What California can learn from Alwar
Revival of Aravari and other rivers in arid zones of Rajasthan has a lesson or two for all water-stressed zones globally, says the writer Dinesh C Sharma
Water hits headlines only when there is a crisis, manmade or natural. Even this does not happen many times because droughts and floods have become routine or cyclical in India. The floods in northeast India, even as many parts of the country have experienced less-than normal rainfall, did not make any news in national media. It is a different matter that some television channels chose to ‘observe’ first anniversary of last year’s floods in Kashmir. Somehow we are failing to look beyond the headlines and dwell deeper into the underlying causes behind these natural disasters. It is necessary to discuss and debate the causes of floods and droughts if we want to find a lasting solution. Sometimes solutions may be just around us but we tend to ignore the same. Rajendra Singh, popularly known as waterman of India, has not only been a crusader for water but has successfully shown how dead rivers can be revived through community action and participation, and without huge investments by the state. He is much sought after globally and has won the Stockholm Water Prize this year, but back home we are failing to use his experience to address droughts and floods.
The work of Rajendra Singh in Alwar district of Rajasthan, not far from the national capital, over the past three decades has demonstrated how local actions can help turn dry areas into green ones. Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) founded by Rajendra Singh started mobilising communities around the issue of water and supported them in reviving traditional systems of water management through construction of ‘Johads’ for rainwater harvesting. People contributed through their labour, while the Sangh arranged small funds and support to study topography, soil type, water needs, and preparation of plans for water sharing and construction and management of johads. Over 28 years, over 10,000 rain water harvesting structures have been restored in the region this way. It has resulted in recharging of wells and aquifers, renewed flow of rivulets which had been dry for decades, increased biomass productivity and boosted agriculture production. Due to higher fodder availability, people benefited from selling milk products through an informal cooperative arrangement. In all, seven rivers in Alwar could be revived into flowing perennial sources of water. This is a remarkable achievement indeed.
“All that we have done in Alwar is to inculcate an understanding and ethos of integrated ecosystem development among village communities, and facilitated people to articulate their priorities for natural resource development and to find solutions. Decentralised decision making is at the core of our work,” Rajendra Singh remarked while inaugurating the CMS Vatavaran green film festival in the national capital this week. Discussions with communities have led to actions like regulation of pasture land for fuel and grazing, reserving land for grazing, protection of forests, building of check-dams across forest streams and protecting wildlife. This is the kind of holistic approach India needs if it wants to address floods and droughts.
In fact, the experience of Alwar can be replicated not only in India but also elsewhere in the world. Singh was recently in California, which is experiencing severe drought. In Southern California, lakes in the basin of Owens river have dried up due to diversion of water from the Owens river. Experts say that the elevation of the water in the Owens Lake was very high and it got depleted due to diversion of water to cities. As a result all but 28 acres of the lake bed areas have become a source of durst due to high winds, and to control dust particles water is being applied via drip pipe irrigation system over a portion of the dry lake bed.
The desert areas of Rajasthan get less rainfall than this region in California yet through rejuvenation of water harvesting structures and other measures, they have turned green. Instead of high-cost solutions like drip irrigation to settle the dust, it would be better to plant shrubs and grass in catchments areas, Singh suggested to action groups in California during his visit. He invited them to India to study the Alwar model. There are many regions in the world which are water stressed and they can benefit from it. Singh has launched a campaign to spread water literacy with two basic tenets – basic understanding of water conservation in people and developing water sustainability through efficient use of existing water resources. We also have to secure water rights for nature humans and rivers equally. This is indeed a laudable mission not just for India but for all nations.
(The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi)