Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology of the RWTH Aachen University

Category Archives: Urbanisation and Water

All the little things: Thoughts of someone who came back

Spiritual journey

Since I was a child, I was raised in a rational, non-religious way. Nevertheless, I attended lessons in religion, not only Christianity, and always have been interested in other religions, as they show a part of the culture and history of other people, and gave a lot of thoughts on spirituality. Still, during the last past years, I somehow haven’t given much thoughts to that topic.

Maybe because it is not really part of the everyday life in Germany. In Raipur, or inIndia in general, religion and spirituality was everywhere I looked. It seemed to be part of almost every part of the everyday life. Everywhere you walk you can find big and small temples, sometimes a bit hidden, between the houses and almost near every lake and under a lot of certain trees in the streets you can find small places for worshipping and sacrificing. Of course, there were a lot of young people which haven’t been that spiritual, but still even them believed in goods and in certain tradition. They always wondered how I cannot believe in goods when I told them that I am an atheist.


Being surrounded by all this spirituality, there was no other choice but to get curious about it and to engage with it. In that way we had a lot of talks about it and learned a lot about the history, their tales and how they still affect the modern life. But talks only get you an idea of what it really about, so we visited many temples and joined some ceremonies to experience this spirituality on our own. It was quite different to the kind of heavy, sad and obedient way of the typical European ceremonies. The music and the songs seem to be happier (as I don’t understand Hindi I can’t really tell but it felt like it) and more natural/elemental. During the ceremonies they use a lot of flowers, water, fire and food, so it felt more like worshipping the elements than directly the goods. This impression is, in my opinion, also reflected in the fact that a lot of rivers, trees and other plants are worshiped as holy things, as parts of the gods.


But, contradictive as every religions seems to be for me, even they worship it, the Indian people very often don’t treat the nature around them well, filling it with a lot of waste or destroying it with building factories or expanding their cities unplanned and unorganized. So all of these experiences made me think about what I know and about the way I was raised. But like a lot of questions I brought back from the stay in India, this one is also still not answered.

Pani Problem

For people living in Germany, it is quite normal to go to the tab, turn it on, pour a glass of water from it, fill a bottle or simply drink it. If you buy fruits at the market, for example grapes or apples, you should wash them at home, but you also can eat them directly without fearing instant aftermaths. You can order drinks with crushed ice without thinking about it. As common as all of these things sound to people like me, it is not something to take granted in India.


If you would turn on the tab for example in Raipur and directly drink the water from there, you would most likely end up with health problems. And as the fruits at the market are mostly cleaned with the same water and the crushed ice is made of it as well, you would most likely deal with the same outcome after consuming them. In some parts, like in the poorer areas and slums, you couldn’t even turn on the tab, because there is none, as well as there is no toilette, as the city don’t have any sanitation and waste-water system in these parts, while being not very proper in the rest of the city. Most of the waste water is channeled into an open sewer system along the streets, so called nallahs. But as they are mostly also used to get rid of any waste, polluting the waste water even more, they are quite often filled and clogged, resulting in a really bad smell all over the city and, during strong rainfalls, in floods, spreading the pollutants in the area and let it infiltrate the ground and polluting the water resources. Because of this reasons, especially foreigners like me have to be very patient about what they eat and drink, have to by bottled water for drinking and sometimes even for brushing your teeth. At the first weeks, it was kind of hard to remember that all the time and you really learned to be thankful to have a proper system here in Germany. You really learn to appreciate all those things, especially when seeing people washing their dishes and clothes, themselves and their teeth all at once in a lake behind their houses, as they have no other choice.


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

One thing I really miss back here in Germany is going by the rickshaw. Whether for going to the university in the morning, the way back from there or in the evening driving back to the hotel through the night after having a walk around the Telibandha Lake. Whether public and cram-full to the last corner or all by my one in a private one, every time it has been a really immediate and really direct way to get to know the city and the people. Because of its open cut, all the noise, the dirt but also the life hits you directly without the protection of wall, e.g. a window glass in a car, and you fully emerge in the city living around you. The sound of the engine was like a drum machine, producing a beat which seemed to be like a heartbeat of the everyday life around you, mixing up with all the honking and shouting that one felt like in an urban jungle. With the heat, nearly no wind or fresh air and all the vehicles and people around it felt like being a part of a big body, moving here and there.


During the evening, the city got more quiet and only the sound of the engine was left like a heartbeat in a body that goes to sleep, with the fresh wind being like a calm breath and the city lights like the pictures of the day that come to you mind before falling asleep.

During those rickshaw rides, as well as during a lot more occasions, a lot of people approached us and we started stalking to them. Those talks where often a mixture of a little Hindi here on our side, a little English there on the other side and a lot of smiling and laughing in between, because we did not really understood each other. This is another example where we experienced the kindness all the people commonly showed to us, which made you feel welcome amongst them, being part of this body named Raipur.

Enjoy the silence

The first thing I recognized after coming back to Germany was this big silence around me. It hit me in the same way as the noise and the life hit me when I arrived in Raipur. I was so used to the cacophony from honking, shouting, rattling engines and every other possible sounds, that even a city like Frankfurt on the Main, in which I landed on our journey back to Germany, seems to be a little and quite village.

But what I felt was not only the silence in the surroundings outside, but also in my everyday life. After living together with two other persons in a for me rather small hotel room for two months and spending almost the whole day together, at the first moment it is kind of weird to have again  a room and time for your own and be on your own. Nevertheless, even being three in one room, there were moments when nobody spoke, everybody was absorbed in thoughts or concentrated on their work. But this silence was quite different, not as complete as being entirely on your own.

Also it feels like the streets are more empty and less lively, that less of the life of the city happens in the public space but rather in the buildings. All the small shops selling fruits, street food, clothes and a lot of other stuff which can be found in Raipur and where people gather around, all the small temples and small restaurants, in Germany they are most likely in buildings or fewer but more empty. Of course in the evening a lot of bars and restaurants open too in Germany, but during the day the streets are rather empty and business is done behind walls and windows.

cultural and religious exposure to water on the basis of different social systems – Chennai, India

Many cities in India are expected to reach dimensions of megacities within the next years. Vital urban services such as water supply and water removal have to be expanded to serve larger areas and growing human populations due to the explosion of the population in the cities. Source areas for drinking water get degraded, polluted or are obsolete due to incompatible land uses and population density within urban areas.

The main topic of this project is the cultural and religious handling with water resources and its possible influences on the water supply due to the water usage in Chennai. Therefore, the differences between urban areas in Chennai, such as slums or the middle and upper class, and the temple areas will be investigated.


Chennai via google maps

Let’s have a closer look at the case study Chennai. With a population of 8.5 million, Chennai is one of the five biggest cities of the Indian subcontinent and the capital of the South Indian state Tamil Nadu. As a metropolis, Chennai houses a number of people from different religion and cultures. People live together in nearly perfect harmony and religious tolerance showing respect and value to other religions. With around 80 %, Hinduism is the main religion in this city followed by approx. 9 % Muslims, approx. 8 % Christians and approx. 3% of ethno-religious communities (

For investigating the interaction between religious and cultural water use and the change of society, interviews and survey had been done. Around 200 interviews were carried out in form of questionnaires. Therefore, a translator was needed which has been found after a few days of meeting potential candidates.

How do people deal with their water availability?

Slum Adyar River

black barrels at the roof top

In the first 4 weeks, the slum areas around the Adyar River were visited. Entering these areas with a native is better than going alone and you will get a cordially welcome with a Chai. After explaining the project, the inhabitants were very excited and answered every single question.

water pump

water pumps connected to the water pipes

Talking about water shortage was no deal because there was none. Since the last legislative period, every single household got a water pump and consequently 24/7 water supply. Even some dumpsters were arranged at some side roads. Some of the houses have big black barrels at the roof top to save water using it after a few days or weeks. The Hindus believe that the sun has the power to purify the water inside the barrels.

trench slum

open trench at the beach

But not every slum has such benefits. A look at the slums along the beaches reveals huge differences. Instead of a canal system, they have open trenches and the waste water drained away at the beach. Water tanks will be filled every single day, but they try to save water in big barrels and the garbage is going into rusted dumpsters which will be emptied every day.

Inland, along the river, there will be a canal system and water pumps again and dumpsters, that will be emptied too. But even if the residents know that there is a dumpster or a canal system, they use the back yard or river bank to throw it all away. They got some public toilets, but if one of them is broken, they still use the river bank. For those who don’t have an own water pump, big barrels (à 500 litre) are available which are refilled daily.

The slum residents know about the water shortage and know how to deal with water scarcity, but there are still people using as much water as possible.

middle class houses

middle class houses

The last weeks, the people of the middle and upper class areas have been interviewed. The translator was not needed as all of them were able to speak English. Along the different areas, there were not such significant discrepancies as in the slum areas. All of the houses were connected to the canal system and they got water through pipes or via water pumps connected to the ground water. Although they use dumpsters, they still throw the trash beside the road. From my own experiences, there was a water loss around midday and late afternoon. As the water scarcity is enormous during the summer time, people of the middle and upper class save water in underground basins or barrels beside the house. They try to use as less as possible because they’ve been enlightened about the water shortage.

How exactly does culture reflect in the water consumption and does religion truly play a role?

Some of the areas along the river bank are properties of the Hindu community and temple. Around 40 years ago, they were able to use the river water for religious purposes. Nowadays, they just use the temple basins for that. Water is used daily, but they are not able to say how much is needed.Most of the Hindus use water to clean the ground in front of their houses and to draw Rangoli or Kolam symbols every morning. Some of the houses have a small holy shrine which is washed nearly twice a week. An interviewed owner of a fruit stand clears the ground every morning as well.For one Hindu household, it’s around 25-50 litre, measured as 1 bucket is 25 litre. For cleaning a shrine, around 50-75 litre are needed and around 150 litre for a temple.

Concerning the Christians and Moslems, there is no religious purpose of water such as the Hindus.

Asking the citizens about getting help or helping each other during water less seasons, there are huge differences. Without getting any help from the high society, slum residents help each other and even help the poorer. The middle and upper class inhabitants are not that helpful. Around 65 % of the interviewed people would like to help the poorer people. The other 35 % are nearly angry about the better water situation inside the slums and they are not willing to help. About cleaning the river, everyone would support, but no one wants to start. Not even priests want to help. In their opinion, it’s the fault of the slum residents and it would be best to remove the slums and their inhabitants from the river bank.

Summarised, there is a difference between the religions and their water management, as Hindu using more water for religious purposes. Beside this fact, all use nearly the same amount of water for showering, washing clothes or gardening. All of the population knows about the risks of contaminated water or water shortage, but they still have to learn more about sustainable handling and saving the world’s most important resource.


Field work in Chennai

The biggest challenge we had was to take the surveys in the slums. Because there is nobody able to speak English like in the middle and upper class. So it was very important to find a good translator and in particular a translator who is able to get in touch with the people in the slums, so that they open their mind. After a few days of searching and meeting a lot of potential translators we found such a person and our efforts were rewarded.



Canal next to a slum

When we entered the slums for the first time, it was like entering another world and nothing seems real. But it was a friendly and warm hearted world and the people there are quiet amazing. Although the people don`t have much here they share everything. After our guide explained that we come from Germany and we are doing a survey about water use and water consumption, the ice was broken and they were very happy to see us. Fast we gained the attraction of the people since in this areas they don`t know white people but because of this attraction we had a big problem. We had to ask everyone separately elsewise everyone wants to say something to the questions and we were not able to get correct ans
wers. The people were mostly open minded and gave willingly answers to the questions although usually the first question was whether we are from the government or if we want to build new houses for them.  As such, once can say the slums that we have visited have water the whole day. Mostly it is tank water which is delivered by water transporters from metro water or the cooperation. The water for this tanks is delivered daily. In addition, pipes are present that ensure a constant supply of water and also groundwater pumps. One of the biggest problems is that the groundwater is salty, so it can`t be used for many things. This happened due to the fast population growth in Chennai and also because of the tsunami in 2004. This problem can be found everywhere in Chennai and there is no solution.It is important to say that all people in Chennai have electricity and that they have to pay for this. In the slums nobody has to pay water taxes but in the middle and upper class they have to do it. In the slums they have only to pay for the can water which is mostly used as drinking water. If they don`t want to pay for it they drink the tank water, which is boiled for partial advance or is drunk directly without boiling. We were told by the people form the middle and upper class that the water supply is better in some cases in the slums than in this classes because there is permanent availability of water especially in summer.  In the slums you can find a catastrophically waste management because most of the trash is thrown in the river and also the swage is directed there. So it looks like there is no waste management in the slums. In the middle and upper class this gets better and you can find sewage canals and also the garbage disposal. Nevertheless it is important to mention that the understanding of cleanliness and sustainability exists but is not implemented in Chennai. Forty years ago the rivers where clean here and could be used as an drinking water source, the most of the slums where build next to the rivers because of that. But when the industrialization starts the water gets so heavily polluted that one further use is inconceivable. In our discussions with the people we got to know that the government hospitals are free to use for everyone but it is not well known in the slums. Chennai has no school fees, so that everyone can get education for free.


trash thrown into the river

All in all I can say that in Chennai a lot of education work needs to be done to strengthen people’s awareness of the handling with water. The population of Chennai has to learn that water is an important and infinite commodity and not to be regarded as self-evident.

Water supply situation in Chennai

Water Demand - Water Supply

Chennai’s water situation is severe. The capital city of the southern state Tamil Nadu represents the fourth largest metropolitan area in India accounting for a population of 8.7 million in 2011. Due to rapid population growth, difficulties regarding the provision of water demands have been arising. Extreme weather conditions during past years such as dry periods and heavy rainfalls increased the impact on the water supply infrastructure systems. Additionally, the risk of salt water intrusion exists due to the coastal location. Read more »

Working in the slum area of Nandagiri Hills (Hyderabad)

I’m staying here in Hyderabad for around 2 months now. Incredible how time runs. A lot of things happened –good things as well as some bad things. I got a lot of routine in my everyday life – and this for example helps to succeed in the negotiations with the rickshaw drivers. After my experience at the TKD class, I would like to share another positive experience – my work in the slum area of Nadagiri Hills.

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