Burhanpur, an ancient city of central India’s Madhya Pradesh, was until recently facing a water crisis. But now, with a few water-related interventions, Burhanpur is changing its destiny.

The city, which once served as the Deccan headquarters of the Mughals, is on the banks of river Tapti and has many ancient structures, including a unique 400-year-old underground water harvesting system. Despite its location and heritage, water was a scarce resource for the residents over the past few years. Lining up every day to fetch water and waiting for long hours for water tankers had become a common occurrence for the people.

Rapid urbanisation and the effects of climate change led to the scarcity of water in Burhanpur. The city was among ten water vulnerable districts of Madhya Pradesh according to climate change vulnerability assessment report released for the state in the year 2016-’17. Madhya Pradesh has also been listed as “moderately vulnerable” in the Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning report released in 2019-2020.

This year, things changed with regard to water access. The city has become the first district in Madhya Pradesh to have a functional tap-water connection in almost every household (99.95%). Out of 1,01,952 households, 1,01,905 now have water connection in the district, according to the Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard maintained by the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti, which is responsible for water-related, including drinking water, policies.

Kundu Bhandara is capable of supplying 15% of the total water supply of Burhanpur city. Photo credit: Shalikram Chaudhary

To ensure continuous water supply to the households of Burhanpur and enhance adaptive capacity to climate change, authorities have come up with a plan to revive the city’s traditional water structures.

The Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change, under its Climate Change Action Programme, sanctioned a project to initiate the conservation of traditional water systems of Burhanpur city which is expected to directly benefit 3,550 households and indirectly 10,000 to 15,000 households by climate-proofing urban water supply.

“Studies suggest that the water sector in Burhanpur is highly vulnerable and hence the climate variability poses unique threats to the Burhanpur’s Qanat water supply system (kundi bhandara),” said Lokendra Thakkar, project-in-charge. “In addition, downscaled climate information suggests an increase in surface temperature from 2 degrees Celsius to 4 degrees Celsius and a decrease of rainfall amounts from -3% to -8% by 2050-2080 in the Tapti River Basin.” Thakkar is associated with the Environmental Planning & Coordination Organisation as an officer in charge of State Wetland Authority, Madhya Pradesh.

“Burhanpur district has a high area under banana cultivation which is water demanding crop and has high irrigation requirement which adds to the water stress of Burhanpur,” he added. “The city has been categorised as semi-critical by Central Ground Water Board. Thus, interventions such as restoring traditional water sources to meet the water demand of Burhanpur will address water supply-related climate risks.”

The two-year project began in March 2019 and was expected to be completed by February.

“The project was delayed due to Covid-19 pandemic, but most of the work has already been done and locals are benefitting from this,” added Bajpai, who documented the project. “Only two or three kundis are yet to be restored.”

Traditional system

The city’s historic urban landscape flourished between the 15th-century to 17th-century. It is said that Burhanpur city had strategic importance for the Mughal empire, so an army of two lakh was posted in the city.

The civic population of the city was about 35,000. To cater for the water demand, an underground network was built. The traditional water harvesting system in Burhanpur is called Kundi Bhandara or Qanats, according to a study.

“Kundi Bhandara was built by Mughal Subedar Abdul Rahim Khan Khana in the year 1615. Apart from Kundi Bhandara, Jali Karanj, Mul Bhandara, Shakar Talab are a few ancient water structures of Burhanpur. However, except Kundi Bhandara, all other ancient water structures are in bad condition now,” said Shalikram Chaudhary, a Burhanpur based researcher and member of the district archaeology committee.

The origins of the traditional technology of Kundi Bhandara construction was drawn from the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. Photo credit: Lokendra Thakkar

“Kundi Bhandara is a network of wells that are connected with an underground canal or a huge pipeline made of marble or stones. The first kundi is made on Satpura hills that is 30 meters above the city’s ground level,” explained Chaudhary. “All 102 kundis have different depths ranging from six meters to 24 meters and diameters from 0.75 meters to 1.75 meters. The kundis are designed in a way to use gravity and air to deliver water to each corner of the city.”

The origins of the traditional technology of Kundi Bhandara construction was drawn from the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. Iran is known as the birthplace of Qanat. The ancient qanat system has the capability to tap alluvial aquifers at the heads of valleys and conducting the water along underground tunnels by gravity, often over many kilometres, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage list.

It is believed that Iran’s original system was introduced to the world about 750 BC. Qanats are also known as “karez” (Afghanistan), “galeria” (Spain), “khotara” (morocco), “aflaj” (Arabian peninsula), “forggara” (north Africa), “kanerjing” (China), “auon” (Saudi Arabia/Egypt), reflecting the widespread dissemination of the technology across ancient trading routes and political maps.

The water recharging system devised for the canal is based on the principle of intercepting the run-off in the subsoil groundwater level through underground channels and collecting it in structures, partly underground and partly aboveground.

“The underground water network is built in such a way that there is no need of power to maintain the flow of water, but gravity and air pressure keep the flow going,” said Saransh Bajpai, Senior Manager- Climate, World Resources Institute, India. “Rainwater is collected from hills and flows in underground channels called ‘bhandaras’. A total of 102 wells are connected with the underground network which is called ‘kundi’. The water collected is stored in sump-wells known as ‘karanj’.”

“The traditional network is capable of supplying 15% of total water supply of Burhanpur city,” added Bajpai.

Shrubs and trees from the water structures were removed during the restoration process. Photo credit: Lokendra Thakkar

A study by Amit Wahurwagh and Alpana Dongre published in MDPI journal, explaining the importance of the traditional water systems states, “The groundwater thus collected is stored in ‘karanj’, from where it is further distributed through quaternary channels throughout the major consumer points, such as the rest houses of the Sarais, Hammams, gardens, mosques and residential areas of the city. This system of eight water works built in Burhanpur city known as the ‘Kundi Bhandara’, ‘Sookha Bhandara’, ‘Trikuti Bhandara’, ‘Mool Bhandara’ and ‘Chintaharan’ uses unparalleled construction techniques. It may be considered glorious relics of Mughal engineering, ingenuity and skill.”

Kundi Bhandara of Burhanpur was believed to be the only Qanat system in India, but the Ancient Karez System (Qanat) have been recently discovered in the Bidar district of Karnataka as well.

“The Bidar Karez, built in the 15th century, is more than 3-km long with 21 air vents,” according to the official website of Bidar. “Underground canals, built to connect underground water streams, were meant to provide drinking water to civilian settlements and the garrison inside the Bidar fort. This was necessary for a city where the soil was rocky and drilling wells was difficult.”

The Qanat-like structure is also found in Kasargod, Kerala. There is a network of hundreds of surangas in Kerala, which resemble the Qanat system.

Restoring Kundi Bhandara

“As part of the project, restoration of 71 open and step wells of the city along with restoration of Kundi Bhandara network is being done,” said Thakkar while talking to Mongabay-India. “Besides these 250 rainwater harvesting structures are also being installed in the government buildings of the city. One of the most significant interventions is plantation and grassland development and protection activities in the upper catchment of Kundi Bhandara.”

“As per the environmental impact assessment study report 2015, Burhanpur Municipal Corporation supplies approximately 13.75 million litres per day against an estimated demand of 32.4 million litres per day pf water (135 litres per capita),” he added. “There is a shortage of 18.65 million litres per day. After completion, the project is expected to help in the augmentation of around 10% of the water supply of Burhanpur.”

“The project consists of four stages where the first stage was to locate wells and underground water networks on geographic information system maps,” according to the detailed project report. “Out of 102 wells, 71 have been located and physically restored in the first stage. Rainwater harvesting, eco-restoration of catchment area and building community ownership were other key components of the project.”

The project also included eco-restoration of catchment area which falls under forest area. A 325-hectare forest area is being restored with activities like plantation, grassland development and soil moisture conservation.

It is expected that the project will result in a cost saving of Rs 17.23 lakh per annum for the municipal corporation by reducing the pumping costs, said Thakkar.

One of the most significant interventions is plantation and grassland development and protection activities in the upper catchment of Kundi Bhandara. Photo credit: Lokendra Thakkar/ Mongabay India

Talking about challenges in restoration work, Thakkar said, “The project has its limitations as it is sanctioned under Climate Change Action Programme of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that has a budget cap worth Rs 5 crore and the scope of work was confined to the municipal boundaries of Burhanpur city. The restoration and civil works have their own challenges in terms of precautions while desilting, deepening and removal of unwanted shrubs & trees from the water structures to avoid damages.”

Gajanan Warude, a resident of Burhanpur said, “Water supply of Lalbagh area has improved a lot after this intervention.”

Local experts feel that the scope of restoration work needs to be broadened.

“I have visited Bahadurpur forest and have seen many wells and underground channels,” said Chaudhary. “Those structures are not in good shape due to shrubs and vegetation. There is a need for a detailed survey to find out more about the underground water network and restore it.”

Combating climate change

Indian cities are facing the brunt of climate change which results in a wide gap between demand and supply of water. Most of the urban areas in Madhya Pradesh are facing environmental challenges and water stress. High, recurring costs to meet the growing water needs of the residents in a sustainable manner are a challenge.

“The project demonstrates unique and cost-effective traditional water management techniques to build climate resilience of the Burhanpur city,” Thakkar said. “This project has the strong potential of replicability in the other regions of the state especially in the western part and Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh which is dotted with umpteen number of traditional water structures such as bawaris (step wells) and dug wells.”

“The project will provide a replicable, scalable and cost-effective climate change adaptation model for urban areas,” he added. “In fact, the Burhanpur project in itself is an example of the out-scaling of Indore project. Similar interventions may be planned in the western districts of Madhya Pradesh such as Dhar, Ratlam, Shajapur, Khandwa, Khargone and Badwani where the traditional water supply sources exist.”

The kundis are designed in a way to use gravity and air to deliver water to each corner of the city. Photo credit: Project report

In Indore, another major city in Madhya Pradesh, a water project similar to the one in Burhanpur is being implemented, where around 300 traditional water sources are being restored with help of community participation. The aim of this project is to reduce the burden on the existing water distribution system, according to the project document.

“Burhanpur city has a unique soil structure that is why Qanat system was introduced in past,” said Anil Jaiswal, a Madhya Pradesh-based hydrogeologist who played an important role in the implementation of the project. “Due to the rock formation of ground wells and borewell cannot be successful in the city.”

Talking about the limitation of the project, Jaiswal said “We can replicate this solution to other cities, but we need to change the course of action for individual cities.”

“Like I worked with the Khandwa administration where the soil structure is different from Burhanpur,” Jaiswal said. “The best solution for Khandwa was to restore borewells and harvest rainwater. Traditional wells are more successful in cities like Orchha, Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh have old water structures such as wells. So we need to restore old structures in those cities to eliminate water crisis.”

“Kundi Bhandara is just a small part of the whole Qanat network of Burhanpur,” said Chaudhary. “In my recent visits, I found that there is a need of large-scale restoration work needed to rejuvenate the whole network.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.