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A Political Drought

During one of the meetings of the World Water Commission, which recently submitted its report in The Hague to a bevy of water ministers, a member had strongly emphasised the need for educating politicians about the importance of water. I, however, found that argument incorrect because I have rarely met a politician, especially in India, who will not emphasise the importance of water. The real problem is that hardly any of them know how to solve the water problem. Teaching them is difficult.

Remember Chandrashekhar and his Bharat Yatra. The most important thing on his development agenda after he completed his marathon was water. Read Atal Behari Vajpayee’s address to the parliament on NDA’s action plan for the nation. Vajpayee says that if there is one thing he is going to do in five years of his rule is to ensure that all villages will get drinking water. Rajiv Gandhi went beyond rhetoric to actually set up a drinking water mission.

Many will term what is happening in Gujarat and Rajasthan a ‘natural disaster’. But this is far from the truth. It is a ‘government-made’ disaster. Over the last one hundred years or so, we have seen two paradigmatic shifts in water management. One is that individuals and communities have steadily given over their role almost completely to the state. The second is that the simple technology of using rainwater has declined. Instead exploitation of rivers and groundwater through dams and tubewells has become the key source of water. As water in rivers and aquifers is only a small portion of the total rainwater availability, there is an inevitable growing and, in many cases, unbearable stress on these sources.

This dependence on the state has meant cost recovery being poor the financial sustainability of water schemes has run aground; and, repairs and maintenance is abysmal. With people having no interest in using water carefully, the sustainability of water resources has itself become a question mark. As a result, there are serious problems with government drinking water supply schemes. Despite all the government efforts, the number of ‘problem villages’ does not seem to go down. As N C Saxena, former rural development secretary put it recently, “In our mathematics, 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages is still 200,000 problem villages.”

Community-based rainwater harvesting — the paradigm of the past — has in it as much strength today as it ever did before. A survey conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) of several villages facing drought in Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh last December found that all those villages that had undertaken rainwater harvesting or watershed development in earlier years had no drinking water problem and even had some water to irrigate their crops. On the other hand, neighbouring villages were desperate for water. This revealed that rainwater harvesting can meet even the acid test of a bad drought

In late March 2001, we got further confirmation of our conviction. Going with president K R Narayanan in a helicopter to the Arvari watershed where he was scheduled to give the Down To Earth-Joseph C John Award to village Bhaonta-Kolyala in late March, we could see nothing but barren fields all the way from Delhi to Alwar. This area is suffering from a drought. But suddenly we came across green and brown fields and realised that we had reached the oasis of the Arvari watershed where several villages have over the last 5-10 years built hundreds of rainwater harvesting structures. Nobody needed to emphasise the importance of rainwater harvesting any more. While the Arvari river was more or less dead, the wells were still full of water, fields were rich and productive.

What makes rainwater harvesting such a powerful technology? Just the simple richness of rainwater availability that few of us realise because of the speed with which water, the world’s most fluid substance, disappears. Imagine you had a hectare of land in Barmer, one of India’s places, and you received 100-mm of water in the year, common even for this area. That means that you received as much as one million litres of water enough to meet drinking and cooking water needs of 182 people at a liberal 15 litres per day. Even in the villages suffering from drought this year, it is not as if there was no rain. Saurashtra villages, the worst affected, also had 100-300 mm rainfall but they let the water go. It does not matter how much rain you get if you don’t capture it. Cherrapunji, with 11,000mm annual rainfall, also suffers from drinking water shortages.

I have consistently argued that there is no village in India that cannot meet its basic drinking and cooking needs through rainwater harvesting. Figures speak for themselves. The average population of an Indian village today is about 1,200. India’s average annual rainfall is about 1,100 mm. If even only half this water can be captured, an average Indian village needs 1.2 hectares of land to capture 6.57 million litres of water it will use in a year for cooking and drinking. If there is a drought and rainfall levels dip to half the normal, the land required would rise to a mere 2.4 hectare. And, of course, any more water the villagers catch can go for irrigation.

To provide lasting relief against drought the government will need to go beyond promises. It should heed the president’s advice and prepare a concrete plan of action to develop a mass movement for water harvesting.
  The financial sustainability of water schemes has run aground; and, repairs and maintenance is abysmal
— Anil Agarwal
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A political droght

May 31, 2000
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