Rainwater harvesting: Catch water where it falls

This old video can inspire you to turn to rainwater harvesting

Last Updated: Monday 01 July 2019

India is said to be a traditional water economy and that it has to make the transition to a modern water economy. In other words, the water sector has to become part of the formalised economy.

The point to understand is what this modern and formal water economy means to the rest of the world and what it will mean for us. In the industrialised world, industry and urban households use over 70 per cent of the water resources, while agriculture gets the remaining 30 per cent. In traditional water economies like India, the reverse is true: Agriculture consumes over 70 per cent and industry and urban areas the rest.

The point is not where we are. The point is: Where are we heading? The fact is that urban areas and industrial hubs in our part of the world are now putting greater pressure on water resources. Cities across the country need more water. They are powerful. Their elected masters work overtime to source water from far, and further, away.

Delhi will get water from the Tehri dam, over 300 km away in the Himalayas; Hyderabad, from Nagarjunasagar dam on the Krishna river 105 km away; Bengaluru, from the Cauvery, about 100 km away. Udaipur used to draw its water from Jaisamand Lake but it's drying up, and so the city is desperately seeking a way out of this new thirst.

Add to all this the industrial growth. Yes, the modern water economy is indeed on our doorstep.

But wait before rejoicing at the change. The fact is that the “informal” water economy of rural India, tillers and all, still exists. The economy has not transformed from being agriculture-dependent to a manufacture-service sector driven one. The old needs water. The new demands more and more. Surely the change will come — carried on the shoulders of strife, even bloodshed: thousands of small and big mutinies, from Rajkot in Gujarat and Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan, in which farmers have died defending their first right over water.

There is no denying India’s water sector needs to be reformed, indeed transformed, so that it can provide clean and adequate water to all. But there is no established model for our transformation. We will have to leapfrog over the modern economic paradigm, to create our own — hybrid — version of the water future.

If we accept there is no model for us to emulate, then we are free to choose and reinvent our way of working water, based on need. We can then mix the new with the old to brew our own special bottle of the water of life. But most importantly, this also means that we cannot afford to be dogmatic about waterworks. 

Drought would be here to stay unless we learnt again the millennium-old art of managing raindrops. Harvesting water in millions of water bodies and using it to recharge groundwater was critical. In the late 1990s, when drought reared its ugly head again, Down To Earth explored how villages had beaten the odds by managing their water sagaciously. It was a lesson taken by political leaders as they then launched water-harvesting programmes in their states.

However, this effort to rebuild water security was wasted in the following decade despite the opportunity to get it right. We have been gravely remiss about water management. I say this because we had no excuse not to act. The decade preceding 2014 had good rainfall years. This is the bounty that governments had no right to squander away.

It was in these 10 years that everything could have been done to harvest rain, to recharge groundwater, to build rural ponds and tanks and to improve the efficiency of water use. There was no excuse because the problems are known and the solutions have been tested, just not applied and worked upon.

There were government programmes designed to build water structures. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (mgnrega) millions of check dams, ponds and other structures were constructed. But as the intention was not to overcome drought, but only to provide employment, the impact of this labour has not shown up in the country’s water reserves. The structures were not designed to hold water. In most cases they were holes in the ground that quickly filled up with soil by the next season.

But this is not the only reason for water desperation today. India has prospered over these decades. This means today there is more demand for water and less availability for saving.

We should do everything we can to augment water resources — catch every drop of water, store it and recharge groundwater. To do this we need to build millions of more structures, but this time based on water planning and not just employment. This means being deliberate and purposeful.

It also means giving people the right to decide the location of the waterbody and to manage it for their needs. Today, invariably, the land on which the waterbody is built belongs to one department and the land from where the water will be harvested belongs to another. There is no synergy in this plan. There is no water that is harvested. The employment that will be provided during this drought must be used to build security against the next one. 

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