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Sitting on a great idea

At the end of this month, you’ll spot, colourful Chesterfield-like couches at Cross Maidan, Horniman Circle and a park in Mankhurd. They’ll surprise you, of course, but do take a seat. And know that when it rains, these very cushy couches are quietly siphoning the rain and harvesting it. The water collected, can be used to irrigate the gardens after the monsoon ends.

The Water Bench is one of the solutions to come out of the BMW Guggenhiem Lab which was held in the city in December 2012. Twenty-six-year-old architect Anitra Baliga was one of the team members who worked on the research on Mumbai’s urban problems. “We mapped the city in terms of its density with respect to transport, infrastructure, pipelines, road networks and so on. The findings, obviously, revealed that informal settlements (slums) struggled the most when it came to facilities. Armed with this research, we decided to build prototypes that could address water-related issues in the city,” says Baliga, who works at the Shanghai-based architectural firm, MARS, and was part of the lab last year. Baliga is here to oversee the installation of the Water Benches.

The Weather Tap was one such solution. It was a solar heat-collecting trough which could store rainwater during the monsoons and double up as a device that could desalinate sea water during the rest of the year. Another solution, the Water Wall, was a metal frame that could essentially replace the walls in a slum. The frame had removable storage cells for store water. “In January this year, when the lab left the city, we had some great ideas on paper, but nothing practical had come out of it,” says Baliga.

That is how, she says, the Water Bench was born. Baliga and her colleagues decided to take the ideas to the next, practical level. “We, however, also realised that the Weather Tap or the Weather Wall would need more time, sensitisation and community involvement. So, we decided to tweak our designs to build something that would not need our long-term participation but solved a pressing need nonetheless. The Water Bench took us three months to design and produce.”

The Water Bench is made of recyclable polyethylene and cannot be torn or punctured. The bench, which is large enough to seat four people at a time, has water inlets in its grooves, which allow the water falling on its surface to directly flow into the hollow space below. Each bench has a storage capacity of about 500 litres. “It may not sound like a whole lot of water, but it is a good start. The Water Benches can be used optimally only if the city has at least 30 of them.” Baliga says it would be next to impossible to steal the Water Bench because it is drilled to the ground. “Even stealing water may be a tad difficult because the knob is located deep inside and we have chosen spots which are relatively well-manned by guards at night.” Vandalism, says Baliga, was not the prime concern when the Water Benches were designed anyway. “We are just trying to see if this idea works. It is quite a tough thing to steal or damage at this stage, but we have focussed more on utility rather than the caveats,” she smiles. Cross Maidan, Horniman Circle and the Mankhurd Park will each get two benches. Baliga is also working towards getting the benches to Carter Road.

The Water Bench, feels Baliga, is not an esoteric, SoBo-centric design and can be viewed and used by anyone who could take the initiative. “Mumbai is very enterprising, and takes its issues in its own hands. The Water Bench, if used widely and well, can make the most of the city’s monsoon,” she says.  

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