Ponds and Piped Water

Is a pond in a slum a luxury? The presence of water is widely considered an essential condition for life and this condition obviously makes no exception for life in slums. Nowadays we are used to simply taking water from a tap but there are places where water is handled in a very different way. This post is about everyday water management and how it has changed with the coming of modern technology. Slums are the ideal place when you want to see how this kind of changes unfold.
Let’s start with a short clip from Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the scene with the religious riots that dramatically change the lives of Jamal, Salim and Latika. The location of the scene is a place in Dharavi Mumbai. Pay attention to what people are normally doing here, before the scene goes to the riots.

Laundry, it’s the place where people do their laundry. It is a beautiful example of traditional water supply in a community. Places like this can be found all over India. The simplest version is a natural pond or a river. As you know, India’s climate is rather binary with incessant rain during monsoon (June-September) and none of it in the rest of the year. This means that groundwater is the most important water reservoir and ponds are the natural access to this groundwater. A place like this is called a kund

People doing laundry in a pond. Bihar July 2014.
For centuries, people have dug deep wells to reach groundwater and as it required so much effort, the wells are typically made by communities. A marvelous invention is the step well, a pond lined with steps. These too are called kunds. They are often amazing pieces of architecture.

Deep step well in Abnerhi UP. 2012.

Step well near Varanasi. Januari 2018.
Men shaving each other at the kund. Near Varanasi, January 2018.

Where possible, kunds are part of a network of water bodies. Thus, water can flow and be replaced with fresh water when needed. People come to the kund to bath or do laundry and thus kunds have an important place in social life. In addition, there is quite some work involved in maintaining a kund and this also strengthens communities.

Boys collecting plastic bottles at Mahamaham kund in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu 2018.

Bathing and swimming at Mahamaham kund in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu 2018.
As said, kunds can be found in many cities but since the introduction of piped water they are gradually disappearing. Less and less people use the kunds and thus there are less people to maintain them. Less people help to keep them clean and one after the other kunds become waste dumps. Once filled, the place falls into the hands of real estate development. Thousands of kunds have disappeared already. [1]

Dharavi Dhobi Ghat in January 2010.
July 2014
November 2015
January 2017
Back to Dharavi. The kund you saw in the movie is a so called Dhobi Ghat, a launderer’s place. And it has gone through the same stages of modernization. In 2008 it was still working well. Water poured in from a nearby river and provided a generous washing place. A few years later the water was diverted and Dharavi’s dhobi ghat fell near to dry. Like in many of the other places, the pond became a waste dump. In 2018 we can still see the dhobis do laundry at that very same spot but the natural water has gone. The only water available is piped water. Washing and rinsing is no longer done in a convenient pond, it is confined to plastic barrels.

Modernity dictates the use of scarce drinking water for laundering.
The paradoxical thing here is that modernity has replaced ‘unsafe’ open water with piped drinking water whereas the city is constantly suffering from water shortage. Traditional use of open water for washing would save so much costly drinking water. When looking for sustainable water supplies, this is definitely a no brainer.

Life requires more than only the drinkable version of water. Open water like in the traditional kund is just as essential. A pond in the slums therefore is certainly not to be considered a luxury. Its value in terms of generous water supply, social cohesion, empowerment and open space for leisure cannot be delivered through pipes and taps. 

[1] Matthew Neville, ‘Banganga Enduring Tank, Regenerative Tissue’, in Reclaiming (the Urbanism of) Mumbai, ed. by Kelly Shannon and Janina Gosseye, Explorations in/of Urbanism, 3 (Amsterdam: Sun Academia, 2009), pp. 111–19.

Going to School in the Slum

School girls in Dharavi

Some people assume that slums have no amenities like schools, medical care, or restaurants.  However, as Robert Neuwirth explained is his TED-talk, these things are found in many slums just like in any city. Contrary to the mainstream image of slums, kids do go to school in Dharavi. In the Indian education system schools teach in Hindi, English or a local language like Marathi. This language of communication is advertised by the school as for example ‘English Medium’. Besides these varities, one also finds municipal schools and private schools. All together, a kid’s life in Dharavi is perhaps not so very different from the lives of other kids. They dress up in the morning to go to school, they are told to behave in the classroom (which sometimes they don’t) and simply have too much energy to be able to keep quiet.

school boys in a rare moment of not bouncing around
A private classroom the size of an average slum dwelling
Dharavi municpal school near Mahatma Gandhi Road ...

... where the kids prove to be very ordinary kids :-)

Books about Slums [book reviews]

The architecture library holds only a few books on slum-style dwellings, eventhough one billion people live in slums. In case you are interested in reading more about it than only this blog, here is a literature review to help you.

Informal on Top of Formal

Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham (2009) is one of the very few books that give a detailed description of the architecture of slums. Wu and Canham made an inventory of communities on five rooftops in Kowloon. They give a short history of every household and then depict the home in an isometric sketch and some photos. These three elements form a puzzle and it will take some time for the reader to fit the pieces together. This process of assembling imagery and text is very powerful and gives a deep insight in ultimately personal architecture.

Living on a Garbage Dump

Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo (2012) is a breathtaking account of life in a slum on a garbage dump. Boo did years of participatory research in these communities. Besides the moving stories about informal life and how it clashes with the little present authorities, the book is unique in the way it turns the hutments themselves into characters. And yes, the enigmatic title has to do with architecture.


Architecture of Slums

The Perfect Slum (2016) by Sytse de Maat, the author of this blog. Centerpiece of the book is a study on slums where vernacular architecture and tradition meet the planned city. Through thorough analysis of slums it becomes clear that traditional ways of building lead to a specific architecture when transferred to today’s very dense city. It thus gives insight in how cities can exist and how sustainability issues emerge.

Inside Megacity Slums 

Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth (2005) can be seen as an essay opposing the depiction of slums as no-go areas by mainstream media. Like Katherine Boo (above), Neuwirth did many months of participatory research by actually living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. His analysis is thoroughly anchored in what happens on the ground and from there allows one to see the bigger picture. Prejudices and misconceptions go out of the window on every page. Instead, Neuwirth unveils an urban world that earns more credits than it receives.



Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum by Kalpana Sharma (2000) is a classic when it comes to reading about Dharavi. Like Robert Neuwirth (above), Sharma gives a detailed and well-founded account of life in Dharavi and thus challenges the common notion of slums. Written as a coherent collection of stories the book is comprehensive and consequently allows seeing the bigger picture.

Pavement Dwelling

Apna Street by Julian Crandall Hollick (2011) is an account of both pavement dwelling and women empowerment. Besides stories about pavement dwellers and how they suffer under the destructive policies of the authorities, this book contains the history of SPARC, Mahila Malan and the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation. It is the story of a small group of migrants to the city who first had no say at all and then found ways of organizing themselves into a coalition that even today transforms the lives of millions of people across the world.

Nonformal as the Dominant Mode of Urbanization

Metropolis Nonformal by Christian Werthmann and Jessica Bridger (2015) looks at the potentials of slums. It recognizes the scale of the phenomenon by stating that the nonformal will be the dominant mode of urban growth in the coming decades. The book consists of short texts explaining a range of initiatives and presenting the diversity of responses to the nonformal metropolis. The genesis of the book comes from the diverse group of people gathered at the Metropolis Nonformal symposia 2011 and 2013 at the Technical University in Munich, curated by Werthmann. Twentyfive leading thinkers contributed to the symposia. Bridger then translated the spoken word into a cohesive book. The book therefore is not the odd collection of papers but a clear and highly readable account of the state of the art.

Slum as Global Phenomenon

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (2006) is an enquiry into the global phenomenon of slum. Besides being comprehensive in the sense that it covers all aspects and causes of slum forming, the author seems rather opinionated as not a single slum improvement project in the world receives positive recognition. Moreover, there is no end to the list of who are to blame. Simply said, Planet of Slums considers urban informal settlement a victim of capitalism and a phenomenon we should get rid of as soon as possible. Surprisingly, Mike Davis does not give  a hint on how to do that.


Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. London: Portobello.

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Hollick, Julian Crandall. 2011. Apna Street. Pune: Ameya Prakashan.

De Maat, Sytse. 2016. The Perfect Slum - On the Symbiosis of People and Building. Saarbr├╝cken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Neuwirth, Robert. 2005. Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Kalpana. 2000. Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. New Delhi; New York: Penguin Books.

Werthmann, Christian, and Jessica Bridger. 2015. Metropolis Nonformal. First edition. Novato, CA: Applied Research + Design Publishing c/o Oro Editions.

Wu, Rufina, and Stefan Canham, eds. 2009. Portraits from above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.