A water journey

Monsoon means celebrations for the people of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat who script success stories of rainwater harvesting. But in Rajasthan they are questioned: who own the raindrop?

Published: Wednesday 15 August 2001

A water journey

-- (Credit: Kazimuddin Ahmed / CSE)This is a story of hope and of a major change.

For the first time in the last 50 years, several state governments are dealing with drought in a different way -- moving away from drought relief to drought mitigation. The droughts of 2000 and 2001 have seen Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh (mp) and Rajasthan undertake major rainwater harvesting programmes -- getting people to conserve rainwater that falls in their villages.

This year the mp government organised the world's biggest ever rainwater conservation programme -- Pani Roko Abhiyan (Stop the Water Campaign). Chanting Gaon ka paani gaon me, Khet ka paani khet mein (Water of the village in the village, Water of the farm in the farm), some 706,304 water harvesting structures were created from February to June.

In the four states put together, there are probably over 20,000 villages today undertaking rainwater harvesting seriously. The benefits have been quick to come. The good rains of June and July this year have already filled up tanks, ponds, johads (earthen check dams) and other structures built by people with support from government and non-governmental organisations (ngos). Not surprisingly, there is jubilation.

But this achievement also poses several challenges for governments and ngos.

Firstly, water harvesting structures have been built in tens of thousands. How will they ensure that these structures are properly maintained? Experience shows that when communities harvest rainwater for 5-8 years and keep groundwater recharged, they can withstand as much as three years of consecutive droughts.

Secondly, the experience of villages like Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, and Sukhomajri, Haryana, which started water harvesting in the 1970s, shows that this is just the beginning of rural ecological and economic regeneration. Water improves agriculture, improved agriculture improves animal husbandry and once people begin to harvest water they begin to take care of their watershed, which means more trees and forests. The combined incomes from improved agriculture, animal husbandry and tree wealth have the potential to not just alleviate, but literally eradicate rural poverty. How will governments and ngos ensure that water harvesting leads to total ecological and economic regeneration of our villages over 10-15 years?

And, finally, what does this mean for people's rights over water? India's water laws, mindless derivatives of the colonial laws of the last century, give too many rights to the government. As a result, when chief ministers want water harvesting structures built, the irrigation departments look away. But not when a village or an ngo wants to do so. Will the government get rid of its 19th century hangover and hand over the rights of rainwater to the people in the 21st century?

Down To Earth reporters and Centre for Science and Environment water campaigners capture the jubilation shared with numerous villagers in mp and Gujarat and the frustrations and determination of the villagers of Lava ka Baas in Rajasthan.

-- Anil Agarwal

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