Dying wisdom

Rise and fall of traditional water harvesting systems in India
They are called kuhals in Jammu, kuls in Himachal Pradesh and guls in Uttarakhand. The Maharashtrians call them pats . In Ladakh, they are called zings , and in Nagaland, zabo . Tamilians call them eris , Kannadigas, keres . Rajasthanis have tankas , kundis , bawdis , jhalaras and a host of others. Traditional water harvesting systems exist all over India, but after serving the nation for several millennia, they are dying a slow death. Anil Agarwal highlights the key findings of the Fourth Citizens' Report on the State of India's Environment , a product of five years of research, which focuses exclusively on India's water harvesting tradition. The report will be released by the Centre for Science and Environment this month

Published: Saturday 15 March 1997

Dying wisdom

The jhalara of Bundi: an open< (Credit: Anupam Mishra)the year 1979 had seen a debilitating drought sweep across India. As rains failed, agricultural production dropped, resulting in enormous human misery. Nestled in the denuded sub-Himalayan Shivalik hills, the poor villagers of Sukhomajri in Haryana were not spared either. They had managed to grow just one monsoon crop a year in normal circumstances; this year, they were not going to get even that.

However, even in this desolate landscape, there was a ray of hope. P R Mishra, a soil conservationist who was trying to get the villagers to stop grazing their animals in the region's degraded watershed, had earlier in the year worked with them to build a small earthen dam across the seasonal stream that ran through Sukhomajri. Desperate for the water stored behind the dam, the villagers appealed to the soil conservationist to help them make channels for conveying the water to their fields. But before giving his assent, Mishra told the villagers that if they did not stop grazing their cattle in the watershed now, their own dam would get silted up very fast and they would not have this water when the next drought hit the village. The villagers agreed to take care of the watershed. Thus, good water management through small water harvesting tanks gave birth to a pioneering village-based natural resource management system which has since inspired many Indian environmentalists and village workers. Today, the village has several such water harvesting structures and can grow three crops a year regularly. From an essentially food-importing village, it has become a food-exporting one. And with grass productivity increasing and trees regenerating, the region now has so much fodder that the villagers have given up their goats in favour of high-yielding buffaloes; they sell several lakhs of rupees worth of milk to neighbouring towns. Says economist Gopal Kadekodi at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi, "The rate of return from this project cannot be matched even by the corporate sector."

Around the same time, in the mid-'70s, a jeep driver in the Indian army had returned to his parched village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the drought-prone district of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. Faced with intensive land degradation, denudation and dried-up water sources, the village had fallen victim to massive male migration, rampant illicit liquor brewing and heavy alcoholism. Krishna Bhaurao Hazare, the jeep driver, took a decision which was to change the face of his village. He began organising the people for constructing small dams across the various seasonal channels that went through and around the village, so that every drop of rain could be harvested and allowed to percolate into the soil to enrich the groundwater reserves. With the help of the increasing groundwater, the villagers slowly began improving their agriculture by using water-conserving crops. In the last two decades, the dramatic change in the economy of Ralegan Siddhi has made it a model village, attracting nationwide attention. Krishna Bhaurao, who has also become a leading crusader against government corruption at the grassroot level, is popularly known today as Anna ('big brother') Hazare.

Tarun Bharat Sangh (tbs), an ngo working in the drought-prone district of Alwar, which straddles the Aravalli hill chain, has a similar story to relate. Rajendra Singh of the Sangh began encouraging the region's villagers to take their destiny in their own hands and revive their traditional water harvesting systems called johads, which consist of earthen dams thrown across seasonal channels. But unlike a normal dam, the rainwater here is collected during monsoon and allowed to percolate into the soil. Beginning in the early '80s, the tbs has by now constructed nearly 1,200 johads ensuring assured crop output in about as many villages in the region.

During the drought of 1987 -- probably the worst of the century -- journalist Om Thanvi had scoured the Rajasthan desert to assess the state of the region's water harvesting systems. An acute shortage of drinking water marked the region, with government agencies desperately trying to reach water to far-flung rural communities on trucks. Thanvi was amazed to find that wherever households had not given up their traditional rainwater harvesting systems called kundis, the urgency for the government water tankers was much less or non-existent. Following the drought, the government actually began to encourage the construction of such structures and the villagers also learnt an important lesson: Keep your own kundis intact while welcoming the extra water the government supplied.

In the hill-top town of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram -- a region known for its heavy downpours -- local residents found that increasing urbanisation had led to denudation and destruction of mountain springs, thus creating an enormous water scarcity. The town, facing an unmanageable expenditure running a fleet of trucks up and down the steep hills ferrying water from the river in the valley below, decided to encourage rooftop water collection. Today, almost every house in Aizawl has developed its own independent water supply system.

The premise is clear: India, after having gone through an extended 50-year phase of constructing big dams and canals, is once again being forced to look at its traditional, smallscale water harvesting and management systems -- especially amongst grassroots organisations which are working with the people to develop cheap water management systems that the people can themselves manage.

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