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June-July 2004

The Matrimandir Lake

- by Carel

“It has been decided and will remain decided that the Matrimandir will be surrounded with water. However, water is not available just now and will be available only later, so it is decided to build the Matrimandir now and surround it with water only later, perhaps in a few years’ time.”
Mother to Huta on March 28, 1970

Mother's vision of a lake surrounding the Matrimandir dates back to June 1965. But the question whether the lake would be purely ornamental or have a function in the water management of Auroville was never answered. In the early 1970's, chief architect Roger Anger suggested to The Mother that the water be used for the city's water supply. This innovative idea remained unstudied till September 2001, when the office of water engineer Harald Kraft in Berlin was awarded the contract to prepare a pre-feasibility study for the water supply, stormwater management and wastewater management for the city of Auroville . This was through the Asia Urbs project which the European Commission had allocated to Auroville's Future.

Latest design of the Matrimandir lake showing also the location of the future Centre for International Research for Human Unity and the Town Hall (buildings 4 and 5)

Kraft's pre-feasibility study became available in February 2003. Observing the alarming salt-water intrusion into the aquifers around Auroville and the over-extraction of water from the aquifer used by Auroville and the surrounding villages, the idea that water should be obtained from other sources became a central issue. This only other available source was identified by Kraft to be rainwater. Assuming a population of 50,000 people, Kraft showed that rainwater harvesting from the rooftops of the buildings would only provide for one-third of the water supply required by the city. To meet the full demand and collect the remaining two thirds of the required water, it would be necessary to harvest the entire run-off from the city, which was estimated to be between 4 to 8 million cubic metres per year.

Kraft realised that the city, with its centre located on top of a hill with a gentle slope all around, offers ideal conditions for drainage. Large storage basins in the greenbelt were considered ideal to store the rain water before it could leave the city. Issues pertaining to the loss of this water by evaporation and the modes of storage of this water for future usage by the city remained. Kraft argued that the optimal place to store the harvested water would be underground, but to infiltrate it in the greenbelt at the outer limits of the township, would be of no use to the city.

The solution to the problem came when the specific geology of the hill on which Auroville is located was further studied. The hill consists of a layer of sandstone that holds the first aquifer, beneath which there is a thick layer of so-called Manaveli clay underlying the entire city of Auroville . If the harvested rainwater could be stored in the first aquifer long enough so that it would not drain out into the sea, that aquifer would provide the most ideal water storage – above sea level, free from any risk of salt water intrusion, and completely under the control of Auroville. That left two questions to be answered: what would be the optimal location for the infiltration of the water into the sandstone, and how could that water be cleaned before infiltration?

Design of the Matrimandir lake as agreed after mediation by Dr. Kashyap

“The answers to these questions came to me like a shock that one experiences when one touches a live electric wire,” wrote Kraft dramatically in the Auroville News. He realised that a large lake – the larger, the better – would be ideal for purification purposes and that the location of such a lake at the centre of the city would be ideal. And that centre is the Matrimandir, around which Mother had foreseen a lake so many years ago. “I felt deeply embarrassed about my professional ignorance in being convinced that the Mother had made a wrong choice in the selection of the site for Auroville and the fact that it took me almost 20 years to realize that this location is a unique place and that all the disadvantages that I had perceived earlier were actually advantages” wrote Kraft. “By implementing this concept, not only does the township of Auroville become self-sustainable and self-sufficient, but also it does not need to draw from anybody else's water resources. On the contrary, it also ensures sufficient freshwater to its neighbouring environment.” The retrieval of the harvested and infiltrated water as drinking water is, according to Kraft, to be achieved by setting up a gallery of wells (100 to 200) in the east of Auroville, at the border of the greenbelt.

Objections to the Kraft report

The reception of the Kraft report has not been as positive as some had hoped. Kraft's ideas had been floated as early as 1992, and ever since had been objected to. The pre-feasibility study only added fuel to the fire. One of the objections was that the large lake – “the larger, the better” – would do away with the so-called outer gardens situated between the lake and the city, which Narad, at The Mother's request, had started in the early 1970's. “It was an extraordinary hour spent in the presence of massive, kingly trees, flowers and fragrances,” wrote Narad of his visit to the outer gardens in January this year [see Auroville Today March 2004], remembering that many of them had grown in pits that had been dug by boys from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram who had come out at midnight to work by the light of lanterns.

Roger Anger, however, was taken by the idea of a big lake. In 1999 he had the design of a large lake incorporated into the Auroville Master Plan. The then Matrimandir Coordination Group (MMCG) strongly objected. It led to the interference of the Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation whose member Dr. Subhash Kashyap was requested to mediate and find a solution. He came up with the pragmatic solution that a big lake could be created at the east side of the Matrimandir, where no gardens had yet been planted, and that the existing outer gardens would be separated from the oval by a small water body. “Both Roger and we have accepted this design,” stated the MMCG in November 2001. However, Mr. Bala Baskar, the then Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, explained a few months later that this solution had an important condition: the actual dimensions of the lake would be as per the expert opinion obtained from engineers after a detailed study of the problem of water availability and storage feasibility. The Kraft study certainly qualified as an expert opinion. But his opponents could only respond with feelings of horror to Kraft's “the larger, the better” which implied the death of the outer gardens. For Kraft stated clearly that the size and depth of the proposed lake (in between 7.5 and 15 metres) would not even allow for large islands to be created to save the rare and beautiful trees planted by Narad – assuming that those trees could flourish on such islands.

Map of the city area showing the four zones and the city centre with a big lake.

There were other objections as well. One was to the costs of implementing the proposal, estimated by Kraft at US $ 100 million. Even for a population of 50,000 people, many considered this amount obscenely excessive, particularly under Indian conditions. The argument that it would only amount to US $ 2000/person over a population of 50,000 was countered by stating that Auroville's population at present only amounts to about 1,600 people and that the indications are that by the end of 2016 probably no more than 5,000 individuals will be living in Auroville, i.e. 10% of the targeted population of 50,000. To finance such a project now would be beyond the present means of Auroville, and if the slow development of Auroville's economy is taken into account, the future possibilities do not appear promising as well. Kraft countered this objection by pointing out that an assured water supply is vital for the City of the Future, and would only be a fraction of the costs of the other infrastructural requirements.

Others voiced that Auroville's neighbouring villages would not look kindly on Auroville if their traditional water catchments, such as Irumbai Lake and the kolams of Edayanchavadi, Kuilapalayam and Alankuppam, would no longer be replenished but the run-off would be collected elsewhere, and warned of the political ramifications. Kraft's conclusion that his project would also ensure sufficient freshwater to its neighbouring environment was challenged.

The objections that the first filling of the lake, estimated at 1.3 million cubic meters of water, would need to come from groundwater resources were countered by Kraft as ‘merely borrowing', stating that ‘much more will be returned underground as long as Auroville and the lake exist when the lake is used as a component of the larger rainwater harvesting and water management system.' Similarly, the objection against excavating and moving 1.5 million cubic meters of earth that translates into 500,000 truck movements or 1 truck per minute for12 hours a day over 7 days a week, for every day of 2 years, was rejected by Kraft who compared this figure to the truckloads of materials that would be needed to build a city of 50,000 people.

Last but not least there were objections to the assumptions on which the pre-feasibility study was based. The run-off, for example, has been calculated for a city of 50,000 people, while the present run-off is very little due to effective bunding and the creation of check dams. The use of the first aquifer for water storage was also questioned. In Auroville alone already over 100 bore wells interconnect the first, second and sometimes even the third aquifer; in the surrounding area there are many hundreds more. Water experts contend that, apart from the man-made leaks due to bore wells, other natural irregularities also exist in the strata between the aquifers, providing interconnections. In other words, while the sandstone would not exactly be a sieve, it would certainly contain less water than Kraft assumed. It was contended that Kraft's suggestion to decommission all of Auroville's existing bore wells and plug the resulting holes with clay, and subsequently dig about 200 new wells into the first aquifer, would not solve the problem. Moreover, the costs of such an operation were not incorporated in the projected costs of the Kraft proposal.

Views from Auroville's specialists

All these and other questions on the viability, accuracy, appropriateness and cost-effectiveness of the Kraft study were laid down by Auroville water specialists in a report of September 2003. But Kraft stated that none of the Aurovilians who raised the objections were sufficiently qualified to discuss the issues and that the topic could not be debated in public as it was technical in nature. Therefore Michael Bonke, a friend of Auroville, decided to ask the reputed German Landesgewerbanstalt Nürnberg (LGA) Institute for Environmental Geology and Residual Pollution to review the Kraft study. LGA critically assessed the study from an objective point of view. It approached the pre-feasibility study trying to identify those aspects that were not feasible or which needed improvement, so as to protect Auroville against accusations of acting irresponsibly and without regard for its humanitarian objectives, as by neglecting the needs of the neighbours or squandering funds.


The LGA study

The LGA study rejected the conclusions of the Kraft study. It stated that in several instances Kraft had proceeded from unrealistic assumptions, while concrete results based on investigations and measurements were missing. Insights gained from recent hydro-geological studies had to some extent not been taken into account. The central element of Kraft's study, the assumption of a leak-proof aquifer separated from lower lying formations by Manaveli clay, was considered untenable as the formation might not be continuous. The existence of natural ‘holes' in the underground providing connectivity between the geological formations had already been shown in the Study of Groundwater Resources of Pondicherry and its Environs of 1987, made by the Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad. Moreover, LGA argued that a large number of wells in the greater area of Auroville also reach down to the second and perhaps even third aquifer. Even if all wells in the area under the control of Auroville could be completely and accurately dismantled as suggested by Kraft, a high number of bore-wells would remain in the neighbouring environs.

Besides having severe doubts about the utility of the lake for regeneration of the first aquifer, the LGA also regarded several aspects of the Kraft study regarding the lake's purifying abilities as unrealistic. Kraft's study assumed that the rainwater and surface water would be polluted and proposed eight large-scale and costly stages for treatment in order to protect the first aquifer. Of these eight stages of treatment, the lake was to be the seventh. LGA considered that the estimates of pollutant and nutrient loads of the Kraft study were insufficient and that the derived measures for treatment (the eight stages) were therefore baseless. LGA further argued that the secondary inflow of substances into the treated water of the lake – for example organic matter blown into it – could not be avoided.

A third view

Roger Anger, when faced with the strong and opposing views of Kraft and LGA, felt the need for a third view by an independent consultant. Dutch engineer Jeen Kootstra, a qualified hydrologist and geologist with extensive experience in geo-hydrology, employed by the reputed Royal Haskoning engineering office, was approached, and his involvement was approved by all parties – though Kraft felt that he lacked experience with rainwater harvesting. Jeen Kootstra was specifically asked to look at the Kraft study, the report made by the water experts from Auroville and the document produced by LGA, and was informed that if he would need to meet with Kraft or LGA, this would be arranged. Since some of these documents address environmental and socio economic issues, he also addressed these.

Prior to publication of the final report, Kootstra provided a preliminary report to both Kraft and LGA for comments. While LGA gave feedback on the draft, Kraft stated that he did not wish to waste his time on drafts, thereby disabling an opportunity for a dialogue prior to publication of the final report of Kootstra.

The Kootstra report in general agreed with the conclusions of LGA. It was also critical of the Kraft study for its lack of an exchange of views between authorities from Auroville and those from the surrounding villages who would be affected by the plans. “The concept has been worked out with little consideration for the social-cultural environment in which it has been carried out although the success of the concept in practice largely depends on this environment. There is no mention of an analysis of this social-cultural environment or its relevance for the design of the water management system as proposed.”

Kootstra also found that the choice for a centralised system had not been justified as it does not allow for the staged development of Auroville, nor did it allow for intermediate adaptations but required a huge investment over a relatively short time frame. The Kraft concept was considered prone to failure as a whole as a result of the failure of one of its components, thus rendering the system almost unworkable. Finally the Kootstra study stated that the Matrimandir lake is not justified for the purpose of water purification. “There is insufficient justification for the size of the lake from the perspective of its function as a self-cleaning water body. For the need of purification there is no requirement of a lake and certainly not a lake of this magnitude…If the proposed size is required for reasons of architecture then the depth can be reduced.”

Sadly, Kraft's response to the Kootstra report has been vicious. Kraft responded that the feasibility of its proposal had not been undertaken in a proper, scientific, logical, technically sound, unbiased and objective manner. Kootstra himself was accused of merely echoing the voices of Krafts' critics, lacking of objectivity as well as scientific temperament, and “therefore his conclusions are absolutely baseless.” Last but not least Kraft stated that Kootstra's approach had been influenced by the persons who remunerated him – a statement which, apart from being insulting, is incorrect. But more unfortunate was that Kraft did not contribute much to the arguments of the matter in his review of the Kootstra report, but merely defended his own concept. “Having read Mr. Kootstra's proposals and recommendations we did not find any information that would lead us to reconsider our approach, concepts, calculations and designs. On the contrary, we found that our results and conclusions are well justified.”

While the views of Roger Anger are still being awaited, a group of concerned Aurovilians met to assess the situation. One idea that the group has come up with is to invite to Auroville, probably by early August, several eminent scientists from India and abroad for their advice on how to solve the existing water problem. Another idea is to request LGA to collaborate with specialists from India and come up with a detailed proposal to create one small section of the lake that would be large enough to evaluate the adequacy of the solutions proposed and the problems that may have to be solved. For in order to obtain a clear picture on the final size and dimensions of the lake, it will be necessary to have an understanding of all its implications.

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