Reviving Traditional Water Management Techniques Can Avert India’s Water Crisis

I was asked recently as to why I end up writing about water all the time? People get amazed as to how can I keep writing about a topic without getting bored? My well wishers even advice me to not stick around the same topic over and over again as I might lose out on readership. So the next question is why do I write exclusively on water, environment and climate change? My day starts off with reading the newspaper, a habit I have developed religiously over the past few years and everyday there is some piece of information about environmental damage.

On 22 March 2017, I had participated in a walkathon which was flagged off from India gate, a place otherwise famous for peaceful protests and candle marches. It was on that very day that I had come across the book, “Everybody loves a good drought” by P. Sainath which has stories from some of the poorest districts in India. It served as an inspiration and an eye opener about the greatest resource which we take for granted. Earlier this year as I was associated with the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’, this holds even a greater significance. The past two years I have learnt a lot about global water issues and South Asia in particular, be it from a scientific, legal, governance, policy, gender or social perspective. And it’s all the learning that I am trying to give it back to the community as it’s the implementation of policies and laws that pose the greatest challenge before the government.

Being from the Northeast, we see water bodies after almost every few kilometers. Yet there is a huge water stress and lack of availability of clean drinking water. What if I told you about a state which we have an impression to be a dry state and is yet one of the best examples from the country when it comes to water conservation? Rajasthan a state which most of us assume to be an absolutely desert state because of its aridity and we only think about the Thar desert when it comes to India’s largest state area wise. Rajasthan has nine agro-ecological zones which means there are different climatic conditions prevailing across the entire length and breadth of the state and accordingly the vegetation also varies.

Waterman of India, Rajendra Singh. Image via Getty

Two years ago, I was on a field trip to Alwar district in Rajasthan where I met people from an NGO named Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) which was founded by Dr. Rajendra Singh (in 1975) who is famously known as the ‘waterman of India’. Through this NGO I had visited a nearby village named ‘Hori-Bhikampura’ bordering the ‘Sariska Tiger Reserve’ and my team and I got to know how hard the common people have worked through years to conserve their common property resources (CPRs).

In this case, I am specifically talking about ‘Johads’ – a lake like structure which essentially stores harvested rain water. It is interesting to note that Alwar is essentially a flood prone plain, therefore, water conservation is extremely important in this region. Unfortunately, Dr. Rajendra Singh was not available the day I had been to TBS, but the other officials left no stone unturned in showing us around and providing an insight into how the Johads have been revived over the years.

Reaching the village was an extremely arduous task as we had to hike up a mountain, a thing we were unprepared for and the ‘October heat’ caused sunstrokes for many people in the group! Conversing along the way with a fellow Assamese colleague, the first thing that amazed us was the vegetation and the food habits. As the population is pre dominantly vegetarian and we compared the rural life of the east and the west, we just had one thing in mind, “Amar manuhe tu pukhuri eta r pora maas maari bhator lagot khale hoi jai. Iyate paani u nai, bhaat khuwa culture u kom, manuh bure ki khai jiyay thake?” (People from Assam are content catching fish from the local pond and having it with rice. Here in Rajasthan, it is predominantly a wheat eating belt and the water resources are scarce, then how are people surviving?).

The levels of poverty was unimaginable to my eyes and it was now extremely important for me to explore this village as on the other side of this part of the country there were politicians who were making tall claims of rural electrification, open defecation free, employment generation and what not. But at the grassroots level the scenario was entirely different! We are living in times when we are facing huge water crisis due to the ill management of the irrigational facilities and as water guzzling crops have been grown in water stressed areas which have no doubt ensured food security and brought about prosperity in the agricultural sector, it is high time we looked back at our policies from the past few decades as these were implemented without thinking about sustainability.

Image via Getty

There has been salt water intrusion along with ground water pollution, low aquifer recharge aided with deforestation and mining which has made access to water even more difficult. It is under these circumstances that the revival of the traditional water systems plays a vital role because at a time when people are hugely dependent on bore wells further causing damage to the ecologically fragile Aravalis, it is the traditional knowledge with a mix of modern technique that comes to the rescue.

The ‘Stockholm Water Prize’ winner had to undergo a lot of trials and tribulations to earn the title of ‘Jalpurush’ or ‘waterman of India’ as he was determined to bring about a change after getting accepted by the people in the village of Alwar. Over the years, Dr. Rajendra Singh along with the common people of the villages in Rajasthan has been able to build over 8000 Johads and revive five rivers! To make the optimum utilization of water, sprinkler and drip irrigation facilities have also been introduced here. He has been awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2001 for his pioneering work in community based efforts in water management. Likewise there are stories of revival of water bodies using other traditional water management techniques.

Traditional knowledge related to water management from the ancient times has been prevalent in our country. But over the years there is very little discussion about it and with the advent of modernity this knowledge is on the verge of extinction. One must remember that to bring about change or revival, we have to take multiple stakeholders (engineers, social scientists, policy makers, common people, etc.) on board as there has to be a platform where everyone is treated equally and everyone has a say.

Medha Patkar. Image via Getty

There have been many activists in the country who have been successful in bringing about such environmental issues to the forefront as it is often turned a blind eye and the after effects are huge. Medha Patkar is one such activist who founded the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ and fought fearlessly for the rehabilitation of the displaced people. In fact this movement was responsible for creating a high level awareness about the environmental impacts, displacement and rehabilitation issues concerning the Sardar Sarovar dam and other projects on the Narmada River.

Issues surrounding water are extremely important keeping in mind the future from the perspective of security and conflict reduction and management because it is for water that states within a country, countries having trans boundary water bodies like rivers, lakes and seas end up being in conflict and the matter takes a long time to resolve affecting many innocent people. Food for thought?

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