Wooden water wheels have long captured energy from mountain streams. New versions work even better, helping provide a local, sustainable source of energy to Indian villages high in the Himalayas.
Living in an isolated Himalayan hamlet, 2,500 meters (5,600 feet) above sea level, Govind Singh Rana seems an unlikely candidate for wealth. But by the standards of other villagers in northern India’s Uttarakhand state, he earns a fortune by harnessing the power of the mountain stream that runs across his land.
Rana uses a water-powered turbine to run a saw mill, press apricot oil in season, and generate electricity, at little cost to himself and without the need for environmentally unfriendly power sources like diesel generators.
He is one of 28,000 people in Uttaranchal who have discovered the advantages of a modern incarnation of the traditional wooden water wheel, or gharat. The turbines, which harness hydro power for small-scale industry by day and for generating electricity by night, have brought an ecologically sustainable economic revolution to the Himalayan states of Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh, as well as the so-called Seven Sister states in India’s northeastern Himalayas.
During the day, the turbines grind wheat flour and spices, thresh rice, press apricot oil, and comb cotton. At night, the turbines in the first three states alone generate a total of 264 megawatts of electricity per hour, all without burning any of the fossil fuels that could exacerbate the effects of climate change on the Himalayan environment.
Spearheading the sustainable exploitation of mountain resources is Anil Joshi, a former professor of botany. Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of rural self-sustainability, Joshi launched a grass-roots movement to help Himalayan villagers stop using coal-intensive power and instead turn the region’s thousands of fast-flowing streams into personal mini hydro-electric power stations.
Water wheels are a centuries-old technology in the Himalayas, but one that was becoming obsolete until Joshi and the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO), which he founded 29 years ago, taught villagers to develop alternative livelihoods by modernizing the wheels and using them for traditional industry during the day and to provide electric power to as many as 60 village homes per wheel at night.
Improving the technology was key to HESCO’s strategy. The old water wheels were inefficient, taking a day to crush around 10 kilos (22 pounds) of wheat. Making a single wheel was a laborious process that required the wood from an entire pine or deodar (Himalayan cedar) tree. And environmental considerations had led to restrictions on tree-felling, which drove up the price of timber to as much as 500,000 rupees ($9,200) for a single tree.
“These factors made the gharats unviable,” Joshi explained. “And gradually, the system started dying out.”
From a high of around 187,000, the number of water wheels in Uttarkhand, Jammu & Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh over time fell to around 98,000, said Joshi, who has undertaken surveys of mountain villages on foot and by bicycle in numerous states of India’s north and northeast.
HESCO’s solution was to improve the gharats by fitting them with modern gears and ball bearings.
“This doubled the output,” said Manmohan Singh Negi, a HESCO worker, as he helped three other employees upgrade an old gharat into a modern one at Ghontu Ka Shera, a remote village around 22 km (14 miles) from Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand state.
“Today a powerful gharat can turn out about two quintals (80 kilograms) of wheat flour a day, making it a very profitable option for villagers,” Negi added.
The modernization of the technology has continued with the introduction of wheels made of steel. Wooden wheels were liable to break when torrential monsoon rains washed rocks downstream, and repairing the blades was time-consuming and costly.
“In the olden days, when a blade of a wooden turbine would break ... we would need to take the entire turbine out and make a different one, costing time and money,” said Negi.
Using steel instead of wood has made it possible to repair a single broken blade – and most repairs can be done locally.
“With the new material used, one can simply take off the screws of the single turbine blade and get it welded and repaired locally, at very little cost and time,” he explained.
Originally, gharats were used simply to grind wheat for flour. But the improvements to the wheels gave HESCO an idea.
“It struck us that with this massive availability of water from the streams we can actually generate electricity, and this is what we started to do,” Negi said.
HESCO continues to introduce innovations. At Ghontu Ka Shera, for instance, it has recently constructed its first horizontal turbine, rather than the traditional vertical ones.
“Due to the tremendous force of the hill streams, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the generative capability is lost when the water crashes into the turbine vertically. But in a horizontal turbine, we save that [capacity],” Negi said.
The Ghontu Ka Shera water mill does not simply crush wheat and spices by day and produce electrical power at night. The single horizontal turbine has four conveyor belts attached to separate machines for milling wheat, threshing rice, grinding spices and generating power, though to ensure maximum efficiency only two of the machines will be operated simultaneously.
Each gharat is run by an individual family. The owner of the Ghontu Ka Shera gharat is 45-year-old Kamal Singh Panwar. He will charge villagers up to 1 rupee (around 2 cents) to grind a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of wheat. They would otherwise pay twice as much for the use of a diesel-powered mill in Raipur, the nearest town.
From the 80 to 100 kilograms of wheat Panwar expects to grind each day, he should receive around 12 kg of wheat flour, as well as cash, in remuneration. Under an agreement, he will give HESCO around 1 kg of flour per day, which the organization will then sell to gradually earn back its 200,000 rupee (about $3,700) investment in the turbine.
Panwar points out that that there are further economic benefits to having his own mill, since he no longer has to pay 80 rupees to take a taxi to and from Raipur to have his wheat ground. And he will earn additional income by handling spices and rice.
For HESCO, the reduction in the carbon footprint from milling wheat is an important aspect of the program. But it is above all a sustainable, environmentally friendly way to revive rural economies.
Panditji, a priest and another gharat owner from Ganeshpur, near the holy town of Uttarkashi, recounted how his son left the village to earn a living working in a town elsewhere in the state. By reviving his gharat for grinding wheat and spices and threshing rice, Panditji now earns an average of 25,000 rupees ($460) every month, making him wealthy by local standards. But for him, the best part is that by improving his economic status he has been able to recall his son back to the village.
• Sujit Chakraborty and Archita Bhatta are science and environmental journalists based in New Delhi.