India’s culture has evolved and progressively omitted and excluded the ancient art of rainwater harvesting. This needs to be re-inculcated if India has to be liberated from water shortages and droughts
The drought situation in some parts of the country, in times when pre-monsoon showers are expected, shows that worsening climate change is all set to wreak havoc. In fact, many parts of the country should have been experiencing fair amounts of rainfall by now but the reality is far more unsettling. India is yet to take lessons — whether it is about infrastructure upgradation or rainwater harvesting. As a result of a lackadaisical approach, the country and its cities are once again at the threshold of a civic infrastructure collapse — as was seen in Mumbai — which has been battling torrential rains since the past few days, with no or very minimum arrangements in place to harvest the rain water.
India and its environmental experts, as also politicians, have since long been talking about rainwater harvesting. Debates about the woefully inadequate rain-harvesting infrastructure are repeated every year. Experts refer to its benefits and the Government makes tall claims and noises, to the effect that enough is being done about it. Superficially though. None of this is effective and every year, we see a repeat of colossal wastage of rainwater, which could have successfully been harvested so as to fix the problem of water scarcity.
For years together, we have known the importance of harvesting rain from the rooftops and hill catchments and storing it in underground reservoirs, aquifers, lakes and ponds. Then, why have we failed to make this technology work? Why have we not been able to use this knowledge? This is a pertinent question which must make us uncomfortable.
The potential of rainwater harvesting makes a compelling case for itself. Sample this: One hectare of land with just 100 millimetre (mm) of rain — that’s what deserts get on an average — is capable of harvesting one million litres of water. This is quite impressive. To understand the water dependence of humans, a family of five would not need more than 10-15 litres a day for drinking and cooking. This comes to 4,000-5,000 litres in a year. This means one hectare can harvest enough water to meet the needs of 200-300 families. The scarcity of water seems like a myth now.
India had enough systems in place in the past to recover the rainwater. Many places in Rajasthan such as Jaisalmer — a city that built a flourishing civilisation and a stunning fort of yellow sandstone despite receiving only 50-100 mm of rain — is currently reeling under water shortages. It could built a water secure future as city planning in the past involved its rainwater being harvested from rooftops to tanks. This helped keep shortages at bay during the punishing dry summer months. But this ancient knowledge and wisdom of rainwater harvesting, replete with its intricacy, innovation and ingenuity, has slowly crumbled much like the historic infrastructure of the past.
Every region of the country had its own unique method of harvesting rain, storing it and then using it. Every system had been adapted, in fact, evolved, to meet the special ecological needs yet, each system was an engineering marvel, designed to make the best of the region’s rain endowment. But slowly, with modernisation, the Government took control from the local community or households as the provider or supplier of water in order to shore up revenue. This led to rainwater harvesting getting relegated to the back burner.
Moreover, the local groundwater, which was recharged using rainwater, was replaced by surface water, brought often from long distances in canals. This was coupled with pollution leaching into the groundwater table and illegal extraction, which either dwindled the water table or rendered it polluted and, hence, useless.
Rainwater harvesting is people-centric. It will continue to remain largely on the drawing board if people are not actively involved. This because primarily, the Government cannot harvest rain; people will have to do it and for that, their involvement is necessary as it has to be done in every house; every colony; every village; and for every catchment. The incentive to do this only comes when we are dependent on groundwater for our needs. If cities and even villages get piped water, from distant sources, where is the need for rainwater harvesting?
The other problem is that India has not yet understood the science and art of harvesting rain on land. So, the catchments — land where the rain falls — have been encroached upon or distributed in the name of land-reform. The drains, which channelised rain to underground storage, have been built upon or destroyed. Then how will we harvest the raindrop? We can’t and we won’t. This is why the cycle of drought and flood will continue and get exacerbated. So let’s really learn from the wisdom that we have ignored and allowed to die. India’s culture has evolved and has progressively omitted and excluded the ancient art of rainwater harvesting from its fabric. This has to be re-inculcated in every nook and corner of the country if India has to be liberated from water shortages and droughts.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)