In 2015, NASA's satellite data revealed that 21 of the world's 37 large aquifers are severely water-stressed. With growing populations, and increased demands from agriculture and industry, researchers indicated that this crisis is only likely to worsen.
Rajendra Singh, known as the "water man of India," believes that critically depleted aquifers around the world can be revived with community effort. For the past 32 years, through his NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh (Young India Organization), Singh has led community-based water harvesting and water management initiatives in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, an arid, semi-desert state in the northwest of India.
In that time, he has been credited with transforming the landscape and the climate of the region. Seven rivers have been rejuvenated and more than 250,000 wells replenished. Once-parched fields are now fertile. In the process, he has rehabilitated more than 1,200 communities that had been displaced due to water scarcity. As he says, "when the water comes back, the people come back." For his work, Singh was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001, and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015.
Policy Innovations spoke with Rajendra Singh and his global partner Minni Jain, director of The Flow Partnership, over Skype and email. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AMRITA GUPTA: You've said that communities facing water crises should resist the money and technological solutions offered by corporations, and find ways to help themselves. Traditional water management is a community project that takes into account the local landscape and the underlying hydromorphology of the region when designing solutions. What kinds of traditional water management practices do you use in Alwar, Rajasthan?
RAJENDRA SINGH: In Rajasthan, there is very little rainfall, and because of the heat there is high evaporation, leading to loss of surface water. So you have to catch the clouds to bring the rain, and put the water into the underground aquifer to control evaporation loss. We use traditional, age-old knowledge, and simple and natural structures like check dams, johads, and anikets to do this, so the water goes into the sub-surface. The sun can't take the water from under the soil.
AMRITA GUPTA: Those structures will route rainwater into the subsurface, inducing infiltration rather than evaporation. What are those structures made of?
RAJENDRA SINGH: Check dams are barriers made with loose stones or vegetation. We make check dams on steep slopes, where there is a fast flow of water. Where there are gentle slopes we make anikets, constructed from local materials like stone, sand, and lime. These are straight structures no more than nine feet in height, with lengths of around 100-200 feet depending on the flow of the stream. Where there are natural depressions, or catchments, we make johads—concave or crescent-shaped earthen dams. None of our work has been done with government or corporate money; it is a community-driven model. We have formed a river parliament in the region that takes all decisions collectively.
The poorest farmers usually have more marginalized land holdings in the upper regions, while richer farmers have land downstream in the lower regions. The Tarun Bharat Sangh takes a ridge-to-valley approach so that water is shared equitably. With this approach, we give preference to the upper region, which is usually in the hands of the poorest in the community. This way, there are no local conflicts over water within the community.
AMRITA GUPTA: Droughts and floods are increasing in frequency all over the world, forcing people to migrate in search for alternative livelihoods. How can local initiatives actually "change the climate"?
RAJENDRA SINGH: When I started this work 32 years ago, my region was very high in red heat and yellow heat. Red heat [the heat that comes with an arid to semi-arid environment] never allows clouds to give the rains, which come from regions of blue heat [areas with atmospheric water content and the latent heat associated with water]. The blue heat of the Arabian Sea makes macro-clouds, and these clouds come and give rain on areas of green heat [the energy associated with vegetative growth: photosynthesis and transpiration from leaf structures]—regions where there are forests and greenery. We created more than 11,000 water bodies and when moisture enters the soil, greenery comes up. And that greenery takes carbon from the atmosphere, puts carbon in the soil, reduces temperatures by 1-2 degrees, and also encourages trans-evaporation. Trans-evaporation invites the macro clouds from the blue zone. Today, you can see there is more greenery and therefore more clouds over Rajasthan. We have increased the rains in my region. And when the underground aquifer is replenished, rivers that were dry can flow again. This is the process of climate change adaptation—the problem is global, but the solution is always local. We can achieve it using traditional knowledge systems. Now in my region we have no floods, no droughts.
AMRITA GUPTA: Since you started these water-conservation measures 30 years ago, much has changed. One report on your work stated that the water table rose from around 100 meters to between 13 to 3 meters, forest cover increased from 7 to 40 percent. Farmers in the region benefited too: The area under single cropping grew from 11 to 70 percent, while the area under double cropping increased from 3 to 50 percent. Could you explain how agriculture in the region has changed?
RAJENDRA SINGH: The crop pattern must be modeled on the rain pattern. With low expenditure of water, we have increased our production. First, we stopped commercial farming and started organic farming. We grow deep-root crops that can thrive without irrigation, like mustard and gram (chickpeas) in the upper lands, and barley and wheat in the lowlands. In kharif (the monsoon season) we grow maize, jowar (sorghum), bajra, (millet), til (sesame), and arhar (a kind of lentil), which need very little water. Where we have sandy soil we grow fruits and vegetables like watermelons and lauki (bottle gourd) in six-foot-deep trenches without irrigation. We don't grow thirsty crops like paddy, sugarcane, and chilies at all. We produce enough to fulfill local needs, and the surplus fetches a good price in Delhi markets because it is all grown organically.
It's not just agriculture; livelihoods have also improved. When I started this community-driven, decentralized management of water in the 1980s, there were no young people living in the villages in this region. Earlier, all our young people were working as truck operators in Jaipur (a city in Rajasthan); now our farmers employ these same people. It's a completely changed scenario from 32 years ago.
AMRITA GUPTA: You've often criticized states for taking a top-down, infrastructure-led approach to water management. Are governments generally supportive of alternative community-led initiatives? Is political and corporate support necessary?
RAJENDRA SINGH: Governments usually don't support community initiatives—they only support contractors, not communities. The government always likes big projects in the name of combating desertification or rejuvenating the landscape: big dams, big canals, centralized irrigation water systems, pipeline drinking water systems. They create new canals even when the old canals are dry. There is no community participation in these projects. Every type of work is given to a contractor now. It is a contractor-driven democracy, not a people-driven democracy. The Constitution says democracy is by the people, for the people, and of the people, but now everything is by the contractor, for the contractor, of the contractor. Companies care about the profit they make, not about a better future for the people or the nation.
In the 2016 Indian Budget, mega infrastructure projects are still on the agenda. There is no focus on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). The much-publicized interlinking of river projects is not environmentally, ecologically, socially, or economically sound. And the Clean Ganga project is not working properly either. It is not community-oriented. The Ganga (Ganges River) is a social, cultural, secular, spiritual river. Until the government gets equal participation from all the stakeholders, the Ganga will not become clean.
But both political and private sector support is necessary. The private sector can help the community in building infrastructure, but the resource ownership should remain within the community. Companies can achieve nothing without giving back the ownership to the community.
AMRITA GUPTA: Last year, you launched the World Water Peace Walks, a global program that will span five continents in the next five years and will be held in water-stressed regions of the world to highlight how local communities can prevent floods and droughts through traditional catchment management methods. What is the role of water in fostering world peace?
RAJENDRA SINGH: The third world war is at our gate, and it will be about water, if we don't do something about this crisis. These walks are to raise awareness—this year we covered 17 countries, and in nine of them there were displaced people. So many people in the Middle East and African countries are moving to places like Europe, in part because of water scarcity—after forced migration comes, tension, conflict, and terrorism. Where terrorism is active, there is usually a scarcity of water. Look at Syria—a long time ago, it had very good agriculture, but then Turkey built a dam that changed things. It's a similar story with Libya. If we want a safe future, we need to start conserving water.
AMRITA GUPTA: What role can regulation play in conservation? Do you think privatizing water is a good way to promote its efficient use?
RAJENDRA SINGH: If we really think about legal changes, we have to first think about river rights, or the rights of nature, and only then about water rights for humans. This type of thinking doesn't exist today but we need this kind of legal framework that assures that the land of the river is only for the river, that the flow of the river is kept clean, and that the river has greenery on both banks to prevent erosion and silting. Only with all these factors can we ensure that rivers are healthy and only then that we are healthy.
Powerful corporations have created a water market—they pollute our rivers and make us pay money for drinking water. They say that only with a high price for water can we get disciplined use, but this is not right. In my region, for the last 19 years our river parliament has made the rules and regulations that everyone follows, and everyone has enough water. Sustainable community-led water management has existed for thousands of years without anyone putting a price on water. So why do we need it today? Because the corporate sector is making the rules. Privatization is not the answer, charging more is not the answer.
AMRITA GUPTA: Most urban dwellers have no idea what "traditional" techniques of water management entail. How can these little-known methods—in the process of being forgotten or falling into disuse in so many parts of the world—be part of a global solution towards conserving our fast-depleting water resources? How do communities learn to devise their own local solutions for their landscapes? Does the idea of "community" translate easily across cultures?
MINNI JAIN: Rajendra's work is happening in India but it's needed across the world. Communities exist everywhere—in the West they are just buried under a deeper layer than in the East. A natural disaster, or the potential of one, sees these layers stripped away and people coming together visibly as a community.
The Flow Partnership, the global arm of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, aims to amplify and share these community-led water management methods around the world for communities everywhere to implement them for themselves. It is starting a Global Water School that will make proven, local wisdom to resolve floods and droughts available to local communities, so that they can take action in their regions and start their own projects. The Global Water School will provide step-by-step guidance on how to raise awareness and water literacy, and galvanize communities to implement necessary local measures to protect and rejuvenate their local catchments. [Editor's note: For more details, please, visit the Flow Partnership website and Facebook page].
There is interest in doing more, but we need a cohesive movement. People have to come together; once we have that the rest falls into place. The story of Rajendra's Rajasthan experiment proves it. He started with one johad at a time. Communities revive, literacy revives, women stop having to walk miles for water, livelihoods come back, girl children go to school. It's a complete holistic solution.
Editor's note: Dr. Sonali McDermid, climate scientist, provided the definitions for blue, red, and green heat.