Water in the foothills of The Himalayas
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas is a small village called McLeod-Ganj. It’s home to a large community of Tibetans-in-Exile as well as the Dalai Lama and part of a larger area known as Dharamshala in India. We were asked to develop a water tank monitoring system and hold capacity-building workshops to address a problem commonly experienced in the area; water shortage. The project was a joint initiative between UNESCO, Network the World, and Air Jaldi, the local wireless provider.
Dharamsala benefits from large amounts of rain, especially during the monsoon seasons, as well as snow melt from the Greater Himalayas.
However there are issues with the distribution and management of the water to the point that there are frequent water outages.
Most buildings have water tanks on their roofs or water towers to supply water which get refilled when water is available. However because most tanks don’t have a way to monitor the water levels, they’re either refilled to the point of overflowing, or run completely dry to the point where residents are without water.
System Design and Curriculum Development
There were two key components to the project: a system that was reliable and robust, and a workshop that showed local engineers how the technology worked, how to deploy it, and how to maintain it. Ownership over a system is critical as many projects fail after the implementors leave, and there is nobody to maintain or fix the system when it goes downo
For international projects, capacity building and local ownership is key to the long term success of a project.
In designing the system, we needed to ensure the software and wireless implementations were relatively simple so they were teachable within the short timespan of a week-long workshop. The system was Arduino-based and used ultrasonic water level sensors along with the IEEE 802.15.4 low power wireless protocol for the sensor data communications . We also developed the workshop curriculum around the different aspects of implementing an automated wireless monitoring solution including how Arduino worked, the basics of wireless, calculating link budgets, sensing, and sending and receiving data. We also focused on skills such as soldering and crimping wire harnesses for robust connections.
The Deployment Sites
We had located two sites for deployment for the workshop. The first was an easily accessible site and water tank in the Tibetan Childrens’ Village whilst the second was a three story high water tank located at The Tibetan Institute of Higher Learning. The Tibetan Institute of Higher Learning is a Tibetan religious school that trains monks and students in various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. They had a water tower that supplied all the students and teachers who resided in dorms with potable water. The water tower was accessible by a narrow staircase. A Tibetan monk climbed to the top twice a day to measure the water levels and determine if they needed to pump water up to the tower from the local spring. The job was immensely important as any mistake could leave the whole school with no water for drinking or washing. The goal was to automate the monitoring system so the monk could check online what the water level status was and be alerted if it fell below pre-determined thresholds.
For almost all of the participants, it was their first time working directly with electronics, embedded programming, and wireless sensors.
We started everyone off in the classroom where we went through how the sensors worked, how to program the devices, and how to communicate sensor data wirelessly. Once they were comfortable with programming the system and were able to get the basic functionality running, we moved to on-site work.
The on-site deployments were across two different sites. The first site was 1-2 metres from the ground, and easily accessible.
Once the participants could see how the technology they assembled and programmed could directly solve a problem, you could see the light bulbs turn on in their heads. Many participants were engineering students but had only spent time learning theory. Having a hands on workshop where they could get the system working in a classroom and then deploy it in an actual implementation to solve a problem was a very empowering moment for many of them.
They not only learned how to program the system to read sensors periodically and communicate the data wirelessly, but also the softer details of a deployment. These were things like antenna positioning, cable harnesses, assembling and ruggedizing enclosures, and other considerations such as mounting assemblies.
This project was very impactful for us and we fell in love with Dharamsala and the community as well.
We’ve since returned to Dharamsala multiple times and established a technology summit called HillHacks to promote technology awareness and exchange to solve problems specific to the local and greater Himalayan communities.