Saturday, March 6, 2010

Indigenous systems of water management and their modern applications

By Rajendra Singh
The ancient indigenous engineering was not much documented in the modern sense, because the technical aspects were transmitted through practice and words of mouth, and gradually perfected by tradition. But in some cases the legal and administration aspects were written, for example in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Treatise of administration written by Kautilya, advisor and minister of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, 321-297 BC).

The indigenous knowledge in India has always developed practical ways for society to live in a sustainable manner with nature, in full respect with the diversity of agro-ecological climatic zones, even those that seems the most difficult and inhospitable.

In Indian tradition, the knowledge was transmitted through practical work under the direction of respected elders and gurus. Thus the people engaged in practical work were really the pupils of the indigenous knowledge system. The poor pupils, the prosperous pupils, and the state joined hands for the conservation of water and the preservation of knowledge. The prosperous pupils provided help to the poorest who were working for water conservation, and the state provided only the land. It was a pupil-driven decentralised water management, which is another name for indigenous water management.

This functional management of water had wisdom of every drop of rain. These drops of rain were the life of the Indian pupil. This indigenous knowledge system respected the agro-ecological zone diversity, and had developed a specific science, a relevant engineering and a technology appropriate to each and every part of the country.

The lowest rainfall in India is in the arid districts of Jaisalmer and Badmer of Rajasthan. There the people have a water tank in every house for drinking and domestic use. They also have a pond (talab) for common use and drinking water for animals. They also use Kuinya for harvesting drinking water present in the form of sand moisture in the sub-surface, where the aquifer is brackish and separated from the layers above it by a layer of gypsum.

The ancient indigenous engineering was not much documented in the modern sense, because the technical aspects were transmitted through practice and words of mouth, and gradually perfected by tradition. But in some cases the legal and administration aspects were written, for example in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Treatise of administration written by Kautilya, advisor and minister of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, 321-297 BC). One chapter of the Arthashastra gives a testimony of very comprehensive and detailed administrative rules, covering the whole range of legal and economic implications of a decentralised community—driven water management, facilitated by the state.

The ruler had to provide land, roads, trees and equipment to those who participated in the construction of waterworks. Those who did not participate were made to pay a contribution, but were not entitled to benefit directly from the structure. The methods of ownership and maintenance of new, ancient and repaired structures were described in details. All users of irrigation facilities had to pay a tax, even when they had their own waterworks. But exemption of tax was granted for a number of years to those who build new structures. However, these administrative rules were only safeguards and practical provisions for the economic consequences of the implementation of waterworks. The real motivation came from another side. The participation in the construction of community ponds, tanks and waterworks was a matter of pride and was considered as a religious work.

In Bihar, the problem is not lack of water but excessive water. Every year, devastating floods spread havoc in the State. The ancient indigenous knowledge had developed a method, which puts to use the excess water, called Ahar-Pyne, which is in fact a ‘flood water harvesting system’. The excess water from the Ganges was driven by channels called pyne deep inside the land, up to 30 to 40 km. to fill tanks called ahar. This ensured a long-lasting retention of water throughout the year, and a better distribution of silt.

The indigenous knowledge in India has always developed practical ways for society to live in a sustainable manner with nature, in full respect with the diversity of agro-ecological climatic zones, even those that seems the most difficult and inhospitable.

The loss of tradition and its consequences
The conservation of forest, water bodies and other natural resources in an extremely healthy state over the past thousands of years even under difficult climate and geographic conditions and with a growing population and demand, was essentially due to an extremely eco-friendly cultural traditions (dharma/parampara) of ‘live within what nature sustainability release, don’t be greedy’. The traditional knowledge and practices of every area imbibed a thorough understanding of ecological balances and technologies to harness natural resources in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner, though these had never been documented.

For centuries, the line of thinking that soil, water, forest, wildlife and the whole environment are the common asset of the local people bestowed by the Almighty to be managed as a ‘trust’, was the commonly accepted world view. This age-old balance has been disturbed at an accelerating pace in the last 200 years, and every revolution and counter-revolution has indeed increased its fall: the industrial revolution, the education revolution, the agricultural green revolution, the development revolution, and now the privatisation and information technology revolutions.

The European colonisers brought the idea that nature was to be ‘exploited’ and undermined the feeling of responsibility for nature. The modern state (colonial or independent) dispossessed the rural communities of their rights and responsibilities, and rivers, either legally (tree felling licenses, water rights) or illegally (corruption). The education revolution convinced the people that traditions and oral knowledge were the causes of poverty, the ‘development’ and socialist ‘welfare’ post-Independence state promoted the illusion that everything has to be taken care of only by an all-powerful government, and now that the reality of its incompetence has become clear, the capitalistic empires. Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) and high-technologies (IT, GMO etc.) are called to rescue, most likely to result in further and deeper degradation.

To make things even more difficult, the language itself has become corrupted. For example, the official jargon for the undisciplined water extraction technology is ‘groundwater development’. And, when educated engineers seem to re-discover the ancient tradition of responsible management of common resources, unfortunately they create abstractions and awkward technologies, like ‘artificial groundwater recharge’, ignoring the proved local traditions like Johads. Even when they begin to understand a traditional technology like the Tanka, they feel compelled to ‘improve’ it, like using cement instead of lime, or rainforest or Cement Concrete (RCC) slabs instead of brick domes, thus degrading the tradition and its relevance, to the level of their limited understanding. The natural methods are not only forgotten, their vestiges are day after day more deeply dug into the ground.

To sum-up, the difficulties that we are facing can be categorised as such:

Paradigm change
Exploitation and disintegration has taken the place of ‘feeling together’ and integration.

State takeover community functions
The state has dispossessed the communities of their traditional rights and responsibilities.

Disintegration of community institutions
The modern education and hollow dreams of modernity have disintegrated the community institutions.

Inability to cope with increasing human and livestock population
The general degradation of natural and social conditions has led to the inability of communities to face the problems created by a growing demand. The rural communities have lost their food and livelihood security, their living conditions have become more difficult, resulting in forced migration to big cities in search of survival in indecent and exploitative conditions.

Re-awaking the indigenous knowledge
There are various types of methods of water harvesting in India. The main common features of all systems are :

* Use of local resources and technology.
* Community based operation.
* Community driven de-centralised water management.
* Sustainable conservation and use of natural resources.

Revival of systems using indigenous knowledge

* Interventions understanding traditional systems and use of indigenous knowledge.
* Mobilisation of community around land, water and forest.
* Participation in rejuvenating old structures and construction of new structures.
* Creation of new village level and river basin institutions.

How Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) has revived the tradition of Johad
On the night of October 2, 1985, when I got down at the last stop of the bus at Bheekampura with four of my friends, we only had a single agenda, which was ‘to fight injustice against the people’. And we only knew one way to do it, by spreading literacy in the villages. So we promptly started a literacy drive.

But the people were suffering from a severe scarcity of water. The region that once sustained the eco-system of the ‘Aravalli’ had become barren.

It was difficult to find young people in the villages, all of them had fled in search of employment, women trudged long distances to fetch a mere pot full of water. Crops failed regularly, lack of vegetation led to soil degradation; monsoon run-off washed away the topsoil. I remember there was not a single blade of grass in the region and we often stumbled on the carcass of cattle. Barely three per cent of cultivable area was irrigated. Life was difficult and hardship endless.

One day, Mangu Patel, the wise old man of this village told me, “we do not want your literacy, we want water”. But where was the water? I did not know anything about water.

Mangu explained to me about the rich tradition existing in this region of building Johads, which were a prime example of the ingenuity of inexpensive simple traditional technology that was quite remarkable in terms of recharging groundwater of the entire region. Johads are simple mud and concave shaped barriers built across the slope to arrest the rainwater run-off with a high embankment on three sides while the fourth side is left open for the water to enter.

The height of the embankment is such that the capacity of the Johad is more than the volume of run-off coming from the catchment based on a rough estimation of maximum possible run-off that could come into it. Therefore the height varies from one Johad to another, depending on the site, water flow and pressure, etc. In some cases to ease the water pressure a masonry structure called Afra is also made for the outlet of excess water. The water storage area varies from 2 hectares to a maximum of 100 hectares.

Water collected in a Johad during monsoon penetrates into the sub-soil. This recharges the groundwater and improves the soil moisture in vast areas, mostly down stream. The groundwater can be drawn from traditional open wells, built and maintained by the villagers themselves without any input from outside. As the percolation process takes sometime, depending on the soil, depth of water etc. during this temporary period (sometimes several months), the water in the Johad is directly used for irrigation, drinking of animals, and other domestic purposes. The advantages of this structure is that apart from arresting and storing rainwater, it checks the soil erosion, mitigates the floods, and ensures water availability in wells even for several successive drought years, like we had here in the last 5 years. Also, during the dry season when the water gradually recedes in the Johad, the land inside the Johad itself becomes available for cultivation. This land receives periodically good silt and moisture, and that allows growing crops without any irrigation. So the Johad does not take away valuable arable land from cultivation. The distinctiveness of this structure is that it is based on simple and cheap technology with locally available resources, mostly labour and soil, and sometimes when necessary, stones, sand and lime, all locally available. All the estimations are based on the villagers experience and intuition, without any physical measurements.

When I went to Bheekampura in 1985, this unique traditional water management system was still alive in the collective memory of the people remained alienated from the global environment.

On the advice by Mangu Patel, we started building Johads. The local authorities were dead against us as we by-passed all bureaucratic channels and dealt with the people and they directly to fulfill their requirements in the manner they decided.

The first Johad got completed in three years, in the fourth year we built 50 Johads, in the fifth we built almost 100. In 2001 we built around 1,000 water structures and in total we have built nearly 9,000 water harvesting structures in more than 1,000 villages. When we had started working, our area was classified by the government as ‘dark zone’, it means with severe water shortage and the water level had receded to difficult depths. The same area after 10 years was classified as ‘white zone’, which means underground water level are satisfactory and it does not need attention from the government.

No engineer was called for consultation; we were guided entirely by the traditional wisdom of the people who have maintained the ecological balance for generations. These water structures were built with the active participation of the community in its construction from identification of the site to the designing of the structure and by contribution in the cost of its construction and latter in its maintenance, which ensured that all the structures were need based.

As a result, water became abundant; more water meant better crops, better conditions of soil, time for the girls to go to schools, and rich community life. It helped forestation in the area and development of wildlife.

Prosperity returned back to the region, agriculture became productive and due to availability of fodder cattle rearing started, resulting in increased production of milk. Higher water levels also meant less money on the diesel for pump set.

The rebirth of Aravari River
From 1985 onwards we have been helping people to build Johads. These Johads are traditional earthen dams. These small scales, low cost structures do not look like very much, but taken together in hundreds and thousands they have changed the face of our part of India (Rajasthan). TBS has helped people to build more than 9,000 Johads, Check Dams, and Anicuts for harvesting the rainwater. In 1996 we were amazed to find Aravari River flowing even at the peak of summer.

Since then four more rivers, Sarsa, Ruparel, Bhagani and Jahajwali have become perennial.

When there was plenty of water in Aravari, there was natural growth of fish, which went on multiplying. Seeing that the government wanted to get hold of fish and brought in a contractor, the people resisted and the Government had to cancel the contract. It is not that the local people wanted control over the fish. Far from it. They are all vegetarians and do not eat fish, but they realised that today, it was fish tomorrow it would be water.

Since 1940s the Aravari River had been degraded to a mere monsoon drain, witnessing only brief and strong flows of muddy water. We had been building these structures over the years without realising that we were in fact recharging the river through percolation underground. Now the water is clear and shows gently throughout the year.

(The writer is winner of 2001 Roman Magsaysay Award and has widely been appreciated and recognised for rain water harvesting. He can be contacted at jalpurushtbs@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )
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