The awarding of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize to India’s ‘Water Man’ Rajendra Singh this year is good news for grassroots efforts towards water security in the country. For decades, Mr Singh has dedicated himself to empower drought-affected communities, bringing back dry and dusty villages to life. He has earlier been honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work on community-based water harvesting and water magement. Though Rajendra Singh’s field of work is technical and evolving rapidly with latest studies, he has drawn mostly from traditiol Indian wisdom of rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging. In fact, the one-time Ayurveda practitioner found his mission in life after a village elder told him that the village needed water more than medicine or education. After learning the basics from villagers, Rajendra Singh got down to work and his NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh has brought back water to around 1,000 villages in Rajasthan by building thousands of storage tanks called johads, earthen check dams and other structures to capture rain water. The NGO even succeeded in rejuveting seven small rivers in comparatively drier parts of Rajasthan. Listed by the British daily The Guardian as ‘one of the 50 people who could save the planet’, Mr Singh has also worked with the state governments of Maharashtra and Kartaka, focusing primarily upon recharging groundwater to revive water bodies. Recently the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister discussed with him about the drying of many lakes as well as rivers like Lakhari and Chandraval in the state.
A vocal critic of present day development with its blind eye to restoration and conservation, Rajendra Singh points to the fact that governments in the country still have not worked out any protocol for saving rivers. He has consistently opposed discharge of sewage, treated or otherwise, into the Ganga, digging sand in the riverbed and restricting its tural flow in the me of building dams. Warning that water is a limited resource, Mr Singh has argued that while there is a tural balance between rainfall and density of population, people demand more and more water — thereby resulting in water scarcity. Observing that decades of neglect have robbed villages of confidence and self-reliance, Mr Singh focused upon waking up the ‘sleeping knowledge bank’ of villagers, which made his ‘water-soil-forest’ conservation campaign a success. In its citation, the Stockholm Water Prize Committee has said the water problems of today cannot be solved by science or technology alone. These are instead human problems of governce, policy, leadership, and social resilience. This is why Rajendra Singh’s lifetime work in ‘building social capacity to solve local water problems through participatory action, empowerment of women, linking indigenous knowhow with modern scientific and technical approaches and upending traditiol patterns of development, resource use, and social norms’ — has borne spectacular results and serves as an inspiration.
We may live on a watery planet, but only 2.5 per cent of this water is usable fresh water. And the source of virtually all freshwater is precipitation from the atmosphere, in the form of mist, rain and snow. A part of the Earth’s water cycle operating over eons, its working may become dangerously unbalanced with rapid climate change resulting from lopsided development in the last hundred years. The proper magement of surface and underground water is of vital importance if human society is to survive in the long run. Dispute over freshwater sources may even lead to a Third World War, as some experts warn. India with its over-reliance on monsoon rains in summer, is particularly vulnerable to water scarcity in the long dry months. It is a looming threat for the Northeast too, though floods may play havoc in its Brahmaputra and Barak basins for 4-5 months every year. But the rains have been frequently deficient in this region for the past several years, affecting even wet spots like Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya. The NE states need to work out and implement a consistent water policy. Water conservation and even rainwater harvesting may not be outlandish practices in this region, if rains keep playing truant in the coming years and the dry season gets longer. For an agrarian state like Assam, decreasing rainfall has dangerous implications for agriculture and power generation. Protecting the water flow in our streams and rivers and keeping water bodies alive has never been more important. The water table under Guwahati has been going down drastically, making water scarcity a major headache for its residents. So when activists like Rajendra Singh show how to trap rainwater on the countryside and make it percolate down to recharge groundwater, or dry cities like Cheni capture rainwater on rooftops and send it underground — it is valuable knowledge for us in the Northeast. We may need it before long.