October 27, 2021

Traditional Water Systems holds the key to India's Water Crisis

The recent pandemic has averted our attention from the alarming water crisis India is facing, however the distressing problem remains. With short memories, many have forgotten that 21 Indian cities ran out of water in 2019, and that unless something radical is done, we face a grim future when it comes to water.

But what if the answer was not ‘something radical’?  What if it was staring us in the face and has been for thousands of years? What if we had simply ‘forgotten’ the solution?

Water experts across the country have been espousing the benefits of the revival of traditional water harvesting systems – ancient wisdom that saw our ancestors survive many a drought even in the harshest of landscapes.  

Indians have had a rich history of managing water. Our forefathers harnessed water that fell during the rainy season and stored it to meet the needs of the community during the remaining dry months of the year.  To do this, they used ‘traditional water harvesting systems’ - a diverse range of structures that help harvest rainwater when and where it falls and store it – even replenishing and recharging the groundwater along the way.

Every region in the country has its own traditional water harvesting systems that are unique to the geography and culture of the area.  Bamboo pipes and Apatani systems (water harvesting system) are used in the eastern Himalayas while the Ghul (traditional irrigation systems) is used in the western Himalayas. Kund (traditional rainwater harvesting structure), Khadin (structure to harvest surface run-off), Talabs(ponds), Johad (percolation pond), and Baoli (step-well) are harnessed in the Thar desert and Gujarat; while in Bihar they use ahar-pynes (traditional floodwater-harvesting system) – the list goes on. 

Back then, the belief was that water was a communal resource to be managed by the community for the well-being of all. However during the colonisation of India, the British replaced this dispersed, decentralised system for the management of water, with a centralised one where the Public Works Department took control of the precious resource. As a result, people gave up the responsibility of managing and caring for water, and instead saw it as a resource that was ‘doled out by the powers that be.’

But these incredible structures still exist and many simply lie in disuse – in need of restoration and repair - however with work, they can be revived to their former glory. Communities dotted across the country are taking charge of their water future, by reviving these structures, organising into ‘water management’ groups and taking responsibility for the water that their lives and livelihoods rely so heavily upon. 

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Communities such as Rabriyawas in Rajasthan, which was once almost uninhabitable due to a lack of water, is today a thriving agricultural hub, thanks to the restoration and rejuvenation of ancient ‘nadi’s’ (village streams) which have helped sustain life in the desert region for millennia.  Village pond or stream is one of the most ancient structures for rainwater harvesting in the state of Rajasthan.

Once water harvesting structures are operating, there is then a need to promote a more decentralised, integrated approach to managing water – one where grassroots communities act as stewards of their own water and govern it locally, with the active participation of all – women in particular.

With over 467 ponds rejuvenated in the Rajasthan, a variety of Village development Committees (VDC) are taking care of the operation and maintenance of these water bodies. They monitor water collection and keep a lookout for illegal activities (such as open defecation or flow of sewerage water into the catchment area) of the water bodies. Villages clean the catchment area before monsoon each year so that the ponds are not contaminated. Today, the duration of water availability from each pond can sustain a community for almost an entire year after the rains.

But it takes work. People must be mobilised, organised and empowered with the knowledge that their ancestors once had – how to manage these structures and the water they collect, equitably, to ensure water sustainability for all.  This is where there is a role for NGOs and civil society, to enable people to take control back of their water.

Whilst there has been a role to play for big dams and canals, a simple, low-cost solution sits right in front of us - traditional, small scale water harvesting and management systems that local people can manage themselves.

India is facing an unprecedented water crisis, with estimates indicating that demand will outstrip supply by two by 2030 if we continue with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.  If India is to effectively turn the current water crisis around, there is a need to learn from our past, revive traditional water harvesting systems, and enable and empower communities to take back the management of water as a communal resource.  It can be done.  It must be done.

This article was first featured on the Forbes India Blog section. Here is the link to the same:

October 27, 2021

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