Traditional water systems hold the key to India's water crisis

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

Updated: Sep 20, 2021 05:19:02 PM UTC
Traditional-Water-Systems
Traditional water harvesting system is 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. Image: Shutterstock

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

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 have 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 dry months. 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 unique traditional water harvesting systems depending on the geography and culture of the area. Bamboo pipes and Apatani systems (wet rice cultivation cum fish farming system) are used in the eastern Himalayas while the Gul (traditional irrigation canals) is used in the western Himalayas. Kund (circular underground well), Khadin (structure designed to harvest surface runoff), Talabs (ponds), Johad (percolation pond), and Baoli (man-made step well) are harnessed in the Thar desert, Rajasthan and in Gujarat; while in Bihar they use ahar-pynes (traditional floodwater harvesting system) – the list goes on.

Back in the day, the belief was that water was a communal resource to be managed by the community for the wellbeing of all. However, during the colonisation of India, the British replaced this dispersed, decentralised system to manage 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 already taking charge of their water future, by reviving these structures, organising themselves into ‘water management’ groups, and taking responsibility for the water that their lives and livelihoods rely so heavily upon.

Communities in Rabriyawas in Rajasthan, which was once almost uninhabitable due to the lack of water, is today a thriving agricultural hub after restoration and rejuvenation of ancient nadis (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 the water harvesting structures are operational, 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 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 look out for illegal activities (such as open defecation or flow of sewage water into the catchment areas) at 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 the entire year.

But it takes work. People must be mobilised, organised, and empowered with the knowledge that their ancestors once knew 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 the civil society, to enable people to take control back of their water.

Estimates suggest that demand for water 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.

The writer is a CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation.

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