In crisis

The desert city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan is an excellent example of how Thoughtless processes of modernisation and urbanisation have destroyed an extraordinary water management system

By Ganesh Pangare
Published: Monday 31 March 1997

In crisis

The water of Ranisar tank, bui (Credit: Anil Agarwal /CSE)JODHPUR was founded in AD 1495. While selecting a site for locating the city, its builders must have given serious thought to its water potential and strategic situation. The Chonka- Daijar plateau, an important physical feature of this region, serves as a water catchment for 50 functional surface water bodies like nadis (village ponds used for storing water from an adjoining natural catchment during the rainy season), talabs (ponds), tanks, canals and lakes, and indirecItly, for about 154 groundwater bodies like wells, baoris and jhalaras (both step-wells).

Jodhpur's surface water bodies are primarily natural, but they have been improved by local people over the centuries. In the past, these water bodies - many of them more than 500 years old - used to be the main source of water for the city, also providing water through seepage to the wells, baoris and jhalaras in their respective areas. Regardless of who built these water bodies, they eventually became common property for all practical purposes.

Unfortunately, the construction and development of water bodies came to a virtual halt around 1897-98, when a public water system supply was introduced for the first time. People's initiatives could maintain the sanctity of the old water bodies and canal system only until the 1960s, after which the collapse came. Most of the water bodies are now in a highly mutilated, irrecoverable condition. A 1989 survey conducted by Jodhpur's School of Desert Sciences (SDS) was successful in locating 229 different water bodies; of these, 75 were surface and 154 groundwater bodies. To maintain the existing (and usable) surface and groundwater bodies in their present forms, at least five per cent of the total water expenditure of the city needs to be diverted towards their management and repairs. It is interesting to note that during water shortages, 66 of the 107 functional groundwater bodies are still used by the public health engineering department (PHED) to augment the city's water supply.

Surface depreciations
The region's ancient surface water bodies represent not only excellent feats of architectural and engineering design, but also a high degree of community sharing, and social, moral and religious values built around a desire for 'water for all'. These values preserved and maintained the water system without any written code of conduct for many years. However, with the introduction of the public water supply system, people began ignoring their water heritage.

Nadis: The SDS survey found 25 nadis in and around Jodhpur. Of these, five are located inside the city and 20 outside. The oldest nadi on record is Jodhnadi, built in AD 1458. Unfortunately, one-third of these nadis have been badly polluted because of the indifference of local people, catchment destruction and urbanisation. Six nadis, including some of the oldest ones like Range-ki-nadi and Pritaro-nado (about 450 years old) have been completely lost. Most of Jodhpur's old villages had their own nadis; water availability from a nadis ranged from two months to a year after the rains.

Talabs: A talab is a water reservoir situated in a valley or a natural depression. The SDS has traced 40 out of the 46 talabs mentioned in old records. Of these, eight are located inside the city and are 300-530 years old, the oldest being Ranisar, constructed in AD 1460. The Chankelao, Phoolalao and Naya talabs have been lost predominantly due to heavy urbanisation. A public park has come up on Phoolalao talab. Gangelao talab, a maior source of drinking water until 40 years ago, has now become a source of disease with the accumulation of dirt, filth and garbage, because of local residents diverting their sewage lines into it. Today, the only safe talabs - whose waters are still used by the people - inside the city's boundaries are Ranisar and Padamsar. However, urban activities are already eroding their catchments.

The 32 talabs located outside the old city boundaries Are between 105 and 600 years old. Of these, 11 have been completely lost due to urbanisation and industrialisation, while the catchments of another 11 have been partially lost, with little chance of revival. In fact, the SDS found only two, the Bijolai and Arna, with fully protected catchments. Only these two hold water for more than four to six months a year, even during years of normal rainfall.

Tanks: Provided with canals to bring rainwater from the catchment areas on the outskirts of the city, the five tanks of Jodhpur are of relatively recent origins. The oldest, Fatehsagar, was built in AD 1780. Three of these tanks are located inside the city (Fatehsagar, Gulabsagar and Baiji-ka-talab) and two, outside (Mansagar and Paota). Of these, Baiji-ka-talab and Paota have been abandoned, while Mansagar has been destroyed. Baiji-ka-talab and Mansagar now receive sewage and polluted waters from adjoining colonies. Gulabsagar and Fatehsagar are also polluted. Their rainwater-bearing feeder canals have been turned into drains, with residents having opened their sewage lines or dumped garbage into them and encroachirig their banks. However, these two tanks can still be restored if their feeder canals and catchments are protected.

Lakes: Jodhpur has five large lakes located on the outskirts of the city in a more or less natural setting. The oldest is Balsamand, constructed in AD 1126. This lake, along with the other four - Lalsagar, Kailana, Takhatsagar and Umedsagar - can hold about 700 million cubic feet (m cu ft) of water at a given time, which can support about 800,000 people for eight months.

But nowadays, even during years of normal rainfall, these lakes do not get adequate water because of the poor state of catchments and canals which carry rainwater to them. The Kailana-Takhatsagar, the largest city lake, is linked to major canals like the Chota Abu, Kaliberi, Keru and Nadelao, and supported by several smaller ones. These canals have been mutilated and blocked by rubble over the years due to mining activities in the catchment area.

Balsamand is linked to the Mandore-Fedusar canal, which brings rainwater from the Balsamand-Mandore hill ranges. Until 1875, Balsamand was the main source of water for a sizeable population of the city. Its water was carried to the Gulabsagar tank in the heart of Jodhpur through an open canal. The city's water supply was augmented when Kailana and Takhatsagar lakes were constructed and their waters carried to Gulabsagar and Baiji-ka-talab through a pipe in 1905. This was followed by the construction of Umedsagar to support the inhabitants of the western part of the city. At present, largescale mining operations are going on in the Balsamand catchment area. With the Balsamand lake not receiving enough water, the decreasing water level has rendered about 50 orchards unproductive.

Eleven streams that support several forms of wildlife and cattle populations all along their lengths, also run on the out-skirts of the city. Until recently, all of them had flowed round the year. Now, seven of them flow only during the monsoon months, thanks to extensive mining and the digging of tube-wells.

Canals: Jodhpur is perhaps the only city in the country where an all-out effort was made to conserve every drop of rainwater. To achieve this, every catchment and hillock was drained by canals, a network of which had swamped Jodhpur by 1886.

The SDS survey revealed a total canal length of about 85 km, capturing water from about 13,500 ha of catchment area. These canals carry water to five lakes, two tanks and two talabs. The Balsamand feeder canal is still intact, except for the garbage, stones and sand that have accumulated in it at some places. The greatest danger to it is from indiscriminate mining along its banks al several points and road construction over it at two places.

Though the canals supplying water to the Kailana and Takhatsagar are functioning, they have been blocked at several places. Indiscriminate mining has had an adverse impact on the Kaliberi, Keru and Umedsagar canals as well, while the Gulabsagar and Fatehsagar tanks are polluted, with residents of the city having opened their sewage channels into them and encroached their banks Gulabsagar and Fatehsagar canals are reeling under urban pressure all along their routes. The SDS survey suggests that if measures like urgent repairs, clearing of encroachments and stopping mining are undertaken, an extra 200 m cu ft of rainwater can be supplied to Jodhpur.

Ground reality
The groundwater bodies of Jodhpur - wells, jhalaras and baoris - were conceived to tankers. But ensure easy and regular water supply to these villages, neighbouring areas. Each collects the subterranean seepage of a talab or lake located upstream. Local philanthropists were instrumental in building many of these bodies; the wells were dug essentially to enhance drinking water supply, while baoris and Jihalaras were meant for washing and bathing.

Wells : Old records list some 125 open wells in different parts of the city. The SDS has traced 98 - 41 inside the city and 57 outside. The Jeta bera and Chopasani bera are the oldest. Of the wells surveyed, 74 are still in use, 23 have been abandoned and one has been lost. Among the operational wells, 53 are used for drinking water and 13 for irrigation and cattle. The 24 wells which have been abandoned or closed have either polluted water, or have none.

The last community wells were dug around 1870, after which their construction came to a virtual halt. This was directly related to the increased availability of water from other sources. However, 23 old wells are still being used by the PHED to maintain the city's water supply. About two or three per cent of the city's population still uses well water for drinking. It appears that there was some link between the wells and population growth of the city and its spread; the maximum number of old wells are inside the city's perimeters, where the concentration of population is the most.

Baoris: Jodhpur is a city of baoris or community stepwells. Shallower than wells and older than other water bodies of the city, baoris can hold water for a long time because of almost negligible water evaporation. The SDS surveyed 45 baoris - 16 inside the city and 29 outside.

Mandore baori, the oldest, was constructed in AD 784. Among the other old baoris are Bheru baori, Chand baori, Jagu baori and Idgah baori. About 30 baoris still hold water, 20 having potable water. Although traditionally baori water is not used for drinking, waters of Rameshwarji mandir baori, Achalanth baori, Shiv baori, Barli baori and Nathon-ki-baori are regularly used for drinking and for offerings in temples. Bathing and washing is prohibited in these baoris. While the PHED, on its part, is exploiting the waters of 11 baoris, hardly any effort is being made to improve their conditions; 11 more have been abandoned and two totally lost.

Jhalaras: The SDS was able to locate all the eight jhalaras of the city - two inside the city and six outside. The Mahamandir jhalara, which is more like a baori, is the oldest, having been constructed in AD 1660. Kriya-ka-jhalara and Mandore jhalara are reported to be about 400 and 500 years old, respectively. Of the eight jhalaras, four have been abandoned, the PHED is using two for water supply and the Nolakha jhalara is being used for irrigation. 1halaras provide breathtaking and exquisite examples of architectural design, and need to be protected - both as the city's heritage and as unique water bodies.

What is to be done
It is obvious that a number of steps need to be taken urgently to stop further destruction of Jodhpur's extraordinary water supply heritage. Mining and all urban and industrial activities in catchments must be stopped. Agencies like the town planning department, urban improvement trust and the local municipality should not be allowed to interfere with forest areas and catchments in the name of urban expansion. The forest department can undertake afforestation of catchment areas, and the mining department should rehabilitate the mined areas in the catchments.

Rejuvenation of the long-neglected nadis, talabs, tanks, wells, baoris, jhalaras and canals by cleaning and repairing them, is another necessity. Legal support will be needed to remove unauthorised constructions and encroachments in catchment areas and canals. However, for achieving all this, complete public support is the prime prerequisite. Therefore, public awareness campaigns will be needed to educate the people about the need for water conservation, and the preservation of the city's unique heritage of water harvesting.

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