Catching the Water

Water scarcity is becoming a serious cause for human society to worry. Security experts are already thinking about ways to tackle the possibilities of water wars in the future. India is now amongst one of the countries with much less per capita availability of water. Several factors have contributed to water scarcity of water in our country. Mismanagement of available resources, over exploitation, tendency of people and also the government to make money out of water, pollution of surface resources like rivers and encroachment of ponds and lakes are some of the factors that are making the situation grave. The viable resource left now is groundwater. Pollution of ground water is becoming rampant and due to excessive drawl and less recharge the aquifers are becoming dry. As the days pass water is becoming scarce even in the areas where it was thought to be in plenty. It is important to turn the pages of history and learn what our ancestors and elders were doing in the past. For them despite being available in plenty, water was a revered commodity.

Water conservation in ancient India

In all the geographical regions of the country water harvesting and conservation was pursued religiously. The goal of the ancestors was absolutely clear; conserve water. Methods varied from place to place, depending upon the geographical, geo-morphological and meteorological conditions.

The find of submerged civilizations (13000 to 8000 and 7600 to 3000 years old) in the Gulf of Cambay on the sea bed at a depth of 90 metres by the oceanographers of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has taken the antiquity of water harvesting culture in India further back into archeology. Sonar of the survey ship picked up the images of a water storage tank measuring 700X800m and five to six metres deep and several public bathing tanks in the submerged township, indicating the wisdom of the ancient.

Prior to this, evidences of water conservation found in the excavated townships of Indus Valley Civilization were considered to be the oldest. Mohenjodaro and Harappa on the banks of the river Indus in the north and Dholavira located on a low plateau in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat have well developed underground drains. In the Western Ghats about 130 km from Pune exists one of the ancient water harvesting systems in the form of square tanks cut in the rocks to store rain water along a route frequented by the tradesmen.

The Himalayan terrain despite fast flowing rivers has water scarcity especially in the habitats on the ridge tops. One such town is Almora situated on a ridge in Uttaranchal. Chand Rajas shifted their capital from Champawat a picturesque valley, in 1560. The presence of about 200 flowing springs around the ridge was one of the main considerations for this decision apart from a strategic location. Everywhere in the hills from J&K to Arunachal Pradesh springs were in plenty. In Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal small tanks were constructed to allow the spring water to accumulate and these were subsequently covered with a roof. These structures mostly resembling a temple are called as 'Naula' in Uttaranchal. Names might vary, but the objective was clear to our forefathers; conserve water.

Apart from 'Naulas' the other methods of water harvesting in Uttaranchal include 'Dharas', 'Panderas', 'Mangras', 'Khals', 'Chals', 'Guhls' and 'Gharats'. It is interesting to note that when a spring is surrounded by a small tank it becomes a 'Naula' and when an outlet is provided it is called a 'Dhara'. 'Guhls' are same as 'Kuhls' of Himachal Pradesh. Water from a river or a stream is diverted into a narrow drain 'Guhl' at a point much higher than the village or fields. Water is thus transported long distances by gravity. In Himachal Pradesh the village 'engineer' or 'Kohli' repairs the temporary bund of boulders and the channel (Kuhl) to the fields before the beginning of the sowing season. 'Kohli' also manages and ensures water supply to individual fields. 'Gharats' are the water mills common all over the world. These are mini-turbines run by diverting stream water and used for grinding flour and now even generating power.

In addition to above in Hamirpur, Kangra and Mandi districts of Himachal Pradesh 'rectangular, deep pits are made on the hill slopes in hard rocks where rain water is collected. These are called 'Khatris' and traditional masons construct them. There are 'Khatris' that collect rain water from roof tops as well. Depending on terrain a 'Khatri' costs around Rs 10 to 20, 000.

In the matter of water harvesting/conservation the traditional methods of even northeast were not lagging behind. Mountain terrains have plenty of rainfall and plenty of runoff too. System to impound runoff, termed 'Zabo' is practiced in Nagaland. Villages located on high ridges have drinking water problem like in other northern Himalayan states. The hill slopes of Nagaland have terraced fields. Water from the highest terraces is allowed to flow down and is collected in pond-like structures in the middle terraces. Cattle yard are located immediately below such ponds. The lowermost terraces have paddy fields, where again this water percolating from higher terraces is impounded.

These traditional methods meet about 30-40% of the annual water demand of the villages. It is a matter of concern that in a race for energy guzzling modern technologies, these innovative methods are dying a natural death.

Gangetic plains forming the huge agrarian belt of U.P., Bihar and west Bengal had a large number of ponds (locally termed as 'Talab', Talayya', 'Pokher', 'Pukur' etc). These were either remnants of cut-off meanders of the rivers (Ox-bow lakes) or dug by the community. These were and still are the ideal harvesting structures. In certain tracts of Madhya Pradesh, like Tikamgarh and Rajasthan like Udaipur dried up smaller ponds were used for cultivating paddy. Next season again the pond was available for harvesting water. Unfortunately in the urban areas such water bodies have been meticulously and systematically usurped by the land mafia and to some extent by the government as well in the name of 'land development'.

Western Rajasthan has always been a water deficit area. What is being touted now as latest technology of rooftop rainwater harvesting was already in vogue there. Rainwater from roofs was directed into underground tanks. The statues of elephant at a lower level and horse at a higher level in some tanks of Jaiselmer marked the availability of water for future. For example if the water level touched the elephant's feet meant water will be available for the locality for two years. If the water level rose and touched the ears of the horse, indicated availability of water for five years. Despite being in desert Jaiselmer never had famine for more than five years in the history, says eminent waterman of India, Rajendra Singh. The forts of Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, Golkunda and Bijapur in Andhra Pradesh and Aurangabad in Maharashtra still have underground baked earthen pipes and tunnels that transport water to distant tanks.

Since centuries tapping a source of water, conserving and maintaining it was the responsibility of the community.

Even in the post Independence era piped water supply to the houses was not in vogue. Hand-pumps or dug wells were the source of water for the houses. As late as early sixties the residents of Hauz Khas in New Delhi close to present Arbindo Marg did not have tapped water supply. 'Bhishti' brought 'Mashaks' (large leather bags made of buffalo skin) full of water from Hauz Kazi near Deer Park to the residences. Naturally no one could dare to waste even a single drop of water.

While surveying Mehrauli area for groundwater resources in 1966 author had observed three medium sized ponds with bore-wells. Within three decades the trace of ponds was obliterated. Similarly in Mettur area of Kolar district in Karnataka village ponds made on 'Chettu' or weathered granite held sufficient water for the population and also for luxuriant sugarcane crops. Now Mettur is drought affected area.

Development of piped water supply, changeover from community managed water sources to the government's control over water supply and management made the society apathetic towards conservation and harvesting water. Water being dirt cheap and pilferage of supplies by the unscrupulous elements led to increased consumption.

A situation has now reached in many parts of the country where groundwater is being mined. Means it will never be replenished. Sincere efforts are needed to augment the subsurface reservoir through rainwater harvesting. In the urban areas concrete has replaced the grasslands and instead of trees sky scrappers have come up. It has led to excessive runoff.

The methods and measures for rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge have to come out from the official files to become a reality. The government machinery takes its own time. It is for the society to come forward and take a lead in conserving water, using a mixture of traditional and modern techniques.
Look for more on techniques for rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge in the next issue.


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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