Will citizen technology rescue Bengaluru’s lakes in 2019?

By Garima PrasheronJan. 01, 2019in Economics and Technologies

  • Citizen groups in Bengaluru are working with the municipal authorities to keep a tab on the city’s heavily polluted lakes. But high cost of water quality tests is proving to be a barrier for effective citizen action.
  • A new tool, Mira, uses open source technology by which citizens can conduct basic water quality tests which give an indication of the health of the lakes and inform further action.
  • The tool is dependent on voluntary citizen action and will be kickstarted in 2019 with pilot runs for a few citizen groups. 

In the new year technology is expected to aid citizen action to keep a check on water quality in Bengaluru’s ailing lakes. With a lack of funding preventing citizen groups from conducting regular water quality tests, a new tool, Mira, will help the lake wardens with aesthetic restoration of the lake as well as affordable water quality testing, ensuring a wholesome healing of the city’s lakes.

A water quality test currently costs Rs. 2400 per sample and takes about a week to get results. Mira, a new tool, could help cut the cost dramatically. Photo from FFEM.

In February 2017, Bengaluru, the city that is considered as India’s Silicon Valley, grabbed headlines for a seemingly impossible event – its lakes caught fire. Bellandur lake, the city’s largest water body, started burning, leaving people baffled and perplexed. While the heavily polluted lake was in flames and smoke, it also spewed froth, plaguing the citizens living in the vicinity with respiratory issues. Since then, both citizens and authorities alike, rolled up their sleeves and have been trying to revive the city’s lakes, but improvement is slow. While Bellandur still belches out snowy froth every now and then, some city lakes throw up dead fish in summers and some give unbearable stench round the year.

V. Ramprasad, a resident of Bengaluru is the convener and founder of Friends of Lakes (FoL) involved in lake rejuvenation activities of three lakes in his neighbourhood. “We have been involved in rejuvenating Vidyaranyapura I, Vidyaranyapura II and Doddabomasandra lakes. We do not do water quality testing on a regular basis unless we notice apparent changes in the colour of lake water or foul smell. We mostly act as eyes and ears of BBMP (Bengaluru’s municipal corporation) whenever they need water sample collection for testing,” said Ramprasad.

Lack of funds is the limiting factor for citizen groups when it comes to testing lake water quality. Getting a sample tested has a one-time cost of around Rs. 2,400. Moreover, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) or Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) laboratories, which test the water samples, take a minimum of a week to provide results.

“While we do take care of the lake by keeping the surroundings garbage-free, testing the lake’s pollutant levels at regular intervals is a costly affair. Moreover, taking the sample to CPCB or KSPCB lab implies a travel time of more than an hour,” added Ramprasad.

Mira, set to launch early next year, aims to help Ramprasad and other Bengaluru citizens in their efforts to resolve lake issues in the city. The tool’s smartphone application part, once downloaded, provides instructions about how to test a water body for nitrate, phosphate, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen and fluoride content, using the reagents. The data can then be uploaded on the dashboard.

The tool aims to assist citizen groups working to rejuvenate Bengaluru’s lakes by giving them real-time data on pollution levels. Photo from FFEM.

A combination of a smartphone-based application, reagents and an online dashboard as data repository, Mira is the brainchild of Foundation for Environmental Monitoring (FFEM), a not-for-profit company that creates open source products for field use, and NextDrop, a startup creating mobile technology for solving water issues. It is driven and supported by Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology (ATREE), Bengaluru and BIOME Environmental Solution and has been designed as open source software to minimise the cost and avoid vendor lock-in. Moreover, while currently being developed for Bengaluru’s lakes, the dashboard aspect of the software can be customised to be used in other cities too.

Lake doctors of Bengaluru

Becoming a “lake doctor” using the Mira tool is not a tough nut to crack. It comes with a test kit that contains a measuring tube, a cuvette with light protector and reagents needed to determine the sickness level of the lake. For example, to test the fluoride content in the lake, one needs to take a sample of 10 ml of lake water, add the prescribed reagent and pour the solution into the cuvette. Following that, with the help of the app and a phone camera, the test is conducted and results are submitted to an online repository.

“The idea is to enable citizen-science framework. The software, will help citizen groups that are already working towards revival of their water bodies, by giving them real-time data on pollution status of the lakes. This will promote citizen participation and will decentralise the lake restoration process,” said Dr. Veena Srinivasan, fellow and head of Water, Land and Society program at ATREE, Bengaluru.

“The amount of chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen and phosphate gives a decent idea on the situation of the lake. We have tested the application in our laboratory and although the results obtained will not be accurate to both decimal points, it will be more than enough for citizen science project and certainly good enough to determine the health of the lake,” said Srinivasan. The Mira kit can be used for 50 tests at a cost of Rs. 1200 and the waiting time for test results is reduced to just a few seconds, making the tool cost-effective and generating almost instantaneous results as compared to laboratory tests.

According to Samuel Rajkumar, co-founder FFEM, while conducting water quality test with Mira is not as simple as reading a thermometer, little training will go a long way. “Mostly it will be about mixing two to three chemicals and then using the smartphone to get the reading. We will be conducting training programmes on how to carry out water quality tests and read the results. Most of the lakes already have active groups and Mira will provide a formal way of engagement for them.  Moreover, when people will see a dashboard being updated, many more people will get involved and the untapped lakes will get a chance of revival too,” said Rajkumar.

Bengaluru’s lakes have made news for the toxic levels of pollution. Photo by Ali Rizvi/Wikimedia Commons.

Experts feel that a decentralised initiative for lake revival is the need of the hour. “While political economy of the land has not changed over time, citizen awareness has. There is already a lot of citizen activity happening around lakes. Our idea behind Mira is to create a discourse around these water bodies which is more science-based and meaningful,” added Srinivasan.

The development of this tool started when ATREE’s initiative to obtain real-time data on lake pollutants took a nose dive owing to a tremendous amount of pollution.

“A couple of years ago, we started putting real-time sensors in four lakes, Jakkuru lake, Rachenahalli lake, Kaikondanahalli lake and Kasavanahalli lake, across the city. The sensors were very expensive and our lakes have such high nutrient levels that these sensors started getting clogged with overnight algal growth and fouled up. We looked for low cost sensors but did not get anything reliable. This is when and why we thought of bringing in Mira,” said Srinivasan.

While the ongoing project is hoping to garner lake wardens’ attention, there are doubts about the level of participation of the volunteers. “To track a lake’s health, activities need to be performed with certain level of regularity and diligence. Mira will come up with its own challenges of calibrating the instruments, reading the results and uploading them.  Our obstacle will be to ensure that the lake groups take full ownership and are able to see the benefits of it,” said Shubha Ramachandran, water sustainability consultant, BIOME.

“Apart from lower software cost, open source will also ensure abundant support and good quality. Moreover, in case NextDrop decided to discontinue with the project, other people can take it up,” said Devin Miller, director and CTO, NextDrop.

The platform, in due course of time, will also integrate birds, butterflies and tree census by citizen groups. Further, to kickstart the project, ATREE will be distributing about 30 test kits to four to five citizen groups.

First published on Mongabay on 1 Jan. 2019

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