Of bottles and kundis

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

own To Earth has been carrying a series of articles on India's vast and ancient experience in rainwater harvesting. These articles are based on a 400-odd page book called Dying Wisdom: The Rise, Fall and Potential of India's Traditional Water Harvesting Systems. Released as a part of series of citizens' reports on the state of India's environment, the book breaks up the country into 16 different zones, and efforts have been made to describe the water technologies and management systems traditionally developed in all these regions. This is one book that has taken the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) to remote regions like Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Lakshadweep. It is possibly one of the biggest efforts in India in recent decades to document indigenous wisdom.

There is even today a lot that India can do to use these traditional innovations. I have often argued that there is no village in India which cannot meet its drinking water needs if it adopts the kundi technology developed by the people of Rajasthan's Thar desert. The technology is very simple. Literally anywhere in the world, one can take a piece of land and artificially slope it in a way that any water falling on the artificially treated catchment will run into a well on the centre or a side of the land. The well can be closed and the owner can draw water from it whenever needed.

Its potential is remarkable. Even if there was only 100 mm of rain in a year, which is the rainfall expected in some of the driest districts of Rajasthan and Ladakh, a one hectare (ha) catchment will provide one million litres of water a year. An individual does not need more than 2.5 litres a day for drinking and cooking. This means that 1,100 people can meet their critical water needs even in the worst desert environment with just one ha of land.
This message got through to a reader of Down To Earth who had heard of my statement to this effect. A teacher from Kerala, this reader requested a copy of our video tape on traditional water harvesting systems as he thought it might help the people of Vypeen Island who are surrounded by the Arabian Sea but do not have enough drinking water. Just imagine, the place gets two monsoons a year and rainfall levels of over 1,000 mm a year. The amount of land needed to capture a million litres of freshwater would be just 1,000 sq metres.

In fact, I am beginning to feel that all the fuss that has been made in India about the high fluoride content in drinking water derived from wells in certain parts of India leading to the crippling disease of fluorosis, can be easily solved by this technology. Just stop drinking groundwater and start capturing rainwater. Yet numerous drinking water programmes of the government have proposed only expensive piped water supply or canals from faraway areas to deal with this problem.

The government of West Bengal has been stumped in recent years by reports of arsenic in groundwater and has yet to come up with an effective strategy to deal with the problem; scientists still cannot explain the reasons for arsenic contamination in groundwater. The problem is afflicting several areas of Bangladesh now. In all these areas, rainfall levels are high and very small lands, if used to harvest rainwater, can provide safe water. But experts unfortunately don't like to learn from the poor, howsoever ingenuous they may be.

I am even prepared to argue that a time will come when even fancy urban citizens in mega-cities will be using their roofs for capturing rainwater. I say this because we are rapidly polluting all our rivers and groundwater systems with agricultural chemicals and industrial poisons. I have absolutely no confidence that the government water supply systems will be able to cope with the problem. In fact, at the moment, government authorities prefer to deny the problem rather than confront it. It means government-sponsored mass murder - something far more heinous than all the political scams put together. Just as people who can afford it set up their own boosters, water purification systems, voltage stabilisers and generators, they will soon be forced to start their own water supply systems through rainwater harvesting to get clean water.

But this is, in fact, why these systems had emerged in the past. Local communities were left or encouraged by the rulers to deal with their own problems. The 20th century socialist dream of a benevolent state which destroyed this tradition of self-reliance is today cracking up itself. And as the state hopefully withers away into the 21st century - I fervently hope that at least this proposition of the communists will come true - the principles of the past will begin to determine the community-based solutions of the future. Who cares whether Deve Gowda rules or Kesri?

There may be a market solution for the rich, however: Buy bottled water. Just imagine the scene: 300 million urban Indians start drinking bottled water to avoid polluted water as almost everyone now does in Europe and North America despite all the investments in expensive water treatment systems there! At 2.5 litres per person per day, and at Rs 5-10 per litre, the annual turnover of the bottled water industry will be 1,36,870-2,73,750 crore a year - about seven-15 times the size of the automobile industry in India today.

This is why economists say that pollution only spurs economic growth. The finance minister can then make a lot of money by taxing bottled water. But who will look after the poor? The answer is simple: Rajasthan's kundis.

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