Traditional ways to water security

A traditional pond in the fort city of Charkhari, Bundelkhand. (Source: India Water Portal)
A traditional pond in the fort city of Charkhari, Bundelkhand. (Source: India Water Portal)

Although droughts are not new in India, we are seeing more of it of late. The paper Seeking viable solutions to water security in Bundelkhand published in the Economic and Political Weekly dated November 5, 2016 informs that people in South Asia have managed the vagaries of seasons for centuries through water-harvesting structures and by managing the available water efficiently through traditional water management practices that utilised water without wastage. Despite certain losses, floods were welcome for they recharged the groundwater and renewed soil fertility.

This, however, changed drastically with engineering interventions which regulated and controlled the flow of rivers in the form of large dams and canal systems, and by restricting rivers to their embankments to control floods. The introduction of drills and pumps also led to the exploitation of groundwater. Traditional structures and practices for managing limited water resources were gradually abandoned.

The paper says that the solution the government still provides to combat drought is building more dams and large reservoirs without examining their effect on downstream areas and communities or ensuring last-mile connectivity of the canal system. As a result, these reservoirs have failed to solve our water problems.

Bundelkhand’s delayed river interlinking project

The paper goes on to elaborate on the current situation in India by bringing in the example of Bundelkhand where India’s first river interlinking project—the Ken–Betwa link project— was planned 20 years ago. The feasibility report for this was prepared in 1995, based on a 1992–93 survey, which formed the basis of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in 2005, and preparation of the detailed project report (DPR) began in 2006. Its approval took several years and, in 2010, the project was divided into phases I and II. The estimated cost of the project increased from less than Rs 2,000 crore in 1995 to Rs 10,000 crore in 2008 (for phase I alone), and is likely to exceed Rs 18,000 crore at current estimates. This does not even account for the economic value of the river’s ecosystem services lost due to the project.

The work has not started yet. Even if it starts in 2016, the project would take nine years to finish. The paper says that there has been no effort to examine the changes in hydrology in the last 25 years and its effect on the project’s viability. The project has not taken into account the changes taking place in rainfall patterns and droughts due to climate change over the last few years. For example, the data suggest that the severity and the duration of drought events have increased in the basin compared to the first half of the 20th century, and the probability of receiving normal rainfall is decreasing at an alarming rate. Several smaller projects are coming up in the catchment area upstream of the project site and downstream tributaries have been dammed to create a network of reservoirs and canals.

What could be the way out

The paper says that there are viable alternatives to these unending, impractical projects that take a huge toll on the environment, ecology and livelihoods. Looking back at the traditional water-harvesting structures and reviving them is one. These can be implemented fast and at a very low cost.

Then there are the tank systems we could rely on. Many successful examples in recent years have proved the feasibility of ensuring water security based on the tank systems, some of them include johads (storage tanks) by the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar; farm ponds and renovated tanks in Dewas in Madhya Pradesh and farm ponds in Mahoba by a voluntary organisation, Apna Talab.

Promoting farm ponds and restoring traditional tanks will not only facilitate groundwater recharge and/or retention of water but also improve soil moisture, increase green cover, trap silt and nutrients that can be recycled into fields at intervals of three or four years. Water harvesting and storage in traditional tanks, village ponds and farm ponds, and conveying it through canals do not involve high costs, nor do these involve any displacement or environmental damage. The construction can be easily completed in a few weeks.

What needs to be done

The paper argues that restoring large tanks and village ponds must be accorded high priority. Although village communities have managed them as common pool resources for centuries, weak property rights, institutional arrangements and a breakdown of local authority systems have led to their gradual destruction in recent years. So here are a few things that can be done:

  • Appropriate property rights and an institutional hierarchy can be established to restore and manage common water bodies under the Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies (RRR) scheme and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana.
  • Construction of ponds can be promoted by offering subsidies to farmers and providing technical assistance on location according to the geology, soil, topography of the region through local/regional non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government departments concerned.
  • Efforts can also be made to restore and renovate existing tanks and wetlands by entrusting work to community-based organisations such as panchayats and credible NGOs.
  • Restored water bodies should be protected against degradation with appropriate institutional arrangements

The paper ends by saying that mega projects with large reservoirs that take a very long time to plan, design, and implement are very expensive and cause ecological and social disruption. Emphasis must be on constructing, restoring and reviving traditional tanks, village ponds, and farm ponds in places like Bundelkhand that are not only time-saving and cost-effective but also environmentally sustainable in the long run!

Please download a copy of the paper from below: