A water crisis is unfolding in India, where 41 percent of the urban population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, according to a 2017 Water Aid study.
The same problem is being felt around the globe, with the UN predicted a 40% shortfall in water supplies by 2030.
In India, one man is rising to the urgent challenge: Rajender Singh became known as the “water man of India” after returning water supplies to over one thousand villages using traditional techniques.
His work has won him accolades, including Asia’s coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Jasvinder Sehgal visited Rajender Singh at Bheekampura village in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
I am walking around the edge of a Johad, a traditional earthen dam. There’s a cool breeze, a welcome relief in this arid landscape. The muddy smell of rain water on dry sand rises from the ground. The sound of traditional welcome songs floats on the breeze.
63 year old Ibrahim Khan leads me towards the music. “Water from farms should remain on the farms, and water from the village should remain in the village,” he tells me.
We arrive at the ‘water parliament.’ Here, hundreds of farmers from surrounding villages and states have gathered to discuss a vital subject: water.
Ibrahim Khan traveled 161 kilometers from the neighboring state of Haryana to be here.
“The wells in my village are all dry while here they are all full of water,” he explained.
India’s waterman, 58 year old Rajender Singh is clad in a long orange shirt and loose trousers. Addressing the assembly, he explains how johads, or earthen dams, an ancient Indian method of catching rain water, can prevent floods and raise the ground water level.
Their low walls slow down water flow in the wet season, and allow water to percolate through the earth, which remains there in dry weather.
55 year old farmer Choti Devi tells me how these methods have quenched the thirst of her cows.
“Hundreds of cows used to die in my area because of a scarcity of water. That’s until brother Rajender came,” she said. “He advised the village women to form a group. We constructed lots of earthen dams to catch and store rain water.”
India’s water crisis is urgent. Rural people are struggling for survival. In drought stricken parts of the country, the suicide rate amongst farmers is soaring. Others move to the city, where access to clean water is also difficult. Rajender says that action must be immediate.
“The incidence of drought has increased 10 times, and the likelihood of flood has increased eight times.” He continued, “the reasons are that water bodies are facing the brunt of pollution, encroachment and water extraction. Sand mining is also a major issue.”
World Bank data shows that India extracts 230 cubic kilometers of groundwater a year, more than a quarter of the global total. Agriculture uses the most, followed by industry.
Rajender accuses corporations of exacerbating water shortages, and he’s not alone.In the Kaladera region of Rajasthan, a community led campaign has fought against Coca Cola’s extensive mining of ground water.
“India’s water crisis is caused by top industrialists, who are depleting water for their own use. Coca Cola came to us but we kicked them out. We don’t need money. We need water,” he firmly stated.
Rajender’s water conservation techniques combine Indigenous knowledge, with modern science. Technology that is almost 2000 years old is getting a new lease on life here.
“I believe that community management systems are the best way to deal with natural resources. Through traditional water management practices, we were able to rejuvenate eight rivers,” he proudly told me.
“In the last 33 years we constructed eleven thousand eight hundred dams and natural water storage facilities of all different types and sizes. We were able to bring water to two hundred fifty thousand wells which had been dry for a long time.”
95 year old Ramu Kaka, a local villager, says he’s seen a massive change in the area since these techniques have been used.
“There is huge difference between the bad old days and today,” he told me. “There is water everywhere now. Trees are blossoming. The river is full and flowing. The change is because of the earthen dam we constructed.”
As the Water Parliament wraps up, a villager takes over with a song that explains these water conservation methods in a memorable and musical way.