Age-Old Fixes for India’s Water

India's monsoon rains are retreating this week, a delayed end to a yearly wet season that has become ever more unpredictable as a result of global warming. Of all the challenges that face India, few are more pressing than how it manages water. In vast cities like New Delhi, where showers and flush toilets have become necessities for a rapidly expanding middle class, groundwater has been depleted. New Delhi once had many ponds and an open floodplain to absorb the monsoon and replenish aquifers; now the sprawling city has more concrete and asphalt than it has ponds and fields to absorb water.

India’s capital has come to rely for half its water on dams in the Himalaya range that capture monsoon runoff. But the dams disrupt the ecology of the Himalaya, South Asia’s precious watershed. Much of the waste from New Delhi’s overwhelmed sewage treatment system ends up in the Yamuna River, one of the main tributaries of the Ganges, which winds down from the Himalaya and flows 1,500 miles across India to the Bay of Bengal. Combined with under-regulated industrial effluents, urban waste has turned India’s mythic and misused rivers into cesspools.

In the countryside, where a vast majority of Indians still live, a combination of free electricity and inadequate regulation has led farmers to deplete untold groundwater supplies. In some places the water table is so low it no longer helps sustain roots, so even more water must be pumped up. In addition, soils have been degraded by chemical fertilizers, so they require even more water.

But in some parts of India, communities are turning to “rainwater harvesting,” capturing rainwater in ponds and allowing it to percolate into the ground to feed wells and springs. Such techniques were once commonplace throughout the South Asian subcontinent, where rain falls for only a few months in the summer monsoon, and often not at all for the rest of the year. Now villagers are returning to these ancient methods to secure the future.

In northwest India, near Almora, a town of 40,000 in the Himalayan foothills, farmers are restoring ponds that have fallen into disuse in order to once again replenish groundwater and feed springs. They are also digging new ponds to use for irrigation and fish culture. In one village near there, I visited a one-room preschool — a balwadi, or child’s garden — where mothers in brightly colored saris told me that they needed a toilet so that the kids wouldn’t have to run to the woods to relieve themselves. I took that to indicate that this area, while still poor, was progressing; the rural villagers expected to have some form of indoor toilet. However, there isn’t enough water for full plumbing — and there is barely enough in the town itself, where many people have plumbing, but the river cannot satisfy all the needs of both the town and irrigation systems in farms nearby.

India’s challenges — how to keep the economic engine moving while making government more effective and efficient; how to raise hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while protecting the environment — are staggering. Efforts like Almora’s hold great promise, and more are needed.

Even though much of the water resource planning in India looks anachronistic given what we now know, a large contingent in government and engineering circles still advocates big, highly engineered, concrete-based solutions: large dams and deep reservoirs to generate electricity, urban water and sewer systems like those in the West. Many of these projects address the needs of industry and city dwellers, but some of the big dams and concrete canals proposed are meant to sustain rural areas, and many Indian water specialists say they’ll do more harm than good.

In a region known as Bundelkhand, for example, a drought has driven farmers to desperation: part of the year they go sleep on the streets of New Delhi by night and build new high-rises there by day. The solution proposed for Bundelkhand is to dam a river to the east and transport its water through a long concrete canal. So far it has not been approved, thanks in part to the opposition of people who say the proposal is foolish, expensive and disruptive. They contend that the region can gain as much or more by going back to its traditional rainwater harvesting: ponds, small dams and an older, more sustainable style of farming.

In the Indian state just west of there, Rajasthan, some villagers have already gone back to the style of rainwater harvesting their ancestors practiced. In the hilly topography of eastern Rajasthan — part of an ancient mountain range that long predates the upthrust of the Himalaya — villagers built small damlike obstructions so that water could be trapped in depressions. Within a short time the groundwater table rose, a dead river became perennial again, and the land was green.

These successes hold lessons even for the megacities. In recent years, environmental groups in New Delhi have advocated the harvesting of rainwater from the roofs of houses and high-rises; the effort has begun, though not yet on a scale large enough to halt the destructive dam building.

For a long time now, centralized solutions for India have appeared to New Delhi’s bureaucracy as easier to manage than local initiatives. It would of course be naïve to think a return to indigenous ways is the only answer in a country that is on track to become the world’s most populous within a decade or so. But for millenniums, the distinct regions of the subcontinent developed ingenious ways to manage their water, and they prospered. Retrieving those methods, perhaps reinventing them, could give rural Indians some control over their destinies, even in the face of the wrenching changes wrought by globalization and the continued warming of the planet.

Cheryl Colopy is a former broadcast journalist and the author of Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis.

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