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Bringing Traditional Wisdom, Modern Knowledge Together to Ensure Water Security

Bringing Traditional Wisdom, Modern Knowledge Together to Ensure Water Security

A view of the Hauz Khas tank. Photo: Prateek Gupta/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • In his book Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein, Anupam Mishra described the water conservation ethos of Rajasthan with an old expression: ‘an ocean within a drop’.
  • Jaisalmer, for example, is one of Rajasthan’s driest districts, yet its people have surmounted their water scarcity by harnessing traditional water harvesting structures.
  • Many communities in India have played pivotal roles in constructing and managing traditional water-management structures, and they should be revived for the sake of India’s water security.

Jaisalmer is one of the driest districts of Rajasthan. It does not have a single perennial river flowing through it. The water table here is as deep as 125-250 ft and in some places even drops to 400 ft. This region receives about 170 mm of rain a year over a short span of only 10 days. But surprisingly, the villages here were able to surmount their debilitating water scarcity by harnessing traditional water harvesting structures such as kuin, kunds, tanka, etc. Each of these structures is testament to human ingenuity in the face of adversity.

In his book Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein, Anupam Mishra described this water conservation and management ethos of Rajasthan with an old expression: “bindu mein sindhu ke saman” – ‘an ocean within a drop’. His book reveals how, over the centuries, life was sustained in the desert of Rajasthan by the ingenuity, patience and traditional knowledge of its people, as they collected every drop of water for their needs.

In matters of water, people in other parts of the country, with abundant rainfall yet constantly fighting water scarcity, have a lot to learn from the people of Rajasthan. For example, Delhi receives an annual rainfall of 648.9 mm over July, August and September. The depth to water table ranges from 3.94 to 210 ft below ground level. Delhi also has the perennial Yamuna river flowing through it. Yet, the city faces terrible groundwater depletion.

The Central Ground Water Board has observed that groundwater in the city has been continuously depleted over two decades and that in 90% of its domain, the water levels are ‘critical’. But water wasn’t always scarce in Delhi. Its former rulers ensured that it had enough water from lakes, canals, village ponds, reservoirs and step wells.

In fact, noted historian Sohail Hashmi has written often that parts of Delhi that emerged during the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries banked on traditional water bodies, not so much on the Yamuna water. According to Hashmi, of the seven cities of Delhi, not one drew water from the Yamuna, including the three cities on the banks of the river.

The famous Ali Mardan neher, or canal, brought to Delhi the water of the Yamuna from Hansi and Hissar, almost 130 km away from the city. Hashmi has used the work of other scholars to argue that Delhi’s Yamuna addiction only worsened under British and subsequently the Indian government’s rule.

Hashmi has said that one reason that the Delhi of yore didn’t rely so much on the Yamuna could have been their elevation. All the cities of Delhi emerged west of the water body. Geographically, the land rises from the Yamuna’s west bank all the way up to the Aravalli hills, making drawing water from the river unviable. Instead, Hasmi has said, the cities used subsoil water drawn through deep wells or step wells.

Most of them also had their own rainwater reservoirs. Even today, these tanks are identifiable in Delhi by the prefix hauz: Hauz Khas, Hauz-e-Shamsi, Neel Hauz, etc. Similarly, Najafgarh Jheel, Naini Jheel, Bhalaswa Jheel, etc. are, or were, lakes (jheel).

These traditional water-harvesting systems of the city were not just water carriers but also imprints of histories, traditions, cultures.

Today, of the 937 million gallons a day (MGD) of water that Delhi supplies to its residents daily, about 34% comes from the Yamuna, 26% from the Ganga, 15% from the Bhakra storage and 11% from wells in the city.

If the city is to fare better, water-wise, it needs to rejuvenate its traditional water management systems. The traditional systems could also help Delhi adapt to the two extremes of climate change that it anticipates, drought and heavy rain.

Sadly, most of these traditional systems have disappeared, have been encroached upon or have been filled with construction waste. The Yamuna was never the city’s lifeline but was turned into one. Traditional water sources that served the city’s residents for over a millennium were abandoned in ignorance and apathy.

Many communities in India have played pivotal roles in constructing and managing water-management structures. But the easy availability and affordability of piped water from distant dams or from bore wells has driven a wedge between the communities and their need to remember these structures.

A 1997 report by Down To Earth traces the rise, fall and potential of India’s traditional water-collecting systems. It attributes their fading to colonial and postcolonial ambitions and practices that overlooked their value – as well as that of the communities that originated them.

In the development literature, the disdain for traditions is a common actor in debates that pitch modern knowledge and traditional knowledge against each other. Modern knowledge is characterised by technology and solutionism, and has emerged as the dominant discourse in a politics that sidelines traditional or local knowledge.

Postcolonial India espoused this model of development and embarked on a path of capital- and resource-intensive development. As Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha wrote in their 1992 book This Fissured Land, this path led to the intensification of conflict centered around natural resources in modern India, which have fractured Indian society along many axes.

This is the backdrop against which significant environmental movements in India also gathered steam, directed at promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, halting environmental degradation and restoring ecosystems. They have also opened the door on new alternatives that support systems of production that are in harmony with nature.

In this context, traditional knowledge has, or ought to have, an opportunity to complement modern scientific knowledge. In the face of India’s looming water crisis, efficient water management is the need of the hour, and traditional systems that perform this function could be reintroduced to complement existing systems, or even replace them. We can achieve this by reorienting state policy and sensitising local communities towards the conservation and the rejuvenation of traditional water systems.

Ritu Rao is a PhD scholar at the Teri School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi.

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