India's "Water Man" saves parched villages

India's "Water Man" saves parched villages
20 March 2016
By Siddhartha Kumar

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World Water Day - water scarcity in India - © Siddhartha Kumar, dpa

Mandalwas, Rajasthan, India (dpa) - More than 15 years ago, farmers had given up on Mandalwas village in India's largest state of Rajasthan.

Wells had run dry, and without water for crops, farmers left to seek their livelihood elsewhere, and the land became mostly barren. But follow a dirt road along a deciduous forest near the village today, and it will take you to a feature that has transformed the area, and brought back the farmers. A reservoir 100 metres long is now the focal point of the settlement. People bathe in the reservoir, known as a johad, which is surrounded by an oasis of green farms where cattle graze.


"The johad is a like a pilgrimage for villagers every morning. Even our temple is located by its bank. It's the source of our life. Our lives revolve around it," Rampal Meena, chief of the Meena tribe hamlet said. The structure has boosted the water table and the once-parched fields are now fertile. "Our fields are full of wheat crops, vegetables and oilseeds," Meena said, pointing to the farms. "Farm output and incomes have nearly doubled. Water has changed our lives, our society and village economy".

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Wtih recent research predicting that the world is headed for a water crisis much worse than previously thought, and with populous India at particular risk, villages like Mandalwas have gotten a potential lifeline thanks to Rajendra Singh, popularly known as the Waterman of India.

Singh has implemented projects like the johad in Mandalwas to help some 1,200 villages and revive several rivers that had all but dried up. Singh's non-profit India Youth Association and village communities have for the past three decades worked on reviving traditional dam and rainwater-harvesting techniques in the semi-arid parts of Rajasthan. The group says it has built 11,600 water conservation structures, mostly johads and small dams covering 10,000 square kilometres.

Unlike reservoirs in wetter parts of the world, the johads in the state are designed not only to hold rainwater and but also allow it to percolate down through the surface and replenish aquifers, explains Singh, who won the prestigious Magsaysay and Stockholm Water Prize for his work.

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"Our real success is in conserving rainwater in aquifers, so it doesn't get lost due to evaporation as surface water does," he says. The 56-year-old quit his civil service job to help villagers build the first johad in Gopalpura, another Meena village, in 1986. Since then about 25 water-harvesting structures including small dams and improved irrigation for farmland have been built in the village. "We've had three years of near-drought, still our water management has allowed us to cope with the situation and ensured food security," a farmer in Gopalpura, Prabhat Meena, said.

Improving access to water has also improved the lives of women in the communities. "Women used to walk for hours to fetch water from nearby villages. Now our mothers are liberated from backbreaking work and girls can go to school," 18-year-old Hema Meena from Mandalwas said. Singh also sees a wider impact across communities. But elsewhere in India, areas are suffering from water scarcity. The number of villages without a water source has surged from 232 in 1952 to more than 250,000 now, Singh says.

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New research by Twente University in the Netherlands shows that four billion people or two-thirds of the world's population face severe water shortages for at least a month every year, of which 1 billion live in India. "Most conflicts originate or escalate due to climate-driven droughts or forced migration following agrarian crises. I was sceptical about it earlier, but now I can say the war over water is coming," Singh said. "Water crisis is a global problem, but it has to be addressed at a local level, with traditional solutions."

His low-tech, village-level approach reveals the influence on Singh of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated local autonomy and self-reliance. Singh believes that small water projects built with community participation will be a better hedge against water shortages than large structures like canals and dams. In recent months, Singh has expanded his campaign to cities, to revive the notoriously dirty rivers and lakes in Mumbai and Bangalore. "My only goal is to save water bodies from abuse and exploitation and transform the conflicts on water into peace," he said.

Source: dpa.