Every year, March 22 is celebrated as World Water Day. The theme for this year is ‘valuing water’. This indicates the higher level of thinking that is percolating agencies like the UN. The slogan is water2me and the guiding question is: What does water mean to you?
How does one value water? The answers are complex and depend on who is responding to this question. Water is life, survival. Water is health – of humans, other living beings and of the planet. It is essential for food security and enables economic activity.
For those in the water business, water is a synonym for profits, even speculation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo warns, “The movement to shift the value of water from a public good to a simple commodity, subject to speculation in the financial markets, particularly in the futures market is very real and so the celebration of World Water Day is an opportune moment to reflect on the values of water.”
There’s much more to water: It enables human rights; its availability plays a critical role in addressing inequality. It is part of faith, heritage and culture, irrespective of religion, geography or ethnicity.
For a woman who has to walk great distances for a bucket or two, access to water is empowerment and freedom: Freedom from drudgery; the threat of abuse and violence; family fragmentation due to distress migration; the dispossession of land; and, from the daily struggle to meet the most basic needs of thirst and hunger. Water helps make a positive movement towards addressing inequality and even allows her to spend time on herself. For her, water is an improvement in the quality of life.
Rural women believe in the power of ‘water continuity’ or having sustained and intergenerational access to water resources and for this, examples of their efforts in securing water abound. From filling up dried up water coffers through water conservation work, to growing indigenous crops to save water, to using scientific knowledge for preventing river pollution, women of India stand tall.
The rich dividends of their work go beyond making water available and addressing distress migration, improve food security, provide for dignified livelihoods and even improve the health of rivers. Several of them went on to address demands raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
Tribal women from Dhar: From water conservation to nutrition security
Scarcity of water, lack of livelihood options forced villagers to migrate to towns and cities in the tribal-dominated Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. In order to change the landscape, women from Narayanpura village came forward to repair water harvesting structures in the village. They mapped out the dug wells that were the major source of water and worked for its restoration. The women were supported and empowered by VASUDHA, an NGO active in the region.
Encouraged by the success of water harvesting, the women engaged in planning for food and livelihood security. In addition to planting conventional crops like wheat, they convinced the farmers to plant maize and millets, to provide nutrition to the people. The shortage of seeds was a major problem that emerged in the villages and the women addressed the problem by setting up a seed bank and grain bank. Both these initiatives helped address the problem of food shortage and ensure a regular supply of seeds for the farmers.
The women organized themselves into SHGs and then as a federation and are reaping the benefits of economic empowerment. The federation in addition to supporting the food, nutrition and seed needs is also providing credit to fellow villagers at lower interest rates. What began as an effort to save water has gradually transformed itself as a federation promoting the economic well being of the women of the region. A grain bank has been set up. They no longer need support and are now self-sustaining.
The loss of jobs in the cities of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat due to the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in people (mostly men) staying back in the villages. At a time when livelihood options were limited, people here did not have to bother about food and had an assured supply of food grains to feed their families.
Investing in green capital for displacement-free tribal villages
In Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, Pratibha Shinde of Lok Sangharsh Morcha was busy organizing the safe return of migrants from other states back home and ensuring the safe passage of migrants stuck back to their homes in Jharkhand, Odisha and other states. Working with the state government machinery, she organized buses and food for the journey. For the migrants who returned back, she facilitated the use of MGNREGA funds and forest department resources to prepare rainwater conservation structures and afforestation of hill slopes. “The migrants who returned are determined to find livelihoods back in their village and this work will help them improve agriculture-based livelihoods close to their homes. But for this, a sustainable water source is required,” says Pratibha.
Working in close coordination with the district administration, the villagers have set up monitoring committees at village, block and district level to ensure the smooth implementation of government schemes and providing space for communities to share their experiences with the government officials.
Moreover, as the demand for sanitisers increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are engaged in livelihood generation activities using local resources like the production of hand sanitiser from mahua flowers.
Adopting traditional farming practices and using indigenous seeds for safeguarding the health
Rahibai Soma Popere known as the Seed Mother of India began preserving native seeds when she observed her grandchild becoming ill after consuming vegetables that had a high amount of chemical pesticides. She was convinced that traditional practices of farming are key to maintaining the health of people and the environment. Savings on input expenditure and health problems add to the economic benefits. Soils are not harmed. Importantly, these saved on water requirement.
Hailing from Kombhalne village of Ahmednagar district, Rahibai has the distinction of conserving and multiplying 48 indigenous varieties of 17 different crops including paddy, hyacinth bean, millets, pulses, and oilseeds. Rahibai also spearheaded the formation of Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Savardhan Samiti in Ahmednagar district working for the conservation and propagation of traditional varieties of crops.