Silk from the Sewer

Story and Photography by Isabella Porras

Green bushels of mulberry swaying in the wind. The untouched potential of wastewater. A journey to silk.

Photojournalist Isabella Porras follows the journey of silk production In rural Karnataka, from the innovative use of unwanted waste water to the weaving of silk saris worth thousands of rupees.

tWS: BENGALURU mulberry farmer Muniraju has turned the tables on the local sewage problem, turning waste water it into a lifeline for local farmers

Wastewater, a common enough sight swirling through stormwater drains and snaking along gutters in the bustling city of Bengaluru, yet the 1400 million litres of wastewater produced each day is rich with untapped potential for a city rushing towards a water crisis. 

Nestled on the edge of the city lies the small but vibrant town of Vijayapura; markets alive with a chorus of sound and colour, a town persevering amid the mounting pressure of water scarcity. The farmers of Vijayapura are among the first to feel the tightening grip of climate change as temperatures rise and rain fails to fall. 

But not all hope is lost. Mulberry farmer Muniraju K.V has been quietly weaving a life for himself with wastewater. He has recognised its power to provide a sustainable solution to the water woes of his city and ensure his family are left with a lasting legacy. 

Two hours out of Bengaluru, as the city becomes distant along the stretch of highway, scattered fields of farmland fill the landscape. In a country where more than 40 per cent of the workforce is reliant on agriculture, the ever-looming issue of climate change is a very real concern.

Muniraju has spent the past 15 years diverting wastewater to his farm and has emerged from years of hardship as a pioneer in his town. He is a master of his craft, meticulously tending to the rich green leaves of mulberry which is the starting point for an intricate process that ultimately leads to the famed flowing silk sarees of India.

The south-western state of Karnataka has long been India’s largest producer of silk, its history threads back hundreds of years, providing livelihoods for many. This rich tradition of silkworm rearing and silk making can still be found amongst the winding alleyways of Muniraju’s town. And, as water for edible crops becomes increasing scarce, a number of farmers are now turning to that heritage of silk for their survival.

Rapid urbanisation in a constantly morphing city has meant those on the frayed edges, and in villages like Muniraju’s, have been neglected. Despite its intricate network of waterways, the city of Bengaluru has yet to extend the reach of its water supply to those living on the periphery. 

Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a water conservation expert, civil engineer and urban planner, notes that unfair distribution of water is the main issue for those on the edge. With 75% of the city able to instantly receive piped water, the other 25% are left struggling day to day. 

Standing tall among his mulberry plants swaying gently in the wind, Muniraju, well dressed with a woven cloth thrown over his shoulder, looks proudly upon his hectare of land. 

“I have been on this farm since I was a child, and now I am 45. After our borewell ran dry I was forced to work on someone else’s land for over `five years but now I have returned to my farm,” he says. 

Nearly twenty years ago growing ragi (finger millet) and beetroot were enough to sustain his family, but intense changes in India’s climate and unequal water distribution in Bengaluru, meant Muniraju was forced to leave all that behind.

Yet Muniraju persisted and during one rainy season the gushing wastewater spilling onto his struggling farm sparked an idea. Cleverly diverting the sewage into two low pits in the earth, the swirling black water swept through his land, giving life to his thirsty crops. 

Thanks to this simple solution to an overflow problem in Bengaluru, the scarcity of irrigation water will no longer be a problem for famers turning to non-edible crops. Vishwanath, one of Muniraju’s friends, explains how this innovative use of wastewater works.

“He doesn’t require an eco-STP (sewage treatment plant), there is no process needed, you take raw wastewater and stock it in a nearby pond and then you distribute it to the nearby fields to grow mulberry. It’s shit to silk,” he states.

“By shifting from edible to non-edible crops, Muniraju has shown the way for farmers…to use the city’s wastewater, treated or untreated in a productive fashion.”

The sheer volume of wastewater being generated in India has reached a critical point. Nearly 62 billion litres of sewage flows through the country but only 37% is able to be treated. 

The International Journal of Chemical Studies reported in 2018 that silkworm cocoon yield was increased by plants irrigated by wastewater. Mulberry fed directly from sewage are enriched by higher amounts of phosphorous and potassium in the soil which produce a higher quality of leaves.  

Although Muniraju has had success overcoming water scarcity, it has not been without its challenges including the steady increase in global temperatures. Years ago, he could have watered his crops every ten days but the increased temperatures mean he now has to tend to his mulberry crop every few days for their survival. 

He has also found himself tangled up in policies and procedures, and facing a government which is on the fence with respect to agricultural use of wastewater. Undeterred, Muniraju wisely ensures he works within the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for wastewater management. 

“There is a lot of backlash from researchers and public health organisations who are caught up in policies that say its pollution and dangerous, rather than seeing the benefits. But the WHO sanitation safety plan gives Muniraju the legal ability to run his farm the way he has,” Vishwanath says.

The shift from edible to non-edible crops such as mulberry has woven Muniraju successful threads of opportunity, and in return he has shared his knowledge with fellow agriculturists and is often called to other farms to lend his skills and guide them towards sustainably harnessing sewage water. 

“Some of the farmers in Vijayapura have taken my advice and started growing mulberry and now are making a comfortable living, despite the challenges.” Muniraju said. 

Not only has Muniraju secured his family’s future with his innovative sewerage silkworm food, but it has sustained jobs for a string of families in his town, who can continue to produce raw silk for the Indian market.

Muniraju’s resourceful use of wastewater not only has provided Vijayapura with a sustainable waste management system, but each stage of the intricate silk story has been tended to by a local family– from Muniraju’s mulberry to the silkworm’s delicate transformation to cocoons, and finally the reeling of the raw silk ready to be woven into sarees. 

Hardly two kilometres from his farm, a small family of sericulturists (silkworm breeders) are nestled on the edges of Vijayapura. Quietly ushered into dark rooms where the silkworms live, Muniraju looks on proudly at the squirming ivory worms, hungrily feeding on his mulberry.

Stacked high to the ceiling are bamboo beds filled with a rich mix of green leaves and white wriggling bodies. The soft chewing of the worms reverberates around the room like the patter of rainfall as they enjoy their meal. 

The silkworms are then raised for twenty-eight days, by which time they are finally ready to complete their journey to silk. Baskets brimming with silkworms are placed beside large circular bamboo mounts known as chandranki. The worms, fat with mulberry, are scattered round the bamboo in deft movements where they will be left to form their delicate silk cocoons. 

Finally, the silk cocoons are harvested, boiled to kill the larvae before they can tear a hole in the delicate shell and make the silk impossible to reel.

In the alleyways of Vijaypura, drawn by a deafening mechanical clacking, Muniraju ducks into a small family run business where rows of coarse yellow silk winds on to reels in constant motion. The family members who run the reeling business move through the aisles with precision, quick to notice when a thread is loose. 

They are unravelling the silk from the empty cocoons – extraordinarily strong fibres, finer than hair.

The end result is glossy silk thread wound tightly into raw golden reels, ready to be sold, dyed and woven into silk saris. 

Sadly, handlooms are no longer used to weave saris but the process of watching raw silk being woven into a vibrantly patterned sari to the rhythmic clanging of the metal power looms is mesmerising. 

And it is satisfying to think that the beautiful cloth being crafted in some city factory, started with Muniraju’s sewage-fed mulberry bushes – a simple idea that saved a farm, that sustains a village full of small family businesses on the edge of Bengaluru, and might just offer hope for water-starved farmers elsewhere across India. 

Isabella grew up in Solomon Islands and picked up her mother’s old camera when she was thirteen years old and has been taking photos ever since. Majoring in Documentary Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Isabella’s work centres around exploring Australian identity, migration and personal life. Isabella has worked for The Water Story project in Bangalore, India documenting traditional well makers who have combined their centuries-old practices with modern science to combat water scarcity. Isabella hopes to work as a long-form documentary photographer after graduation and spend her Honours year conducting documentary research in her father’s birth-country of Nicaragua.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s