Friday, July 9, 2010



In Water…Without Water


‘Water, water everywhere /nor any drop to drink…’ these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge define our Indian Islands. Wondering why? Read on…


The Indian islands comprise of the historic Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea. In spite of being surrounded by water, water has been a major problem in these Union Territories. Let’s take a trip of the taxing water crisis in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.



The Dhanikhari Dam in South Andaman

(Picture courtesy: atcrossroads)


Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a group of 572 north-south running islands. The Andaman group covers 6,346 sq km, and the Nicobar group covers 1,953 sq km. This beautiful archipelago gets an average annual rainfall of 3,000mm. But, most of the rain water is lost as surface runoff due to the islands rugged physiography (physical features).




The soil cannot retain water, as it is composed of clay and sand. The soil has to be rich in sand and gravel to provide high permeability, which is necessary for constructing groundwater-harvesting structures like dug-wells.


For ages, the aboriginal tribes in the different islands here followed different methods of harvesting rain and groundwater. Here are a few examples:



Water storage system of the Shompen and the Jarawa Tribes


The Shompen and the Jarawa tribes use bamboo to direct water to shallow pits called Jack-wells, built in increasing order of sizes. In the lower southern part of India’s last and the largest, the Great Nicobar Island, the Shompen tribal-folk make bunds using logs of hard bullet wood. For irrigating crops, they direct the flow of rains to the fields situated at lower elevations by digging channels.


The Shompens and the Jarawas cut a full length of bamboo longitudinally and place it along a gentle slope with the lower end leading into a shallow pit called Jack-well. A series of increasingly bigger Jack-wells is built, connected by split bamboos so that the overflows from one lead to the other.


A jar or pitcher is often placed under a coconut tree during a shower of rain. A conducting spout made from stem or a branch is inserted into the mouth of the jar to fill it up with freshwater.


Among the Onges of the Little Andaman Island, buckets made of logs and giant bamboo are often found suspended from the roofs of the huts along with nets and baskets to trap rainwater.




Unfortunately, most of the traditional water harvesting systems have been neglected and are in a bad state. For instance, the Dilthaman Tank, built by the British to provide water during the construction of the infamous Cellular Jail, is languishing due to excess silt that has reduced its storage capacity. Though the Andaman & Nicobar Administration tried to revive the traditional water harvesting systems in the late 1980s, it is now promoting drilled bore-wells in the new colonies.



The Dilthaman Tank at Gandhi Park, Port Blair


In 2007, the Port Blair town faced unprecedented water crisis due to failure of north-east monsoon in the end of 2006 & delay in setting of South West monsoon in 2007. As a result, distribution of water to general public was being made once in 4-5 days. This necessitated A & N Administration to initiate a number of schemes as well as to cope up with situations which arose in 2007.


The situation is worsening by every passing year as there has been a drastic reduction in the amount of rainfall that the remote islands now receive, in addition to the severe damage that has already been done to the environment because of the tremendously relentless series of earthquakes after the disastrous Tsunami of 26th December, 2004.


But unlike the Tsunami, this is a man-made disaster. Over the past 54 years, the population on the islands has soared, rising from just 30,000 in 1951 to a staggering 480,000 now. Three summers ago, water supplies ran so low that the local administration, the largest employer by far in this Union Territory, took the unprecedented step of granting mass leave to its staff, hoping they would return to the mainland during the summer vacations of the children’s schools in the two months of May & June, leaving more water for those who stayed back.


And a sudden rise in tourism after the unforgettable fiasco has increased the requirement of fresh water manifold as the consumption has increased to almost an unmanageable extent now. The Administration is found helpless to cope up with the increasing crisis despite the multifarious ongoing projects like building of small dams to collect rain water in and around the hills and the valleys and setting up salt water treatment plants for desalination of sea water, to boot.


The status quo is unpromising with the Administration cutting down domestic water supply to once a week, now, to make matter worse for the questioning islanders, who have been left in the lurch by their so-called ‘care-takers’ at the receiving end for ages…


  1. What about the position of water in ground ? Is it at a very low level ?
    I don't have heard about any major rivers there also.
    Its a big issue, which needs to be tackled at the earliest, all applauds to you for making this known to us.

  2. Its appalling how we need to crusade for basic amenities of life, so many many years after independence..We call ourselves as a fast growing economy, but all we are doing is widening the gap between those who have all and those who have nothing...

  3. journomuse said it best!



  4. Islands have unique problems...I think desalination should solve the problem...costly but necessary!

  5. @bhardwajme The islands have 2rivers 1each in North Andaman and Great Nicobar, a few streams (nallahs), reservoirs, tanks and irrigation ponds spread over in different islands. Rain water catchment is the major source of water in the form of reservoirs, ponds and streams in the islands. And yes, the ground water level is very low due to the porosity of soil... Thanks, indeed, for sharing your thoughts and the kind concern, too. :-)

    @Journomuse That's so very true! Well articulated thoughts! Thanks! :-)

    @Hayaah Right on! Thank you! :-)

    @Nalini Hebbar Yeah, that's right, dear Nalini! I shall soon post further details on the issue. Thank you! Cheers! :-)

  6. This is really a great problem you have addressed here sir. May Anadam come out of this with the "Water Treatment Plants" you mentioned.

  7. soon or later... hope the goverment would solve the problem...
    thanks for sharing this story.
    have a wonderful day!


  8. @Shankha That would really help if the authorities mean business about implementing the viable options on a war-footing. We would have to wait and see how it all unfurls in the future. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Cheers! :-)

    @NENSA MOON As I've said above, let's wait and see how they execute the options and deliver. Thanks very much for voicing your opinion with us, here. Do stay in touch. Cheers! :-)

  9. That is a shame. Desalination plants are extremely expensive to buid and morever they need a stringent operation and mainetenance program, to keep it functioning normally. As has been seen from several basic treatment plants built by Engineers without borders or USAID,in developing countries after the said treatment plant is built, it falls into neglect and disuse within a few years. The key is to give people accountabilty and pride in what they built.
    Put your tax money to proper usage, people need to be more vociferous,and demanding of thier elected officials.
    Not just water treatment but they also need to built waste water treatment plant to preserve the marine life and corals from damage.
    Sustainabilty is the key, when I lived in Port Blair in the late 1980's I think the water problem was not so acute. But then that was more than 20 years ago. From someone who does this for a living I can tell you, it involves a lot of work and millions of dollars.
    Again being a developing and ecologically fragile area, the islands may qualify for USAID or UNEP grants to built these facilties.

  10. @Travel Bug That was some mighty valuable analysis indeed of the probable option of desalination plants towards solving the nagging water crisis in these vulnerable islands coming right from the horse's mouth, dear Rumi! Sustainability is very much the key, as you've rightly suggested.

    I would appreciate if you could kindly throw some more light on the islands qualifying for USAID or UNEP grants to built these indispensable facilities as to whether some NGOs can be entrusted with the projects or would it only be the Administration that would be considered for the same.

    I ask you about this as I'm already in the process of floating a meaningful local NGO in the post-withdrawal scenario here, after the relief & rehabilitation support has finally come to a cease, with very nominal accomplishments in terms of tangibility in the objectives.

    Thanks again!