Watery wisdom

Published: Friday 15 July 1994

Since the '70s, the Israelis have enjoyed international recognition for using well-managed modern technologies to get the Negev desert and other arid parts of their young country to bloom. Perhaps impressed by the grass being greener on that side of the world, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the chief minister of Rajasthan, has seen in it fit to ask the Tel Aviv-based firm, Tahal Consulting Engineers Limited, to draw up a comprehensive long-term plan to use the scarce water resources of his state.

The process may hasten the ebb of the monumental body of knowledge of the sustainable use of water, built up in Rajasthan over centuries. This heritage is not only tightly intertwined with the romantic history made out of Rajasthan's past, but is also manifest today in several local community-based water harvesting operations which have not been obliterated by the promises and failures of more recent water projects.

Forts in various part of the state, famous for being intransigent to the imperial schemes of rulers of Delhi down the ages, were also known for their water systems. There are instances from the 15th and 16th centuries of the rulers of Chittor, Udaipur and Jaisalmer withstanding decades-long stringent sieges by the Mughal armies, with shortages of food but never of water. Their advantage was an intricate and detailed network of structures to store the seepage from surrounding hills and the scanty seasonal rains. Tactics and tricks to hold water also went out to the countryside and some of these are extant in almost every district of Rajasthan.

Even when huge amounts of money, put in the pipelines to bring water from massive resource-intensive schemes, have departed down the drain, domestic systems -- known as kundis and tankhas and irrigation providers called tobas,khadis and johads, -- even today sustain several communities. While water taps remain dry for most of the year in Jaisalmer town, the settlements of Paliwal brahmins are never short of the precious commodity, people who nurtured 500-year-old rainwater collecting structures called dhoras. Elsewhere, in the more remote, rural parts of the district, 500 khadins are still in use, irrigating about 12 000 hectares.

Similar examples occur in Bikaner, Jodhpur and Pali. The essence of such structures is that of frugal yet sustainable use. Typically, a khadin traps 10,000 cubic metres of water from 100 hectares of land. Not a free flowing amount, it still is sufficient to sustain dryland agriculture over that amount of land. And because they were built strictly according to local requirements, using local skills and materials, they are probably more cost-effective than any water management schemes imported from even the supposedly Promised Land.

To believe so is not to prevent the flow of resource-use ideas from one people to another. But the most attractive of information, if put to heedless purpose, easily makes for disastrous intervention. The Israeli plans are primarily premised on the effective, well-conserved transfer of water from surplus areas to those of scarcity. These distances and the areas so served are much smaller in Israel, compared to those in Rajasthan, since the state itself is about 8 times larger than that West Asian country. To serve Rajasthan adequately, any water transportation scheme would have to be vastly experimental, and thereby enormously expensive; they would be seething with unforeseen shortcomings that the Israelis may not have envisaged at all in their compact schemes.

The potential of this disaster is indicated by all the problems, already disasters-in-the-making, of India's own Rajasthan Canal Project. It is not as if Rajasthan's indigenous skills at water management stand entirely ignored. However, while NGOs, urban planners and even politicians have talked of them from time to time, little systematic thinking -- and no long-term planning -- has been done to use the traditional skills extensively. On the contrary, Rajasthan's leadership is guilty of decimating community institutions, particularly the village level gram sabhas, which helped the successful and sustainable use of water in the state.

The above point is especially important because the concept of sustainability works only with the political corollary of popular participation. Traditional ideas are often attractive because people already share them. While the Israelis may easily come up with seemingly sound schemes for Rajasthan's water resources, getting that state's people to work within them may be far more difficult. For them, it will still be a case of taking water to the spring.

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