Trevor Birkenholtz and hydrologist Arup SenGupta and site visits to water treatment facilities offered local audiences in Bengaluru a theoretical and practical lens through which to view contemporary water issues. More than 40,000 individuals visited the exhibitions.

Water Matters received positive coverage from media platforms in South India, reaching approximately 170 million subscribers. At the inauguration of “Submerge,” Biocon and SGB Chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw expressed her appreciation for a “living exhibition on water in partnership with the Smithsonian.” In Chennai, the 53-panel exhibition was inaugurated by the Minister of State for Higher Education K.P. Anbalagan; Hans Raj Verma, the state’s senior bureaucrat on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Water for All” policy; and Grammy and Oscar award-winning composer A.R. Rahman.

“The importance of water is a global story,” says Sara Artes, project director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). “This timely exhibit was made even more powerful by the collaborations between scholars, scientists, innovators and community knowledge-keepers, who have come together to celebrate and protect this precious resource.” Herman says that “trying to address the crisis this planet faces over water” through Water Matters is one of the most rewarding professional experiences of his life.

In October 2019, U.S. representatives from some of the world’s largest water treatment and water reuse projects traveled to Chennai and Bengaluru to meet Tamil Nadu and Karnataka government and business officials as well as academics and environmentalists. Orange County Water District’s Executive Director of Operations Mehul Patel from Southern California and DC Water’s former Chief of Innovation Sudhir Murthy shared successful U.S. approaches to water challenges through reference to energy neutral (low-cost) retrofits, “leapfrog” options and water reuse possibilities. The two experts presented West and East Coast perspectives and complementary solution sets applicable to the South Indian context. They outlined a variety of different methods adopted and implemented in the United States to protect water bodies from human and industrial pollution. And, they took away valuable insights from their Indian counterparts.

“Water Matters explores the centrality of water as an environmental necessity and economic catalyst,” says Harikrishnan Varma, a fellow with the Water Matters Water Management Professional Fellowship program. Varma is a chemical engineer by profession whose work, “Policy Interventions in Storm Water Management: Decentralized Solutions in Bengaluru,” assesses the efficiencies and challenges of present storm water management policies in Bengaluru. Varma is one of the three 2019-20 Water Matters fellows, a program that pairs post-doctoral researchers with policy experts who offer on-ground policy insight to ensure that research reflects reality for impact and sustainability. Program mentors include former bureaucrat Santha Sheela Nair, Professor Balaji Narasimhan from Indian Institute of Technology Madras and N.K. Ambujam, director of Anna University’s Center for Water Resources.

Consulate partner and Managing Trustee of Care Earth Trust Jayshree Vencatesan views Water Matters as “a comprehensive and vibrant program that has facilitated the evolution of a strong citizenry for water conservation.”

Water Matters will continue to engage people through an interactive digital “Museum in a Box” science education platform for secondary schools, exchange opportunities for U.S. and Indian water professionals, and a proposed water and science education curriculum available on mobile phones.

Sustainable water management is a shared challenge with solutions to be found in education, innovation and greater U.S.-India partnership. Water Matters serves as a first, but elemental, drop to fill this need.

Brindha Jayakanth is a cultural affairs specialist at the U.S. Consulate General Chennai.



Managing Water Resources

By Natasa Milas

India is home to nearly 17 percent of the world’s population, but has only 4 percent of the world’s renewable water resources. Due to the massive expansion of cities like Chennai and Bengaluru in South India, there are rising concerns about pollution of water from municipal sewage, industrial effluents and pesticides. Providing sufficient access to clean water to people in this region is not an easy task.

Harikrishnan Varma, a fellow with the Water Matters Water Management Professional Fellowship program, describes three major challenges for efficient water management in South India. “Rivers in southern India are non-perennial in nature. And socioeconomic activities in the peninsula, especially agriculture, are heavily monsoon-dependent. Coupled with the unscientific usage of groundwater, this leads to heavy water stress during summer seasons,” says Varma.

Then, there is the issue of urbanization. “Coming to urban settings,” continues Varma, “the increase in the built-up area has led to a situation where the reduced percolation of stormwater into the ground has prevented the recharge of aquifers. Extreme hydrological events in cities, such as floods and droughts, cause additional stress on the urban water system.”

Lastly, the issue with water management in India, in many ways, has to do with water governance. Varma explains that there are “institutional and infrastructural challenges associated with water governance in southern India,” and that “fragmented institutions and insufficient infrastructure delay the governance process significantly.”

“In a city like Bengaluru, which resembles an inverted saucer by topography, where all the natural drains run outward from the city, groundwater recharge is indispensable,” says Varma. “Hence, we need an approach which integrates nature-based solutions, which are inherently decentralized, into the present stormwater management plans and policies.”

Water Matters aims to “utilize different mediums to educate, advocate and support South India in addressing water challenges,” says Fayaz Tantray, another fellow with the Water Management Professional Fellowship program. Tantray is a technical assistant at the Water Resources Management Centre, NIT Srinagar, and is currently studying the impact of climate change on water resources of the Indus basin, using global climate models.

The Water Management Professional Fellowship program, a collaboration between U.S. Consulate General Chennai and Care Earth Trust, provides a platform to engage such highly-trained individuals with hands-on experience in the water sector. The six-month program is expected to help fellows gain exposure to challenges in the water management sector, and undertake experiments and projects to find innovative solutions, under the mentorship of experts in the field.

“The Water Management Professional Fellowship was a great learning platform for me,” says Varma. “I could build upon my academic learning and skills to explore ways of addressing real-world challenges in the water sector.” Tantray echoes the importance of the program. “My experience has been great and I learned quite a lot. With the rise of GIS [Geographic Information System] and remote sensing technologies, along with hydrological software, I love to do hydrological modeling, as it is the heart of the hydroinformatics to provide the best solutions in terms of water conservation and management.”

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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