“It’s time to put water first”

While rain-water harvesting has gained currency in the past few years, becoming a hot topic of eco-conservation, Indians have been indulging in water harvesting since time immemorial. The ponds, the bawris, the kunds or the wells, were all ways in which the ground water table was replenished. But then hap-hazard urban planning has more or less effaced these bodies, result acute water shortage across India. In fact, in some places, digging for water is much dexterous than digging for oil. Anupam Mishra, an environmentalist and water conversationalist, in a candid conversation talks about the water crisis taking shape in the cities and the villages. He also spells out the measure that could help alleviate the pain. Excerpts:

There is a lot being said about the water crisis in India. Though rural areas are greatly affected by the crisis, cities are also suffering. Why is India facing such a huge water crisis?

A number of people blame the rainfall for being one of the major contributors to the water crisis in India. The water crisis in India is not on account of the rainfall but rather owing to faulty water management. Nature still gives us as much water as it always did, but in the last 10 years our water management system has collapsed. We have stopped collecting water. We often take water and natural resources for Anupam Mishragranted. The main problem is that we have various means and ways to distribute water but no method of saving and storing it. To add to it, we have changed our cropping patterns and introduced crop varieties that require more water.

Our lifestyles should be based on the amount of water we have. For instance, while the water-rich Konkan area in Maharashtra should grow rice, water-stressed areas should focus on jawar and bajra. I am appalled by the scant respect we pay to water bodies, at the way in which ponds and streams in the cities are filled up for industry and housing. All the roads in urban areas are paved; we don’t even leave enough space around the trees. There can be water scarcity in a high rainfall region like Cherrapunji and hilly regions like Uttarakhand and there can be sufficient water available in low rainfall regions like Rajasthan—it all depends on how we follow the directions provided by Nature. The root of the problem is that we give more importance to land than water. It’s time to put water first.

So what according to you is the right approach to solving these problems?

In rural areas, traditional methods of collecting water in ponds and reservoirs could have helped the situation, but the problem has been compounded by the fact that today there is greater water usage. Traditional systems like step wells, tanks and ponds were the best way of tackling the chronic water shortages that plague the country. These man-made ways to store water have been around for centuries. People built and maintained them well. In times of scarcity, these structures helped them take care of their daily needs. When the British first came to India, Delhi had almost 800 water sources of its own. Now there are no more than 10, and even those are heavily degraded. The best way to save what we have left is to go back to our traditional methods of rainwater harvesting and adapt them to our modern lifestyle. When I visited Rajasthan, I came across ponds built by villages in the deserts of Rajasthan. Many of the homes too had built-in harvesting systems, with roofs collecting rain water and diverting them into cisterns built underneath. A family could get its entire year’s water supply through this method.

You are going all out to promote rain water harvesting. But how can you be certain that this traditional method is the solution to the water crisis in India?

The water crisis in India is a very nascent problem. It is not something that existed centuries ago. We can blame Nature, but it man who has caused the problem. Modernization and urbanization have made us extremely narrow minded. Whenever we hear the word ‘tradition,’ the words backward, old fashioned and outdated crop into our minds. What development and industrialization have done is encroached on water bodies meant for storing rain water; cemented those and constructed high-rise buildings in those places. The key idea behind harvesting rainwater is to stop the water wherever it falls. The design and structure of the system determine how it is done. If the water falls in the courtyard, it can be harvested in an underground tank, with the roof tank attached to it through pipes. The capacity would vary according to the size of the house. Harvested rainwater lasts the whole season. One rainfall and the tanks and kuin are filled with fresh water that doesn’t stagnate for a long time. So we help people build such systems themselves. The solution is not to go back to the 18th and 15th centuries but rather integrate modern technology with traditional thought. Modern gadgets can also be attached, like installing a motor for lifting the water into the overhead tank.

You have often criticized the government about its inability to act and resolve the water crisis. Can the government truly be blamed or is it just an easier way of pinning the blame on someone?

The government’s methodology of providing water is done by installing pipelines. If it is properly investigated, you will find that this system or method of providing water has failed in a number of places due to lack of electricity. Another reason why this method has proved inefficient is because most of the time the equipment is being operated by diesel. For instance, in Jaisalmer, a tube well has been dug to provide water to a cluster of villages. Diesel is usually brought in a truck for the purpose. Sometimes the truck may not turn up or the diesel Anupam Mishramay not arrive on time. At other times, the person overseeing the job may absent himself from work. Although the government has said that water will be supplied twice a day, many villages do not receive eater for days at a stretch.

How optimistic are you that the new concept of making water available using modern equipment will truly work?

I do not think this system can survive. We will have to revert to the old ways of water harvesting. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Why is the government ashamed of using a rich tradition that has been refined and developed over the years? Why does it consider it backward? It should see this system as progressive and practical. If people have new technologies that can enhance natural systems further, they should come as friends and share this knowledge to improve upon what is already being done. If there are new technologies that can work better than these ancient techniques, you can do away with the structures and burn my books! My experience, however, has frequently been that ‘experts’ come into areas they are not familiar with, bringing modern, expensive technologies that are not suitable for the region, and they make the problem worse.

Without these methods of preservation of water, how long can India develop in this unsustainable fashion?

For me, the situation looks rather bleak at this point. What is going to happen is that without such water bodies, cities will have to deal with heavy flooding during the monsoon season. This is mainly because there are no water bodies that can collect and store rain water. Not a single modern city will escape this threat. Look at the 2005 Mumbai floods, this will only worsen in the future and there is no sign of anyone solving the problem wisely.

When urban areas first came up, they were self-sufficient and able to meet their own water needs. It is said that Delhi once had 350 big talaabs and many smaller ones that recharged groundwater during the monsoons. There were also 17 streams in Delhi, all of which recharged the Yamuna. Today, these streams have become nullahs (drains).

The problem started when land began gaining importance over water. Water bodies were filled up and replaced by housing complexes and shopping malls. Out of the 350 talaabs, we are left with only five or six today. Whatever little water we once got from surface runoff has gone. As a result, groundwater recharge rates have dropped drastically.

Today, both urban and rural areas suffer water shortages. But if there is water shortage in a metro like Delhi people can afford to buy water. If there is a shortage of water in rural areas, or if water bodies become polluted because of industries, villagers have to travel 10-15 km from their villages to access water. Most of Delhi’s migrant population constitutes villagers from Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan who have been uprooted from their homes because of acute water shortages.

It has been predicted that by 2030, India’s water supply will be 50 percent short of demand. Do you think that working with traditional harvesting systems could meet this demand?

I have never said that the systems we promote are ‘traditional.’ We simply encourage the establishment of intelligent water systems that respect Nature’s laws. The techniques we share have evolved over hundreds of years and are carefully tailored to local conditions. Nature has not changed the way that rain falls, and until it does, we can’t change our fundamental means of collecting it. How we distribute and use shutterstock_99068720water is another matter. The cheapest and most effective structures remain natural and earthen, and the best teachers remain those people who have lived in an area for decades, if not centuries.

What about the groundwater level in the state?

Groundwater level is very low here. In fact in three districts, it is lower than 300 ft. We should preserve and maintain these traditional systems, some of which are exquisitely designed. They can earn us dollars from tourism and provide water to many villages as well. Here again, the tradition is rich where groundwater is concerned.


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