Rainwater is abundant in India. So is its mismanagement. This has led to a human-made water scarcity. The only way to solve modern India's water crisis is to capture this bounty through traditional community-based and urban water harvesting. A look into this new paradigm that is emerging the world over

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 15 April 2001


Special water trains were run< (Credit: Shailesh Rawal/India Today)

harvesting is no longer a subject for academic discussions or committee room confabulations. It is a living subject today for thousands of devotees whose numbers are growing by the day. Today 5,000, five years later 50,000, and 10 years after 500,000 -- that is, one rainwater warrior in every village of India.

That is my dream and the first steps that India and other countries of the world are taking in that direction are captured in the latest book released by the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) entitled Making Water Everybody's Business: Practice and Policy of Water Harvesting . It was just four years ago, in 1997, that cse had released Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India's Traditional Water Harvesting Systems , which described India's long-standing but decaying tradition of rainwater harvesting in all its 15 different ecological regions. Within a few months of its release, there were over 50 media reports on the modern relevance of this ancient tradition. Civil society institutions across the country helped cse to spread the book's message by organising release functions. Several eminent Indians participated, including Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh and agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan.

As it is not enough to talk about the existence of a tradition, cse decided to explore the actual practice of water harvesting in modern times A major three-day conference from October 3-5, 1998 was organised on the 'Potential of Water Harvesting: Technologies, Policies and Social Mobilisation'. President K R Narayanan kindly agreed to inaugurate the conference and even asked cse to help undertake water harvesting in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Numerous people came from India, South Asia and elsewhere to describe their efforts. Indians and foreigners, village people and urbanites rubbed shoulders to discuss their struggles and their innovations to deal with the growing water crisis. The papers presented and the discussions that took place have been captured in Making Water Everybody's Business .

But the book goes beyond the 1998 conference. As those invited from China could not come for it, cse put together a report on that country's interesting work on water harvesting based on papers written by Chinese experts. The 1998 conference had failed to discuss the health implications of water harvesting. Therefore, an effort was made to gather information on the dangers involved and the solutions that exist, especially in Singapore, which has made the most outstanding effort in the world to capture polluted urban runoff for drinking water supply.

The world does not stop when one is writing or editing a book. The failure of the 1999 monsoon led to a serious drought in 2000. Faced with a crisis, not only water harvesting took centrestage in the ensuing parliamentary debate on the drought, the Union government and several state governments also decided to take up crash water harvesting programmes. While Madhya Pradesh had already been promoting water conservation through watershed development programmes on a reasonably large-scale, the governments of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh also decided to take up major water harvesting programmes.From small, ngo-promoted water harvesting efforts, the paradigm was now becoming government mantra -- and not anywhere else but in our own country. It was important to capture these experiences in all their strengths and weaknesses. And, therefore, before the book could go to press, cse researchers travelled extensively in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to prepare reports on these government efforts.

Making Water Everybody's Business captures this rich and diverse tapestry of the modern human struggle to find water for its needs. The book is educative as well as inspiring. Who says there is a water crisis? If there one, it is a crisis of the mind. Nature has given us a lot. All that we need to do is to respect the gifts that Nature has given us and learn to live with them with respect and humility.

Why did we title the book Making Water Everybody's Business? Our first thought was to call it Emerging Wisdom to contrast the title with our last book Dying Wisdom . But in the second book, the central message is not just water harvesting but also community and household management. We did not want this key message to get lost. The Indian tradition in water management was built on two principles: one, rainwater harvesting had primacy over river water or groundwater harvesting; and, two, community and household water management had primacy over government supply of water. While talking about the importance of water harvesting, we did not want our readers to forget the second key principle. A principle that comes out so sharply in the book -- how villagers, ngos, individual households, city authorities, governments, politicians, all are getting involved with water management. Hence, the current mouthful of a title but with a purpose behind it. The message is clear: Whoever you are, get involved with water. You will not only help yourself but also help others. The biggest punya that you can do, as the Hindu texts put it.

The most beautiful thing about any decentralised water management paradigm like rainwater harvesting is that it not only promotes mass action -- not mass production but production by the masses, as Mahatma Gandhi once put it -- but also myriads of innovations. Traditionally, people had innovated a variety of water technologies and management systems. The kundi in Rajasthan -- an artificial well connected to a human-made catchment -- could give a family drinking water round the year even in the driest of deserts. The Zabo system of cultivation in certain villages of Nagaland not only harvested streamwater for irrigation but also ensured that forest humus and farmyard manure got mixed with the harvested water to maintain soil fertility. The new book also captures a fascinating innovation of a government field worker in Ladakh to develop artificial glaciers. Rainfall in Ladakh is so low that farming is not possible without irrigation. The farming period is only 4-5 months long. But water in the streams depends on glaciers melting in the high mountains. Farmers can lose weeks waiting for sufficient water to start their cultivation. Now farmers can create artificial glaciers in their own fields as the winter sets in and benefit from the thaw as soon as spring sets in. Which industrial management guru was it who said that Small and Medium Enterprises (smes) are the most innovative? Huge water bureaucracies and technocracies rarely ever innovate to the same extent.

In the end, the book is not just about water or regenerating our water traditions. It is much more than that. Firstly, it is about rebuilding India itself and its economy at its very roots, about eradication of poverty. Water is natural capital and it lies at the heart of the economic capital in rural areas. The rural economy consisting of agriculture, animal production and trees and forests, is built entirely around the availability of water. Water brings land to life and yields biomass in the form of food, fuel, manure, timber and milk. Bringing water to India's villages is infusing a new economic life into our poverty-stricken rural areas and moving towards poverty eradication.

But community-based water management goes beyond rebuilding India's economy. The book is also about rebuilding India's society at its very roots. In rural areas, it is the nurturing of the natural capital that leads to economic capital. But natural capital cannot be sustained with social capital -- the commitment of a society to cooperation and consensus, solidarity and social strength. This is what community-based water harvesting efforts show everywhere. Water harvesting structures work only when village communities get together to develop and maintain them and share the resulting water resources. The message is inspiring: community-based water management can stop the trend towards social atomisation and divisiveness and promote constructive social relations.

The book is, not surprisingly, dedicated to all those who are making Mahatma Gandhi's dream of gram swaraj (village independence or village self-reliance) and of Village Republics (in other words, Dilli me hamari sarkar, gaon me ham hi sarkar , that is, in Delhi, our government; in the village, we are the government) come true. The book is thus about true independence -- freedom from the colonisers and no dependence on the government to the maximum extent possible. In 2001, my hope is that the efforts documented in the book will herald the third struggle for freedom -- the first took place in 1857, which we lost to Britain; the second took place under the leadership of Gandhiji which we won; and now the third, our struggle for self-reliance and independence from a crippling system of governance. This is a far more difficult struggle because it is a struggle against ourselves. But as the book shows, the mindsets are changing and action is beginning. And that is what is so beautiful about the struggle described in the book. Challenging and inspiring. A true discovery of India.

The following pages give a glimpse of what is there in the book.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.