UN-Water defines water security as “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development, for ensuring protection against waterborne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”
In the increasing debate over water scarcity, the next war may be fought over water control. As summer descends over India, bickering between states on water sharing is occurring in the arid North and water-scarce South. With rapidly depleting groundwater, and the inability of local municipalities to harness and distribute the resource has led to a realization among local communities of the importance of efficient water management. The crisis is looming large, which surprises some because of the abundant water resources in some parts of India. India has a rich tradition of local community-level water management systems; however, these traditions have withered away due to neglect and lack of interest.
Water security has been an omnipresent challenge that increases as the population booms. Coupled with climate change, overexploitation, and lack of management over a long period, this societal challenge just keeps growing. And people in general are unwilling to play an active role (unless goaded), and they look for government accountability.
Factors affecting water security
Water security and the challenge it poses is dependent on a host of factors. However the most important are:
- Environment. The total availability of water varies over time, short term and long term, and in its distribution across geographical regions. Endemic to society, this is the starting point.
- Socioeconomic factors. Economic and cultural factors determine the way society and policy makers think or act.
- Changes to the environment. Climate change plays a major role in water security and thus needs to be planned for.
These most important factors will drive initiatives in water security and the infrastructure that will be needed to achieve the same. However, in a large and diverse country such as India, with a rich legacy of traditional local community-level water management systems, a different perspective may be required. Resources at government and state levels are scarce, and red tape results in a longer time to translate to action. A concerted effort of NGOs and enlightened individuals is required to educate people and help revive traditional water management systems.
Water has different meanings for different people in India. However there is a close link between water and society. In the past, each region had its own water management system that was synchronous to the sociocultural context, depending on local topography and climatic conditions.
India’s traditional water systems and their cultural principles contain the answer to modern India’s water needs, wants, and problems.
Medieval India had issues of both floods and droughts on a regular basis. This had led to the evolution of water management techniques specific to the respective regions. The basis of traditional water management in arid regions was to harness the rainwater through harvesting and conservation.
Using decades of experience, traditional structures were built to catch, hold, and store rainwater in the arid regions. In areas with hilly topography, surface water was harnessed for consumption. Some of these traditional methods have fallen into neglect with rapid urbanization, but many are still in use and as efficient as modern water management techniques.
Taanka in Thar, Rajasthan. Taanka was a harvesting system devised in the parched desert region. A cylindrical and paved underground pit was used to harvest rainwater from rooftops, courtyards, or artificially directed water flows. A fully filled taanka could last throughout the dry summer and was good for a family of five or six. This method helped families be self-sufficient in their water needs and was an important tool for providing their water security.
Johads in the arid North. Johads are small check dams that capture and store rainwater. These are essentially percolation ponds that are community owned and are constructed in areas with slope on three sides. The water is stored in a pit throughout the year, and helps recharge groundwater in the nearby water wells, besides providing water to locals for washing, bathing, and drinking.
Naulas and kuhls in the hilly regions. Kuhls are water channels found in the western Himalayan region. These channels harvest water from streams and snowmelt to villages. Sometimes kuhls are lined with rocks to keep it from becoming clogged.
Naula is a unique harvesting system that collects surface water and is typical of hilly Uttaranchal. Small wells and ponds are used to collect water by making a stone wall across a stream.
STORIES FROM THE WATER-DEFICIT REGIONS OF HARYANA
Recharge ponds in district Mahendragarh
Rainwater harvesting has had a positive impact on the rural inhabitants of India. Narnaul in Mahendragarh, Haryana, is well known for its farming and developed agriculture. The villagers of this area are highly dependent on the farm produce. The groundwater was depleting rapidly and affecting the livelihood of its residents. S M Sehgal Foundation joined hands with HDFC Bank to construct johads, redundant ponds, in the Sarelli and Panchnota villages. The project aims at bringing a positive change with Parivartan Prayojana by increasing the water table in the region.
The locals used to wait endlessly for water tankers. The cattle also went thirsty, causing a reduction in milk output. Once the johad was fully constructed, two to three hours of heavy rainfall was sufficient for the pond to be overflowing enough to last an entire year. Extra water in the pond resulted in recharging the water table, leading to a higher level of groundwater. The diameter and depth were increased in order to collect as much water as possible, making it last for a longer duration after the evaporation process. The wells in the adjacent villages also appeared fuller and were able to feed more people than previously. The spinoff effect was undeniable. The locals felt more confident and aware regarding water management and its uses.
Making groundwater potable in Nuh
Nuh district, Haryana, is a semi-arid region with a few surface water resources. The primary source of water is groundwater, which is used for domestic and agricultural purposes. However, the groundwater being highly saline is of poor quality, and unfit for consumption. As a result, villagers suffer from the unavailability of potable water. Those who own sweetwater bore wells indulge in water trade. Villagers are forced to purchase water from commercial water tankers since purchasing a bore well is unaffordable. Some villagers with limited resources to meet their needs are compelled to fetch water from distant sources. These sources of water are either government tube wells, ponds, or hand pumps.
S M Sehgal Foundation, with the support of the Millennium Alliance (MA), installed high-pressure recharge wells in a number of schools in the water-scarce villages in Nagina block, during 2015–16. The prime objective of S M Sehgal Foundation was to create freshwater pockets in saline aquifers to make water available for drinking purposes in the school. Besides the high-pressure recharge wells, the project focuses on generating awareness among the community regarding the usage and applicability of the high-pressure recharge wells. Adoption at the household and community level will help in mitigating water scarcity and salinity in these villages.
The way forward
The key element to achieve water security is to mitigate water scarcity in India. Changing rainfall patterns require alternative traditional methods to be looked at and revived. The traditional methods established in Medieval India are simple and cost effective, and are ingrained in the culture of the respective regions and thus can be specific solutions.
The methods followed were environment friendly and have relevance even today. However their revival requires a change in mindset, both at the community and at the government level. The problem at hand is huge, and a participative effort is required from all stakeholders, including external.
Repair, Renovate, and Restore. The three R’s of water management now look increasingly at the age-old, proven traditional methods. The way forward lies here!