Q&A: India must revive age-old water harvesting methods - expert

by Anna da Costa | @annadacosta | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 23 July 2012 15:08 GMT

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"

By Anna da Costa

NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - On a sweltering summer day in Delhi, Indian water guru Anupam Mishra spoke with AlertNet about his belief that short-term political solutions are unlikely to alleviate India’s growing water problems.

Mishra, born in 1948 in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, is widely respected across the country for his efforts to promote water conservation and management, mainly through sharing knowledge of ancient rainwater harvesting systems.

The award-winning environmental activist, a founding member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, is the author of two widely read books on water harvesting techniques, which have been translated into 18 languages as well as braille.

Mishra’s work is said to have led to the revival and creation of roughly 25,000 ponds, lakes and other rainwater harvesting structures around India, although he humbly attributes his achievements to “little more than a passion for sharing those things that inspire me”.

What first made you passionate about water issues?

At the age of 28 (36 years ago), I visited a desert town in Rajasthan for the first time in my life, to deliver a letter for the Gandhi Peace Foundation. While I was there, I saw a very curious structure: a square courtyard surrounded by a small raised platform, with a sloping floor and roof. I had never seen anything like it before, and… I discovered it was built to collect and store rainwater, and was called a kund.

Each house in the village had one, as rainfall was extremely low in the region, and the groundwater was saline. Unlike Delhi, there was no piped, 24-hour supply. My feet were knocked from under me at seeing such wisdom and I just wanted to learn more. Nobody knew about these things in my society. We’d never had to think about it.

Over the next 10 years, I visited water bodies all over Rajasthan and elsewhere, whenever I could get the chance and with whatever money I had - be it by bus, train or on foot… After my first book (describing the structures) was published, there seemed to be a lot of interest in these findings. People wanted to know more, and to revive these structures in their own areas.

Since then, my journey has been a continuation of this collection and sharing. Even after 50 years, I still feel I know only a little. Society has developed its water wisdom over generations, and that wisdom is like an ocean. We can only collect a few drops in a single lifetime.

India faces serious water challenges, with depleting groundwater reserves, unpredictable rainfall patterns, worsening droughts and floods. What do you feel is driving these problems?

I feel we have lost our sense of gratitude towards nature. We take water and our natural resources for granted. We think we can ignore the natural share of water that falls on our land, and if we are a city with political clout, like Delhi, we just draw it from elsewhere. This causes many problems. It may look like a democratic decision to pull water from other areas, but ultimately it’s a kind of theft and it depletes the resources of those areas. Even those sources will eventually run dry.

At the same time, we don’t use our own resources well. When the British first came to India (in the 1850s), Delhi had almost 800 water sources of its own. Now there are no more than 10, and even those are heavily degraded. Delhi’s groundwater is being depleted very fast.

Without such water bodies, not only are we not collecting rainwater in our cities, we also suffer from flooding when the rains come. There is no resilience. 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.

Is the government taking the right approach to solving these problems?

No. They are neither doing enough, nor the right kind of things. But perhaps they don’t have time to think over these larger questions. They are so engaged with the complexities of coalition politics, and keeping their seats, that they have no time to reflect on these challenges. Any solutions they do devise are mostly based on money rather than wisdom.

You speak of wisdom as being essential. What is the philosophy that governs your own approach to water conservation and management?

Water policies will always be designed for the short term, because governments are only in power for short periods. Society, on the other hand, is governed by a water wisdom - a water philosophy. This kind of philosophy spans a few hundred years, not five years, and this is the kind of wisdom that is being lost, but which we need to revive to effectively manage our water.

In India, we have some of the wettest places on earth with over 1,000 cm (of rain) a year, and we also have the golden (Thar) desert, which receives hardly 15 cm of rainfall in a year. These differences result in an incredible range of conditions.

A water policy will give you false solutions, whereas a philosophy will say: collect and utilise your rains as they fall, choose your crops wisely in accordance with the amount of water you have, taking into account the type of terrain and local capacity. It will look at the system as a whole. This is what we need, and what has been lost from many parts of the country. It is the difference between a water policy and a water philosophy.

This mistake was made in Punjab, when it was decided to irrigate the land and grow rice. Its terrain was not suitable for rice cultivation at all, and now while it is experiencing groundwater shortages, it is also experiencing heavy water-logging. In just 20 years, farmers in Punjab are now seriously thinking of doing away with rice cultivation. This is a very short period for the human race. For politics, it may be the life of three governments, but for farmers, it is not even one generation, and it has left many of their fields destroyed.

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 water is another matter.

If people have new technologies that can enhance natural systems further, they should come as friends and share this knowledge to improve 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.

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.  

For more information on Anupam Mishra’s work and ideas, watch his 2009 TED talk, The Ancient Ingenuity of Water Harvesting. His two books are Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Lakes Live On) and Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan), neither of which are copyrighted. To find out more about Indian water issues, visit India Water Portal. Anna da Costa is a freelance writer based in India.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.