Water – small steps, big results

Arvind Passey
Editor- Education Post

Frankly, one doesn’t need to bea management consultant or some celebrity journalist writing a column in a national daily or having a show during prime time on a leading TV channel or even be a bureaucrat or a politician tweaking legislations to be a water warrior. Small steps matter.

SSM or Small Steps Matter

Look at Aabid Surti from Drop Dead Foundation, a one-man NGO who simply goes around taking care of leakages in plumbing that lead to massive water wastage. According to the Better India website, this 80 year old man helped save 4.14 lakh litres of water by fixing 414 leaking taps in 1666 houses in 2007 alone. This man doesn’t charge any money for this service.

Then there is the super idea of Rajendra Singh, who began assisting villagers in Rajasthan to build mud dams called johads which is a traditional technique of collecting rainwater. He began in 1959 an din around 20 years has build 8,600 johads across a thousand villages in Rajasthan.

There is another instance of Shirish Apte, an engineer with the irrigation department of Bhandara district in Maharashtra, who identified and helped restore more than 21 of a thousand water tanks that were being maintained by the Malguzaars or zamindaars that were now lying unattended and useless.

It is vital to note that every small step adds to the efforts directed towards making the water situation less severe. Yes, legislations help and so do massive and resource-intensive schemes to create new sources for water supply, but it must be remembered that water scarcity even centuries back was as intense and there were people concerned about the situation.

Water conservation in the past

A news item from July the 13th had said that a water-body from the heart of Delhi had gone missing as it was buried under illegal constructions. There were 20 shops, 2 schools, and even a temple constructed illegally over a water-body in Rajouri Garden. This water-body existed as a ‘johad according to the revenue records of 1951-1952’ and led the DPCC or the Delhi Pollution Control Committee to approach the NGT ‘which ordered demolition of all illegal structures’. A johad, by the way, is a rain-water storage tank mainly used for drinking.

The way we have been treating our water-bodies is cause for serious concern… but this also points to fact that in the past, almost every part of India had people who had a vision about water storage. Vikramjit Singh Rooprai and other historians have pointed out that Delhi and its surrounding areas had a network of functional aquifiers that ensured drinking water even when the monsoons betrayed us. Take a peep into the past and you’ll know that besides johads being used for groundwater conservation and recharge, India had madakas or earthen check dams in Karnataka, and pemgharas in Odisha. People in Waynad used wooden cylinders made of natural palm stems to store water. We had catchment areas called kunds scattered all over western Rajasthan and Gujarat and these were also covered with lime and ash to act as disinfectants. Then there are numerous examples of baolisor bawariswith their photogenic arches and carved motifs that were used for water storage and distribution. Travel to any of the states in the country and there will be one or the other form for water conservation that people there will mention… some of these may now be dysfunctional because of the apathy of local administration and politicians but then we had plenty of talabs, talais, bandhis, sagars, or samands spread all over. For those who aren’t aware, even south Bihar has ahar-pynes for floodwater harvesting.

There are other systems of conserving and preserving water for drinking and a good example is from Kerala where the locals still boil and then add cumin seeds or siragam to it to make it last longer. In Mewar they have spill-ways and silt-traps to counter sand sediments. I have also read about jhalaras that were used to form ‘a supply channel to distribute water for religious rites, royal ceremonies, and community use’.

Water in religion and mythology

Now that we are talking about how water was conserved in the past, it is relevant to understand a bit of religion and mythology surrounding it. Water has been in our thoughts even in ancient times and almost every religion and mythological mention has tales where the source can be traced to it. The Hindus have river goddesses like the Ganga, and the Puranas mention Varuna, the god of oceans and one who prefers Makara or a crocodile, as his vehicle.Neptune is the Lord of the Seas for Romans, the Greek celebrate Poseidon, the sea-god, and even the Aborigine tribes have links with water spirits. Water is ‘a symbol of purity and rebirth’ for Christians. The site where Ismael, son of Abraham satisfied his thirst, is now a holy place, and Muslims regard water as a blessing from Allah that gives and sustains all life in this world. Furthermore, the word ‘water’ appears sixty‐three times in the holy book of Muslims, Al‐Quran. In almost every religion it is water that represents the Holy Spirit and if one goes deeper one may find that purification by immersion in water isn’t unique to justone religion. Thus water is a symbol of purity, prosperity, fertility, protection, and even spiritual regeneration.

Water, as we all know, is indispensable for not just keeping the self and the surroundings clean but is crucial for agriculture as well as industry. Manu says: ‘A man who gives water obtains complete satisfaction in life.’ Satapata Brahmana says, ‘Waters are indeed sacred’ (Medhya va Apah S.B.1-1-1-1) and ‘Water is in fact nectar’ (Amrtahyapah SB 3-9-4-16). The Nadi sukta (River Hymn RV 10-75) from the Rig Veda considers rivers as the heavenly gift for nurturing and preserving life and we still have the example of river aartis to worship river water in Varanasi and Haridwar. Banks of the rivers are regarded suitable sites for performing sacrifices (Gopatha Brahmana 1-2-14). A few other examples are the offerings made to the rivers in sacrifices (RV 1-23-18; 7-47-3) where River Sarasvati is praised in scores of places. Then we have Vedic seers who regularly invoked the rivers for their protection (avantu ma sindhavah pinvamanh RV 6-52-4), the water is the very breaths of people (apo vai pranah SB 3-8-2-4), and thus there are slokas that talk about the sources of plenitude (te sindhavo varivo dhatana RV 7-47-4). According to the Vedas, ’it was not the act of taking a bath itself, but the coming into contact with the sacredness of water, and the attainment of such knowledge and proximity that made one sinless and guided the individual to the Eternal Self. Water was considered sacred but it was clarified that man does not pray to water, the physical entity, but to the source of life and spirituality within water. ‘Water is the purified as well as the purifier, the real and spiritually conceived source of life’ (Baartmans 1990)’. We have the latest instance of temple consecration happening in Ayodhya where water from 108 rivers is being brought for the ceremony. Water in indeed indispensable… from puja rituals to idol abhishek and from cleansing the body to nurturing life. Festivals like Aadi Perukku (Adi means a Tamil month, Perukku means swelling), that are celebrated in mid-July when the river is in full flow have traditional wisdom that was effectively translated into the construction of the Mettur dam built over the river and used to store water to be released when the time is right.

These references from the past clearly tell us that water and its conservation is a prime condition for survival. The ancients had their own eco-friendly methods of conserving water, storage, and even purification and these are techniques that must also be revived in these times to add to the technologically sound ideas that have emerged. The way I look at religion and mythology is to promote the idea of a few additions to the small steps needed to conserve water in a big way. After all, every droplet adds to the statistics that goad us on to take more steps before it gets too late.

Water-related statistics and action plans

It is only action that is placed with all perspectives set right that can save the world from a catastrophe that is waiting to happen. The seriousness of the water situation will be clear when one understands that nearly 21 Indian cities, and this includes a few of our metro-towns, are on the verge of running out of groundwater now. This is going to affect more than 100 million people. One source goes on to state that 40 percent of India’s population may have no access to drinking water by 2030. This is the case for a country that has 4 percent of the world’s fresh water because we have with us over 16 percent of the world’s population. Look around carefully and you’ll discover hidden in various reports and statistics that we are a country where women spend 150 million work-days every year just carrying water from a source to their homes.

Statistics for India go way beyond this alarming figure. We already have 76 million who are without access to safe drinking water. A doctor friend revealed to me that 21 percent of the diseases prevalent in India are water-related and over 329,000 children under five still die due to diarrhoea.

More alarming than the statistics mentioned above is the fact that despite all the fabulous traditions of water conservation methods we still have just 3.9 million hectares of land out of a potential 42.2 million hectares where the drip-and-sprinkler method of micro irrigation is in force. Thus 90.8 percent of our land is waiting for attention. This is just one side of the entire picture. There are reports that talk about a massive production of waste-water (38,000 million litres per day) in urban areas where the population is above 50,000 and the sad part is that our waste water treatment efforts are effective for a mere 29 percent of this. A conservative estimate is that waste-water production is only going to grow exponentially and may cross 1,00,000 mld by 2050. As if this were not enough, we also have our rural population now adding to waste-water production.

It isn’t as if all authorities aren’t aware of this situation because we already have in place the ‘catch the rain’ campaign by the National Water Mission where they plan ‘to create RWHS or rain-water harvesting structures before the onset of monsoon. Dams, water harvesting pits, rooftop RWHS, removal of encroachments and de-silting of tanks to increase storage, removal of obstructions in channels that bring in water from catchment areas, repairs of step-wells, using defunct bore-wells to put water back into aquifiers’ are all already in various stages of action or legislation.

Some of the actions that are already a part of policy or management include free/ subsidized power, improved irrigation practices, crop diversification, revival of traditional water structures, artificial ground-water recharge, community participation, rain-water harvesting, improved demand management measures, rejuvenation of tanks, technology for aquifier identification, crop intensification, solar energy usage, afforestation, soil studies, mangroves in coastal areas, recycling, construction of storages with flood cushion, flood plain zoning legislations, integrated reservoir operation for flood management, extensive flood forecasting and warning systems, investment for piped supply of water, water saving technology, water pricing, water efficient farm management, precision irrigation, less water consuming crops, water audits and budgets, transparency in enforcement, drainage policy, limiting use of fertilizers, sub-surface water harvesting structures and bio-drainage, and regulation of effluents.

Quite obviously, the above measures vary a lot in their scope and are applied in different proportions in the areas or zones that need attention. For a country like India, there cannot possibly be a single most effective solution. It always has to be a group of multiple action-plans. Besides the action-plans what matters most is the way people will willingly participate and add to the bouquet of solutions. Without public participation most of these plans may risk remaining mere plans with big intentions.

People participation is essential

The government alone can give directions and pitch in whever necessary, but, as I have mentioned before, small actions by individuals are far more important. Besides the three examples that I gave at the start of this post, there are others who also deserve a mention.

Sekhar Raghavan and Indukanth Ragade have been visiting houses in Basant Bagar and Valmiki Nagar in Chennai to ‘raise awareness about rainwater harvesting in the city’ and they even spread information about the construction of simple percolation pits and recharge wells whever applicable. They set-up Akash Ganga Trust in 2002 and they pick up rain-water harvesting projects and have effectively promoted the benefits of using open wells as this replenishes the shallow water table.

Navin Chandra from the Sea Line Co-operative Society in Mumbai did their bit by spreading awareness about water and energy conservation in a different way. They got the support of 70 residents in Bandra who needed 6000 kilolitres of water per year and were already paying Rs 20,000 per month for just 5000 kl and installed devices that led to water security. So now this block has rain harvesting in place and has ROs to convert ground water in potable water. Their system has ‘managed to recharge their groundwater to such an extent that water is now seen at a depth of just 4 feet’.

There is immense learning in what Soban Singh from Chopdiyali in Garhwal has accomplished. He did not have the privelege of canals, tube-wells, or springs to help him and so ‘he has identified spots on his farm where the seepage is visible, excavated a shallow basin, and painstakingly led the water into his fields’. Now he has massive tanks in place and his fields are happy… and so are more than a hundred other farmers in the region who got inspired.

Other examples include one from Ufrenkhal in Pauri Garhwal where villagers ‘transformed a dry ravine into a river’ and one from Gauna village in Almora where farmers harvested rain-water successfully. What Sacchidanand Bharti, a teacher from Ufrenkhal, did was to inspire villagers to dig small percolation pits on slopes and then planted grass immediately downhill. These pits or chal-khals helped ratain water infiltrate into the soil, replenished groundwater, and finally created a river. The report mentions that nearly 40 villages have adopted this method. The people from Gauna village in Almora harvested rooftop rainwater and surface run-off in closed tanks and now they have nearly 155 of such rainwater harvesting tanks for water used in irrigation.

Most of these examples go on to prove that community participation is vital in any activity conceived to conserve water. It is such participations that aren’t just adding value to efforts by the government and the researchers, but are probably doing the job until other better alternatives are in place.

Yes, we also know that…

Water is not just a chemical combination of two molecules of hydrogen interacting with one of oxygen but is something that interacts with the beginning of creation as we know of it. Water has science, philosophy, and the arts meandering through it. Water inspires poets, writers, photographers, philosophers, scientists, architects, film-makers, rulers, militaries, governments, NGOs, and even activists. Water flows on holding the secrets of conflicts, borders, existence, and evolution in its heart. Even Hermann Hesse wrote in his book ‘Siddhartha’: ‘Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.’








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