Why open wells make more sense for today’s urban scene, says Anupama Mohanram

Open wells were very much an integral part of Indian culture, seen as early as the Indus Valley civilisation. The step wells of Gujarat and Rajasthan bear testimony to the architectural and cultural wonder of the open well. Take for instance the UNESCO world heritage site: Rani-ki-vav in Gujarat. Built in the 11th century, its design resembles an inverted temple, highlighting the sanctity of water.

Shallow wells were popular as it was easy to visually identify water levels, and they were an indicator of water availability for the community during various times of the year. This translated to the conscious use of water.

Rise of the borewell

Over time, the perception that water from open wells is not clean led to the emergence of the ‘borewell’ or deep well. One disadvantage of the such wells is that the water level is not visible, thus blinding us to the availability or rather, the lack of availability of water. Another drawback is that it is difficult to recharge aquifers at deep depths (which would most likely consist of hard rock).

On the other hand, open wells tap into shallow aquifers which can be recharged by rainwater, thus creating a cycle of water that can be tapped into. Traditionally, open wells were reinforced by stone masonry with built-in steps leading down for people to draw water manually. These wells also served as places of gathering and social interaction.

City connect

In the current urban context, due to the focus on providing water for individual use rather than at a community level, the sizes of wells have shrunk over the years. These days most open wells do not exceed 5ft-6ft in diameter. Concrete rings are widely used to retain the wells.

An open well of 5ft diameter and about 40ft depth has a volume of 21,000 litres. This would be filled up in about five days of average rainfall in Chennai and would translate to about 28 days of water supply for five people. Given that there should be about 50 days of rainfall in a normal year, an open well could provide for water for 280 days for a family of five. This would definitely be a valuable resource to have in Chennai today. This, when combined with other water conservation measures could help provide a whole year’s supply of water for a family and back for periods of lack of rainfall. A shallow, open well will also serve as a flood control measure by capturing and retaining most rainwater falling on the site.

It’s time we recognise the need for such wells and revive our aquifers by means of an efficient rain water harvesting system.

The author is the founder of Green Evolution, a sustainable architecture firm

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