Four decades ago one rainy evening as I stood on the Mall at Simla at a point which is the great divide between the Indus and the Ganges River systems, watching rain drops join together to form rills which started to flow in opposite directions towards the west (Indus River catchment) and east (Ganges River catchment). To understand the phenomenon spread some water on a plastic sheet and suddenly lift it up, water will flow in opposite directions along the slopes thus formed. Likewise as the Himalayas rose the divide was formed, a geological event that paved the way for the future culture, politics and history of the sub-continent!
From the divide down the slope several rivulets and rivers arise, each with its own catchment. If the catchment is disturbed by the anthropogenic activities or natural causes, it upsets the discharge of the rivulet and ultimately the river. A major disturbance can even change a perennial river into a ghost stream.
A portion of the Indus catchment includes the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat had to face the brunt of water shortage even before our ancestors decided to settle there. The eastern slopes of U.P., Bihar and West Bengal were fortunate with plenty of ground water.
But that was history. The land of plenty is besieged with polluted ground water. Arsenic and Fluoride contamination is on the prowl and millions have been affected in West Bengal. The threat of arsenic poisoning has moved to Bihar and now even to U.P.
The government of West Bengal in all good faith punctured hundreds of tube wells for its population, blissfully ignorant that nature had played a prank with groundwater. It was discovered that this water contains arsenic a highly toxic and poisonous element in quantities more than prescribed by the Indian Bureau of Standards. There are rivers flowing through this territory, no doubt but firstly they do not traverse through each village and secondly we have left no stone unturned to pollute the rivers and convert them into refuse carriers. Water of which is barely potable. The hilly districts of West Bengal face acute fresh water shortage despite a heavy rainfall.
The Institute of Environmental Studies and Wasteland Management set up rainwater harvesting structures in Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia districts. Forty harvesters have been in installed in schools in these districts. Cost of these structures depending upon the size ranges from Rs 40,000 to Rs 96,000. This area experiences a heavy rainfall (annual average 1400mm), most of which is lost as run off.
Water collected from the roofs of these schools is collected into PVC tanks after passing through filters. Overflow from the PVC tanks is stored in cement concrete tanks. Water from the PVC tanks is used for drinking and from the other tanks for sanitation etc.
Rainwater is one of the purest forms of water from the heavens. In the area mentioned the total dissolved (TDS) content is only 40ppm (or 40 milligrammes per litre) as against the WHO's recommended level of 300 to 500ppm for drinking water.
The situation of quality of groundwater in West Bengal is pretty bad. Large tracts of land in North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Midnapore (East) and Howrah districts are facing the problem of acute salinity. Arsenic toxicity is taking its toll in 78 blocks of Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and Burdwan districts.
Rainwater harvesting appears to be the only way out in such areas. Problem with rainwater harvesting is somewhat similar to people switching over to CNG. Most people feel that fitting a conversion kit for converting the engine from Diesel or Petrol to CNG for running their vehicles is an extra burden. Likewise people believe water is freely available and why should they invest money to install a rainwater harvesting structure! It is time that a people's movement is started to educate the masses about the necessity of water harvesting.
Right motivation and involvement of masses can do wonders. In early sixties while surveying parts of Alwar district in Rajasthan, I was walking along a dry river bed. It was a ghastly scenario, dry, desolate and above that the excruciating Sun made one wonder 'how people survive in the small hamlets along the dry depression supposed to be a river called Arvari!' Local people informed that this area used to be a dense forest and the river was their lifeline. In 1930 the British hacked the forests to make railway sleepers. Bald hill slopes were helpless; all rain that fell upon them was washed down the slopes and lost. The river became a dry stream bed.
Women had to trudge miles carrying water on pitchers precariously balanced one over the other on their heads. The primary qualification for a girl to be married in these villages was the strength to haul water from long distances.
In 1987 a group of young men led under the banner of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) launched revival of Arvari River with the help of traditional water harvesting system called 'Johads'. These are earthen check dams that do not permit even a drop of water to go a waste as a run off. The first Johad came up in the village Bhavta says Rajendra Singh, the water man of Rajasthan. He is the prime mover for the TBS. With more than 300 Johads in Arvari catchment, the river came 'alive' in 1996 and started flowing again.
Recently while listening to Rajendra Singh in a workshop on water harvesting, I was amazed to see the photographs of water gushing through Arvari and green hill slopes around. In just 15 years villages along the Arvari which were destined to be doomed got a fresh lease of life and are forging ahead with enthusiasm. Water has improved the economics of the area immensely. People who were venturing out in search of jobs have now become a job provider. For every Rs100 spent on a Johad return is Rs 400 says Rajendra Singh.
The best part of the story is that what ever has been achieved in Arvari valley is solely due to people's participation.
Like Arvari another river Ruparel has been revived in Rajasthan by local population with the help of some NGOs. Once again the Johads came to the rescue of the people. In both Arvari and Ruparel resurrection a major role was played by the women. In rural areas it is the womenfolk who have to sweat and toil to provide water to their families. Thus participation of women yields far better and quicker results.
People in Gujarat are also coming forward for rainwater harvesting. Gandhigram a coastal village in Kutch district was facing acute drinking water shortage and ingress of sea water in the aquifers. A bank offered loan to the village development society and the villagers contributed voluntary labor. A check dam was constructed on the nearby seasonal river and micro-watershed development by making small water retention structures on the slopes around. Outcome has been availability of enough, fresh drinking water with facility to irrigate about 400 hectares of land.
Who says that our university students are always a rowdy lot? The students of Bhavnagar University have showed the way that through their combined efforts they can make dry tubewells flow again. They volunteered to dig a huge percolation tank in their campus. In a year's time all the tubewells in the University and neighboring areas came alive once again.
Each terrain has its own problems. Central India where huge tracts of land are covered by Deccan Traps, water harvesting becomes an uncertain gamble. The fractures, joints and shears in the basement rocks divert the harvested water to unfathomable depths. In Akole Taluk mostly populated by tribal in Central India, combining ancient beliefs and latest scientific techniques a round the year water availability has been achieved with the help of International Development Research Centre (IDRC), BAIF Development Foundation, Pune and Department of Earth Sciences University of Windsor, Ontario. As per the ancient belief it was found that presence of a Fig tree indicates water near by. Hydrogeological studies and bedrock fracture analysis confirmed that the ancient belief was not a mere figment of imagination. These trees grow where bedrock retains maximum water. Soon rainwater harvesting structures came up and now the area boasts of greenery and plenty of drinking water.
In all such areas where people of their own or through the motivation of individuals/NGOs or other agencies have achieved success, the respective governments would have only at best provided a temporary relief through water tankers or would have made announcements of mega-projects which seldom see the light of the day.
Media has a very vital role to play in highlighting these success stories. Gory pictures of cracked up land and skeletons of dead animals are highlighted by all, but the news of rivers, wells or tube-wells resurrected or return of greenery is at best given an obscure corner by the print media. Audio-visual media also gives a step-motherly treatment to such achievements.
It is time that the government follows the footsteps of Kautilya, the famous economist of the days gone by, who had advocated tax concessions in his treatise 'Arthshastra' to those practicing rainwater harvesting. He was perhaps one of the greatest visionaries!