Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The softer side of hydro

Note: This was my first post on The Berkeley Blog (cross-post from the BERC Blog).

Natel Energy
What I understand so far is that we are about to visit a company that develops renewable-energy technology. On the way to an old Navy air station in Alameda, I ask my fellow passengers, “So, what do these guys do, again?” Someone mentions wind; I have assumed solar, but I am a bit taken aback when I enter the presentation room.

I am on a group tour at Natel Energy with ERG’s Energy and Society course. The person at the front asks us to share what we are interested in. People mention energy, engineering and policy. Feeling a bit like an outsider in the room, I am telling her, “I work with water and development…” when I glance up at the slideshow presentation, which says “EcoSmartHydro™.” I do a double take, thinking “Hydro? That’s got to mean something else.” But as I stare at the screen, I continue, “… and, I guess I’m interested in hydro?”

I am surprised because the popular image of renewables is the archetypal wind farm or solar panel. I believe that hydro seems to get marginalized due to controversies surrounding its ecological and social impacts, but more on that later.

Natel project in Arizona (Source: Natel Energy)
The person at the front is Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy. The company’s strategy relies on the development of cost-effective low head hydropower technology. While large dams can rise anywhere from a hundred to almost a thousand feet in height, “low head” here refers to drops of thirty feet or less. What intrigues me about the system is that instead of installing turbines directly into rivers, they retrofit them into canals, taking advantage of pre-existing water infrastructure. Natel claims that California’s irrigation canals have a hydropower potential of 255 megawatts (MW).

The question in my mind is then: “What about the context of developing countries?” Schneider mentions Chile where Natel claims they have 1,000-MW hydropower potential through existing irrigation infrastructure.

My experience has been in India where earlier this year I had visited a canal, part of the Indira Gandhi system in the Thar Desert. I happened to be at a point in the canal where the opposite of hydropower was occurring: Water was being pumped higher in order for it to flow downward. You could potentially call this hydro-consumption.

Today, India still has about 84,000 MW of general economically exploitable hydropower potential, however I am not sure if this number includes potential low head hydropower within their existing water infrastructure. At present, Natel’s projects reach up to 0.5 MW in Oregon, however Schneider emphasizes the accumulative effect of low head hydropower across an entire water system.

This echoes the “soft path” strategy popularized by Amory Lovins. For Lovins, even renewables, such as solar and hydro, could veer a nation toward an unsustainable and socially discriminatory future if they are incorporated into large, complex development projects. Large hydro development (hydel) projects do end up displacing already marginalized communities while fostering energy elitism due to the operation of complex technology and centralized energy distribution.

What Natel and small hydro in general offer is somewhat simple technology used within existing infrastructure at a local level—homegrown energy or the softer side of hydropower.

This is not to say at all that this will work in India at a national scale — let alone in the utterly dry Thar Desert. However, as India negotiates huge hydro deals with Bhutan and Nepal and environmentalists blame hydel projects for “man-made disasters” in the Himalayas and as these large projects take at least 4 to 5 years if not longer for approval, these smaller local projects may in the meantime be able to light up a few unconnected villages—putting some power into local hands.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog and The Berkeley Blog.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When we drink the devil's water

(Source: Flickr/len4its)
In the context of groundwater, she started by reading this Australian folk song from the turn of the century:
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, well, we’ll get it from the devil
Yes we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.
(Banjo Paterson, 1896)
At the Philomathia Forum last Friday, Sally Thompson, Assistant Professor of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Engineering program, presented on the Arkvathy River in South India, whose flow has declined since the 1970s and has now run dry in many areas; similar to the Colorado. In places where depths used to be over people heads, they can stand in what basically is now a dry field even during the rainy season.

Where has this water gone? Thompson explores the basic explanations: Has the rainfall changed? Has evaporation increased? What about channel encroachment?

Her research comes up with a negative on all counts. However, Thompson then points to what she thinks of as the elephant in the room—groundwater. Although Thompson understands river basins as complex systems, groundwater is a big piece of the puzzle. Water tables in the region have dropped up to sixty feet in the past few decades, and surface wells have gone dry. And who’s to blame?

Thompson goes back to the British era. In India, stepped water tanks in the ground were built in communities as reservoirs for agricultural use. Tank custodians would then receive a tithe of the farmers’ production. More water meant better production therefore greater tithe, incentivizing better tank management. This system collapsed when the British centralized payment to tank custodians who then lost incentive to actually manage the tanks.

Add to this water hungry development and unregulated extraction of groundwater and you have “a race to the bottom.” All of this coincides with my experiences with groundwater in India.

I surveyed the city of Gurgaon while interning with an NGO, looking for potential areas for groundwater recharge and water treatment. This city near New Delhi suddenly has popped out of seemingly nowhere with tall buildings occupied by multinationals and hip young people. Decked out with fast food joints, shopping malls and company offices, the thing that has gotten left for figuring out later is water. Now that the water table is dropping at alarming ratesa community group asked the NGO to help, as they cannot wait for the government to get its act together before it all runs dry.

Gurgaon at night (Kirk Kittell)
Water comes from a variety of sources—all interconnected. God apparently gives us water from the sky; the devil, from the ground. In ancient India, the Ganges River is a goddess who fell from great heights; and today we talk about sea level rise from Arctic glaciers via the magic of meteorology.

In some ways though, it seems rather appropriate to think of extracted water as coming from the devil. The devil works in mysterious ways. It all is quite good at the start. Then at some point we reach the bottom, and everything is gone. And all that is then left to be done is to dry up and fade away.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Redford film puts water back into river

Note: I have started writing for the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) Blog. Below is my first post there.

“Where do you think your water comes from? When you drink water from a water fountain here in Berkeley, what river are you drinking?” I attended a water talk recently and the speaker already knew that we wouldn’t have a clue about the answer. Where does our water come from? 

When I lived in India, I usually knew where my water came from—either I pumped it straight from the ground right by the house or it came from the river a few blocks away. I could see the water source. I had a connection with it. I swam in it. When I pumped it either by hand or machine, I controlled its extraction. However, most of us in Berkeley don’t have that experience. Water comes to us by the press of a button, the turn of a knob or by intermittent infrared sensors in restroom faucets which shoot water at us from hundreds of miles away.

Apparently this is an issue for all of California: Water out of sight and out of mind.

“The Colorado is California’s forgotten river,” said Barry Nelson last Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club. The funny thing is California gets more water from the Colorado River than Colorado does. Furthermore according to Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, the Colorado is “ground zero” for climate change and water issues in the US because of the huge impact changes in the river could have on the West.

Another thing that people aren’t usually aware of is that the Colorado River stops. It just stops. The river flows through seven states in the US and two in Mexico and dries up before reaching the ocean. What was once a flowing delta has now become a desert. Maybe that doesn’t really matter to us because that’s stuff that happens over the boarder. Again, out of sight, out of mind.

And this is where James Redford comes in. Yes, his name should sound familiar, and so does the voice on the film he promoted at the Commonwealth Club. His father, Robert Redford, narrates on the documentary, “Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West.” Redford (the younger) joked after presenting a short clip of the film, “We do have a great narrator, I must say.”

Right to left: Maria Baier, Jill Tidman, James Redford and Barry Nelson at the Commonwealth Club last Wednesday
The Redford Center uses film and storytelling to get people excited about issues like what is happening with the Colorado River. Since its release last year, “Watershed” has been shown in 43 film festivals and 300 community screenings around the world. Jill Tidman, who produced the film with Redford, emphasized how people feel disconnected to so many things and how people need to understand where their water comes from. The film seems to be working.

Redford recalled his favorite moment when after one screening a little boy went up and tugged on his shirt, saying, “That’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” This boy’s reaction was significant for Redford since it meant that the documentary resonates with a greater audience. Plus, he emphasized, this whole project is for our children, our future.

Just last month, the Redford Center along with other major NGOs launched an online campaign called “Raise the River,” and from the vibe of the event last Wednesday, it seems like the river is about to rise. “It’s not only achievable, but it’s achievable in our lifetime,” said Maria Baier, CEO of the Sonoran Institute.

The pieces have already come together. A major piece of the puzzle is the signing of Minute 319, a bi-national agreement between the US and Mexico to increase the flow of the Colorado River by one percent. This along with the cooperation of multiple NGOs and other groups (including Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die) in addition to local community participation means we may see Colorado and the Gulf of California reunited with our very own eyes.

The Colorado connects states, ecosystems and even nations together. Raise the River’s effort is just a small incremental step in a huge interconnected web of relationships. Plus, there are a ton of unanswered questions: What about water rights of Mexican farmers? Who gets displaced? How will water impact the present ecosystem?

Though the uncertainties remain, Redford’s campaign shows us that it is possible to put the pieces together to do something significant now. If there’s a lesson from this about water management that the Bay Area can learn from… that’s not for me to say. But I am a bit jealous of how sexy water looks due to all of this attention.This brings us back to our connection with water and how we are so indifferent to water and just how sexy and alluring she is. We don’t even bother to find out her name or where she’s from.

Cross post from the BERC Blog.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Biodiversity goes Bollywood

For your information, "biodiversity" in Hindi is jaiv vividhataa. And... don't ask me to say that again. It's somewhat nerve-racking to pronounce it in front of a class of kids.

So how did I avoid saying "biodiversity" while teaching about biodiversity in class yesterday?

Easy. I used Bollywood.

[Cue the dancing pink flamingos.]

But seriously... I've been helping at Asha Deep School here in India for the past couple months and I finally got to teach the kids about the environment... in Hindi.

Sadly, there is a dearth of resources in Hindi about the environment. This is why projects such as Dhara are so important. Resources appropriate for kids are even more difficult to find. The Government of India does make a good effort through the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and programs like Paryavaran Mitra, however kids' resources need constant updating. As young people become more and more fast-paced, even the slum kids that go to our school need things to be new and exciting.

This is why I was amazed when I found two recent animation projects that put a Bollywood twist on biodiversity.

The first is a Bollywood-inspired song released this year by none other than TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute). I love the creativity of this Hindi song, but I also love the fact that the video isn't simplistically promoting the end of urban development but that we need to work out how animals and humans can live together in an urban environment.

When I showed this video to the kids, they also loved it. They were glued to the screen and laughed the whole way through. They were also sad to see the animals so sad and sick. (You will be too when you see the monkey's sad disappearing face... if you have a soul.) Watch it. It has subtitles.

At the end of the video, we had a discussion. I asked the kids why it is important to plant trees in the city. They right away gave the stock answer of trees being a supply of oxygen. This is true, but trees are also the habitat of many animals. Who lives in trees? Birds. Who else? Monkeys. And? Squirrels. And? Insects? Yes! So many animals live in trees. Planting many trees are a way humans and animals can live together.

The previous evening, we had a special movie night where we watched the Bollywood animated film, "Delhi Safari." This came out last year and features voices from famous Bollywood actors like Govinda, Akshaye Khanna, Urmila Matondkar, Suniel Shetty and Boman Irani. It takes some animation tips from Disney, however its heart is Bollywood... but with animals.

Sadly it seemed not to do well at the box office, but it was a hit with our kids. The message was a little simplistic, but what does get across is that it's not right to wantonly destroy animals and the forest--their home. For kids who have grown up in a slum next to one of the most polluted rivers in the world, getting them to see beyond the concrete and pollution is a huge step in the right direction toward a more sustainable (and healthier) future.

As I've stated before, for me saving any species is not only about saving the environment but about also about saving ourselves.

The last activity we did was one I stole from CEE called "Web of Life." Each child got a label: Sun, water, tree, fish, monkey, insect, bird, fruit, crocodile, etc. I had them stand in a circle and showed them a spool of green thread, saying, "This is your shakti, your energy." I asked the child with the "sun" label who she wanted to give her shakti to. She said that she wanted to give it to the tree, of course. With the thread, I connected the sun to the tree. Like this we connected all the elements and animals to make a web.

On the web I put a bottle, which represented humanity, saying, "This is humanity. We depend on this web to survive. But what happens when the water becomes polluted?" I pulled the child with the label "water" out of the circle, and she let go of the string. The web weakened. "If the water is polluted, then the fish will die." Then I pulled out the child with the "fish" label, and he let go of the string. One by one the web weakened until "humanity" fell.

Like pulling the chair out from underneath us, we put ourselves in this precarious situation.

In the end, I asked the kids what they learned. They shouted, "Janwar hamare dost hain! Animals are our friends!"

And I think if we really understood this friendship, we'd do a lot more to keep it alive.

[Cue the "Delhi Safari" English version.]
Yes, apparently they made a full English version with Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams and Christopher Lloyd.

Monday, April 8, 2013

People who live in the desert dream about water

"People who live in the desert dream about water." That's what my friend said, anyway.

I just got back from a short stay in my friend's small desert village in northern Rajasthan, India. It is a village covered in sand, far from any town--a village so remote that it took three phone calls and three hours to get me a paracetamol (aspirin) for a fever I was having.

One night my friend and I got to talking about dreams. We realized that we had many dreams in common: being able to fly, being chased but you cannot run, being caught without any clothes on in a public place, trying to shout but not being able to.

However, there was one reoccurring dream that he had that I could not relate with: being thirsty but not being able to find water. I have never had a dream like that. He told me that he and his brothers have had this dream many times.

Driving through desert sands near the village

In fact, this is one fear in the desert. They hear news of children dying in their sleep, literally dying of thirst. They believe that the warm winds of the peak hot season sap water straight from their babies in the middle of the night. This is why if they hear even the slightest whimper from their children, mothers wake them up to drink some water.

I was interested in learning how they survive in the desert, so I started by asking about their history, and I was surprised that it started out with violence.

Only a few generations ago, their grandfathers fought for this land. I thought, "This place had no water, no trees, no nothing. Someone actually fought for this portion of desert?" I asked, "Why?"

The reply was that they wanted a place of their own.

Slowly, I put pieces of their history together. I was mainly interested in the development of water. They told me how they had to travel for hours and hours to carry water by camel. Then finally their grandfathers manually dug the well near their home. This seemed sufficient until Germans came and told them that the water has excessive amounts of fluoride, which could lead to fluorosis. A plan was already in place to fit these remote desert villages with toilet and bathing facilities and to pipe in treated drinking water.

One old aunt laughed as she said, "I remember when they put in the tap. We were dancing and had flowers!"

The toilets seem to be doing okay, but the tap has been long dry. They say that it was getting too expensive to maintain. And that's when the canal reached their village. Basically, it changed their lives.

Looking at the canal from the water "lift"

The Indira Gandhi Canal Project in Rajasthan started in 1958--a project started to water the desert. Said to be one of the largest canals of India, it took about 35 years for the canal waters to finally reach my friend's village.

One of the biggest changes that took place is  that they can now have another growing season. In the first season, they use the canal water to grow crops like wheat and chana (chickpeas). Their second growing season, during the monsoon, is now fully taken over by one crop--guar.

Guar does not actually take that much water to maintain. Even when there was a freak rain a couple days before I arrived, guar started to grow wildly in the my friend's family field. Not a day would go by without my friend's father asking me about the market conditions for guar in the US. All I could do was throw up my hands.

The second major impact of the canal water is that they now have a fresh supply of drinking water without excessive fluoride content. However, this is regularly driven in and stored in underground concrete tanks. The nearby well water is now only used for the animals and for other domestic uses.

I had many more questions as I explored the village and the surrounding area.

  • How much should the government invest in irrigating the desert?
  • How much more should the village develop? When I was there there was a poorly managed health clinic and a very small shop. 
  • As young people become more and more educated and less inclined to farming, what is the future of such a village in the desert?
  • How has watering the desert affected the hydrological dynamics and ecology of downstream communities?
  • How "green" should we try to make a desert?
The benefit of greening a desert is that it reclaims land for productive use, pushing against forces of desertification. 

Kids playing in the canal near the fields
I explained to my friend that in the US, we have also greened our deserts. In California, canal water from far off states irrigate fields of oranges, rice and almonds. We've been able to build cities with water parks in the desert. But has this been so wise?

People have started to plant trees in my friend's village. I told him, "Once you start planting trees, it's usually easier to plant more trees later. Trees then change the micro-climate of the area." My friend started to think about it, saying that he had not thought of that aspect of the forest--how it affects the hydrologic cycle, how it can bring water to an area.

As things slowly change in my friend's desert village, it is quite possible that they may stop having dreams of thirst and water. 

And it's quite possible that they will start dreaming of new things all together.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hero Dies Saving the Ganges

Every year we hear reports of people dying in the Ganga (Ganges River), but what about anyone dying while trying to save her?

Veer Bhadhra Mishra at Asha Deep School program (August 2011)

It came as a shock to me when I heard that Time Magazine's "Hero of the Planet" (1999), Veer Bhadhra Mishra passed away in Varanasi, the very city I am in right now.

I had hoped to visit his organization, the Sankat Mochan Foundation, and possibly even visit him during this trip.

Actually, two friends of mine got him to share with our kids at Asha Deep School in a program we were running in 2011. We were apprehensive since he was a university professor that his talk would go over the heads of the children; who mainly come from the nearby slum. To our surprise, this TED speaker spoke about the Ganga, water and the environment at a pace that kept the kids smiling. He took their questions seriously--as if they were top university students--and left graciously.

Mishra died trying to save the Ganga River. I use the word "trying" since the river is still in the red in terms of environmental degradation. Mishra did much in terms of changing mindsets--in a sense sending a "Silent Spring"-esque call for the Ganges; one that was both scientific and culturally relevant.

Being the Mahant (High Priest) of one of the most powerful temples of the city and the former head of the Civil Engineering Department at IIT BHU, Mishra had religio-scientific influence that suited the sensibilities of a changing India--an India that simultaneously embraces technological progress and her mystical history.

Like the Ganga and the myriad of questionable projects surrounding her, Mishra was also shrouded with controversy. Even so, I like to remember this "hero" the way I do on the day he visited our school. He was back to the basics: Clean water for everyone.

As the days get hotter here in Varanasi, I look out at the river and wish one day for a swim in a clean Ganga. Right now, I cannot enter without worrying about enteric disease and skin infections. Yet millions bathe in her waters everyday.

This World Water Day, my simple wish is for a clean Ganga and that one day these school kids will be alive and young enough to enjoy it.

Kids at Asha Deep School interacting with Veer Bhadra Mishra (August 2011)

Who would you say are today's heroes of the planet?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

India, Uttar Pradesh is the measure for global development, World Bank President

As I indicated in my last blog, I am a bit of a World Bank stalker. That is a bit of an overstatement, but today I got a ping that the President of the World Bank not only visited India but Uttar Pradesh, the state I am in right this very moment.

President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim,  with former Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, during last year's India visit (US Treasury Department)
The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, asserted that the global battle against poverty will not be won unless it is “successful in Uttar Pradesh specifically and India generally.”

Kim’s visit and following assertions affirm some of my own reflections on Uttar Pradesh and India.

1. Uttar Pradesh (UP) is a key indicator for development, not only for India but for the world.
Firstly for this to make sense, one should not think of UP as just a state of India. It may be helpful to think of UP as a country. As a nation, population-wise, it would be the fifth largest country in the world. In India, it is the second-largest economy, though this is spread quite thin and but a few drops of it trickles down to UP's vast population. Like all states of India, UP has its own cultural heritage separate from the other states. Though considered the heart of the Hindi-belt, UP still contains an array of ethno-linguistic communities. All-in-all, UP as “a state of India” is a bit misleading.

Much of India’s smeared poverty image is due to a family of states, termed “BIMARU,” which includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. It is an unfortunate label as (1) the term plays with the Hindi word for “sick” and (2) poverty is an issue throughout India and not just in these northern states. The Chairperson of the Planning Commission has said the BIMARU concept is “no longer true” due to the rapid level of growth in past years, especially in Bihar; considered India’s most backward state.

However, Kim’s visit makes it clear that UP should not be discharged from sick bay just yet.

2. India is an indicator for development.
Though I have been to many countries in the world, I have spent the majority of my time and effort in the Subcontinent. As DFID recently pulled out of funding India, the UN Millennium Projects focused on Africa, and as buzz continually pops up about India becoming an Asian superpower, at times it is easy to think that I am missing something. I am presently in UP, looking out the window. Like staring at a 3D stereogram poster, I observe and say, “I don’t see it.” I do catch glimpses: I used the internet through my mobile phone in India before any of my friends even thought about it in the US, India is one of the top billionaire nations of the world, and currently the iPhone is making significant traction.

“India Shining” was a 2004 political campaign, reflecting India’s rapid economic growth; however the campaign ended up as a flop for the BJP. As I look out my window, can I say that India is shining? How about India twinkling? Maybe I can say, overcast—but with a healthy silver lining.

View outside my window
3. The Ganga River challenge, big.
Kim also emphasized that the Ganga River challenge is immense compared to other river projects due to poverty, population growth and rapid industrialization. His emphasis coincides with the fact that he expects huge investments from the Bank into the Basin in upcoming years. The most current status of their Ganga project is bleak, so Kim’s talk on the River’s challenges comes from the Bank’s own “moderately unsatisfactory” experience.

Living by the Ganges and focusing my study interests on the River, I hear a lot of rhetoric, complaints and drama. Past cleanup efforts have been marred with suspicion as significant results have not been observed by the public. The World Bank claims that one of the major issues was that past projects did not consider the river basin as a whole, integrated system. However the question for me is: If they couldn’t handle the river, what makes them believe they can handle the whole basin? One thing we do agree on though: Either way, the challenge is big.

Did Kim get to see the “real” UP? Probably not, but that’s OK.
Recently, we have been helping a girl at Asha Deep School get a cleft palette operation at a local hospital. These operations are funded by the organization, Smile Train. Living in India for so long, I am used to what I see in many of the hospitals here—staff in flip flops, re-use of surgical gloves and disposable suction tubes, dingy conditions, and equipment straight out of some 1950’s sci-fi TV series. Today was some special event at the hospital, so the girl’s father said they cleaned up the place real nicely, putting new mats and keeping to strict visiting rules.

Of course, this is what Kim was greeted with—a cleaner version of UP. They festooned him with flowers, throwing petals along his path. This makes sense as “atithi devo bhava”; a well-used Indian phrase, meaning that the guest is god. So, Kim saw a UP scrubbed, prim and bedecked.

But that’s not a problem.

As it was, though I had been going to the hospital for the past couple of days, the girl’s father had to point out the fact that the hospital had been cleaned. I actually would not have realized it on my own. Even in its cleanest, most efficient state, such improvements did not faze me. And I’m guessing it was a similar case for Kim.

It seems for Kim that the challenges in UP are a microcosm of the challenges of the world. He states, “Being in Uttar Pradesh gave me such a strong sense of the scale of the development challenges.”

Next stop, Starbucks?
Personally, I’m glad people are helping UP. Oddly, part of the charm of UP’s cities, like Varanasi, is wrapped up in the fact that it is economically backward. I mean, would one want to even imagine a McDonald’s on the ghats of the Ganges? Sadly, it’s possible that even the staunchest may succumb to a Starbucks—maybe to post blogs while viewing the sacred river.

So what will happen when UP eventually does “develop”? Well, I think we need to consider first things first. How about imagining clean drinking water for everyone?

We’ll worry about the macchiatos in due course.