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History of Water Infrastructure in Bombay in the 19th and 20th Century.

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For centuries, Mumbai relied on local wells, tanks, and rainwater catchments for its water supply. This decentralized system proved woefully inadequate since Bombay's population grew rapidly during the colonial rule in the 19th Century. "As it grew in population and expanded geographically, the paucity of water was a major concern that the city faced."[1]The lack of urban planning led to congestion and overcrowding in Bombay and no centralized water infrastructure, the population was drinking dangerous contaminated "liquid sewage" that posed risks to the population's health. The sudden population increased the wealth inequality and left the lower socio-economic class to bear the burden of the consequences of the shortage of resources in Bombay. Frequent outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera hindered Bombay's development into a modern port city and regional industrial hub. The lack of clean, reliable water was a critical roadblock the British needed to address to transform Bombay into a 'world-class' colonial anchor city.

Vihar Project[edit]

In the mid-19th century, the colonial authorities initiated Mumbai's first large-scale, centralized water system - the Vihar scheme. This infrastructural project aligned with colonial notions of urban governance and Western ideas of progress. However, its financing through taxes on Indian elites generated tensions. "On June 2, 1845 the citizens of Mumbai protested against then prevalent water supply systems which eventually led to the formation of a two-tier committee to study and chalk out solutions to this problem."[1] This growing public dissatisfaction pushed the British to study and implement Vihar as Mumbai's first modern water solution When completed in the 1860s, the project dramatically reduced cholera outbreaks. This new engineering helped drastically reduce the Cholera epidemic that annually devastated the city. "This provided an additional 37 lakh liters of water to the city. But even this wasn't enough to meet the needs of the city, which further led to the commencement of the Tulsi Water Works project in 1879".[1]

Tulsi Project[edit]

In the 1870s, the Tulsi system supplemented Vihar's capacity, which drew water from the North of Bombay. However, both drew polluted hinterland water. British colonial policies were fixated on increasing water quantity for Mumbai's booming commercial activity and population growth. They overlooked issues of water quality and safety, believing prevalent miasma theories that cholera was caused by foul vapors from stagnant water rather than direct contamination. Some slow sand filtration was added, but Tulsi water remained dangerously polluted and a threat to those who drank it.

Tansa Project[edit]

Planned during a severe drought in the late 1870s, Tansa Water Works was an ambitious project. The Tansa plan was seen by the colonial authorities as a great technical achievement that would supply Mumbai with abundant and limitless water supplies for the 20th century and beyond. When it was first envisioned, the project represented British hopes of using technology to subdue nature. To draw water from far-off lakes, construction on viaducts, dams, tunnels, and other infrastructure spanning dozens of km started in the 1880s. In the words of William John Bird Clerke, B.A., C.I.E., M. Inst. C.E., who presented a detailed account in 1893 of the Tansa Works, "The works consist of a storage lake constructed in the Tansa valley, a distance of 57 miles from Bombay, and an aqueduct consisting of conduits, tunnels, and cast-iron siphons, &C., for bringing the water from the lake for delivery in Bombay."[2] The aspirations of the Tansa project brought in an additional 77 million litres of water upon completion of its first phase in 1892 but caused an immediate worsening of Mumbai's drainage problems. Increased floods from the expanded supplies outpaced stormwater drainage capacities, resulting in unforeseen environmental dangers from the colonial concentration on increasing water quantity. Through the early 20th century, the Tansa system was expanded via additional phases completed in 1915, 1925, and 1948. "To further meet the increasing demands of the city, the corporation decided to build a dam on the River Vaitarna and release the collected water into Tansa Lake."[3] One of the projects was building a dram on River Vaitarna which started in 1912. Together with the Vihar and Tulsi schemes, this gave Mumbai a tremendous water supply capacity on paper. However, myriad challenges persisted on the ground, from leakage and intermittent supply shortages to continuing pollution issues as only partial treatment was introduced. The benefits of the engineered water networks were also unevenly distributed. Poorer groups living in informal slums often remained without regular access to water in their residences, as inequities embedded in the colonial infrastructure extended into the postcolonial period.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "A Historical Study of Mumbai's Water Systems".
  2. W. J. B. Clerke, "The Tansa Works for the Water Supply of Bombay. (Includes Appendix and Plates)," Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 115 (1894): 12-42.
  3. "A Historical Study of Mumbai's Water Systems". Sahapedia.

External Sources[edit]

  • Anand, Nikhil. Hydraulic City: Water and the infrastructures of citizenship in Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017
  • Clerke, W. J. B. "The Tansa Works for the Water Supply of Bombay. (Includes Appendix and Plates)." Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 115 (1894): 12-42..
  • Doshi, Sapana. "Imperial Water, Urban Crisis: A Political Ecology of Colonial State Formation in Bombay, 1850–1890." Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 37, no. 3–4 (2014): 173–218. Imperial Water, Urban Crisis.
  • Gandy, M. (2008). Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 40(1), 108-130. Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai
  • Klein, Ira. "Urban Development and Death: Bombay City, 1870-1914." Modern Asian Studies 20, no. 4 (1986): 725–54. Urban Development and Death: Bombay City, 1870-1914 .

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