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I had just finished a presentation to a gathering of Venetian academics on the time-tested water storage systems of Rajasthan. During refreshments, while some wondered at what went into making such elaborate water systems, I asked: how was water managed before pipelines came to Venice about a 100 years ago? The city sits on a lagoon. There are similarities with, say, Jaisalmer, located in the middle of a sea of sand. Freshwater must be a great challenge here also.
I drew a blank. Nobody was willing to hazard a guess. I said I'd be able to tell in half an hour if they took me around town. They seemed doubtful, but politesse had the better of cynicism. I have begun to trust my eye, trained over the past two decades while trying to understand the legacy of water storage in Rajasthan. In 15 minutes, I spotted my first well in Venice.
It stood in a courtyard; white, sad, forsaken but steadfast. All kinds of people were walking past it, without sparing a thought for this 'structure'. Decades of neglect couldn't hide the craftsman's efforts to beautify the narrow well. There were figurines and flowers. The well was planned scrupulously, and beauty did not undermine utility. What ruined the perfect symmetry was a remarkably ugly iron lid -- more like a thick shield -- placed on top. Alienation had been planned.
If there is a well, there is a catchment and a way to let in that water. The courtyard was paved, with white stone markings in the corner. A walk around the courtyard revealed carefully-marked holes to let in rainwater. Venetians preferred to have the rainwater percolate into earth, which filtered and made it available in the wells.
I got a glimpse of 1,500 years of water wisdom in the two days I spent in Venice. This system was the backbone of all that became Venice. And how unmindful present-day town planners are to it. Sounds familiar?