Water Management Practices in Gujarat

November 16, 2023

In semi-arid zones such as Gujarat, effective water management holds huge importance. Efficient water management practices are pivotal for sustaining ecosystems, supporting agriculture, and ensuring a secure water supply. The Peri-Urban Water Management in Gujarat summer workshop conducted by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), in collaboration with Anant University, and Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad during July and August 2023, focused on understanding the traditional methods of water conservation in Gujarat. The primary goal of this experimental workshop was to produce mappings that allowed students to understand the significance of water management and document historical examples of water-oriented architecture. 

In an interview with Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai, Dr. Sandro Marpillero, and Dr. Sonal Beri, GSAPP adjunct professors, who were critical in designing and executing the workshop, shared details of the outcome and their experiences from India. 

Please tell us about this summer workshop held in Ahmedabad and the motivation behind selecting the location.

SB:  The summer workshop was a three week intensive workshop focusing on the issue of water. The first week was spent in New York city focusing on the research and thematic mappings, followed by the second and third week in Ahmedabad.  The second week included several visits to sites of urban and historical significance as well as to sites known for contemporary architecture. We started our site visits from the heritage city of Ahmedabad and ended with the countryside where we saw water harvesting and management techniques in action as deployed by farmers there.

SM:  Certainly, the connection between the preparation phase, the site visit, and collaboration with the local university reflects a positive trajectory in this endeavor. Initially, students honed their interests, laying the foundation for familiarity with the designated sites. During our time in New York, we engaged in discussions covering a range of topics, complemented by a daily lecture series. These sessions spanned urban design, architecture, methodologies, investigations, as well as providing an overview of Indian art history and specific insights into Ahmedabad. This thorough preparation significantly fueled their enthusiasm, translating into a well-informed and engaging interaction with local students at the workshop in Gujarat.

Why the specific emphasis on water?

SB:  Water is at the heart of this whole workshop. The workshop is centered around addressing the prevailing global water crisis, exemplified by a surge in extreme weather events and a pervasive lack of access to safe drinking water for a considerable portion of the global populace, as underscored by forecasts for India. The issue also extends beyond national boundaries, manifesting in water scarcity issues such as those observed in Arizona, leading to construction restrictions. The choice of Gujarat as the workshop venue is underpinned by the historical context of the region being a semi-arid zone. With just a minimal two-month window for rainfall, the indigenous communities have historically demonstrated adeptness in water management and harvesting practices. Thus, this workshop seeks to extract lessons from their experiences and contribute to global discourse on enhancing water management strategies.

SM:  Certainly, Ahmedabad holds not only cultural and religious significance but is also noteworthy due to the unpredictable nature of the monsoon, adding to its intrigue. Notably, Ahmedabad's development is closely tied to the irregular pattern of agricultural settlements. These settlements were strategically organized with subtle topography, allowing for water collection in each town, managing water flow, and ultimately facilitating the recharge of aquifers below.

What specific challenges did you observe, and how are the local communities leveraging or maximizing the resources already in place?

SM: In terms of our experience in visiting the rural towns, it was fantastic to see how much this ancient wisdom was being maintained and was being put into practice in support of the local economy. Engaging with farmers and individuals directly involved in these practices offered valuable perspectives. On the flip side, we also encountered challenges, particularly in the city's development model. The clustering of towers and communities, driven by real estate planning, posed a significant fragmentation of the territory. This experience enriched our understanding, and our interaction with local students facilitated a closer connection to these communities.

SB: Upon visiting the site, we discovered additional challenges that were previously unnoticed. We also uncovered systems that were unfamiliar to me personally. A notable example is the association of a wetland with each stepwell. The wetland plays a crucial role in filtering the water surrounding the stepwell, ensuring its cleanliness and usability. Preserving these systems, particularly in terms of architectural and historical conservation, requires careful consideration of the interconnected components, highlighting the importance of preserving not just the visible structures but also the supporting ecosystems.

Please provide an overview of the goals of the workshop.

SM: Well, you know, the main idea here is to broaden our understanding of environmental issues and explore different approaches, especially considering the richness of Indian culture. It's pretty eye-opening, especially when Western institutions are kind of catching up to the idea that the relationship between nature and culture shouldn't be overly instrumentalized, which is a big deal in their terms. The collaboration and shared studio spaces really hit the mark in achieving these goals. And hey, one highlight worth mentioning is the chance, thanks to your support, to use the floor of the Atma building by Le Corbusier. It's a big deal for Mr. Doshi; he says it practically shaped his architect identity. The building's environmental design, featuring an open-ended veranda, plays a crucial role in transforming environmental flows and connecting with the historical city and the river that used to be around Ahmedabad. 

How did the students experience and contribute to the initiative's goals, and what were the outcomes? 

SB: Sure, the students' experience was multi-faceted. They chose this workshop with diverse backgrounds and pre-existing curiosity about water issues, agricultural practices, and the urban-rural interface. Being in India, and particularly in Gujarat, offered a unique perspective due to features like stepwells, a distinct aspect resulting from the region's geology and water dynamics. The collaboration with local students, including exploring the city on scooters and engaging in conversations, enriched their learning experience. Staying in a historic haveli in the heart of Ahmedabad's heritage city further immersed them in the culture. The haveli, showcasing traditional water harvesting features, provided a full cultural and architectural experience. The students' complete takeover of the haveli added to the immersive nature of their stay, contrasting with typical periphery accommodations or high-rise towers.

Given the success of this experiment, how can we replicate similar opportunities for Indian and Columbia University students to explore diverse geographies and designs?

SB: For this, I would like to share an anecdote. The idea for this workshop originated in 2021 when Sandra and I spoke with Mr. Doshi. His advice was to connect institutions, likening it to the flow of water—letting the issue flow naturally. Despite the pandemic causing a delay of about three years due to aligning institutional calendars, I echo your sentiment that facilitating exchanges of students between India and other places is crucial. It broadens perspectives on global issues. Mr. Doshi's suggestion of connecting institutions holds weight, making it more feasible and enjoyable with collaborative efforts. Our collaboration with a local partner in Ahmedabad significantly enhanced the workshop experience for our students.

An important outcome of the workshop was the creation and the presentation of the installation, ‘We Stand in a Crisis with Water,’ which was, of course, at Ahmedabad Textile Mills Association. So could you tell us a bit more about the work that went into it, and what it achieved?

SM:  I believe the installation successfully identified critical spots within the building and devised effective ways to activate them, which was a positive outcome. The process involved students drawing on their prior work in New York and exposure to diverse architectural locales and special conditions. This exposure allowed them to develop original ideas, and one can observe a positive impact on the students' perspectives regarding the set of issues at hand.

SB: To provide more detail, our process spanned three weeks: one intense week of work in New York City, followed by site visits in the second week, and the third week of collaborative work in Ahmedabad, involving students from Anant National University. From day one until the day before the installation, we documented all our work through videos. Due to the significance of the structure, we couldn't attach anything to the walls, making the floor our canvas for the installation. To exhibit the drawings, we designed unique brackets that clipped onto the pillars. Additionally, students crafted clay models, a fitting medium to convey the workshop's focus on water and land. Clay, being integral to the region's stepwells, proved an apt material to express water-related issues. The installation incorporated floor scrolls, video projections, drawings on brackets, and clay models.

Finally, how can the Mumbai Center continue to collaborate on such initiatives?

SM: We are confident that the Mumbai Center has the potential to play a significant role. As the dialogue progresses and the relevance of issues becomes more evident, we anticipate future collaborations.

SB: I do want to really underscore that your local presence made a significant difference in facilitating the entire workshop. 

I would like to share one final note: the exhibition initially installed at ATMA (Ahmedabad Textile Mill's Association)  has been on the move and is now re-installed at GSAPP in Avery. We're hosting a closing reception on November 30, 2023, and extend an invitation to everyone to attend.