Reviving and improving upon forgotten traditions

Some of the water-scarce regions of Asia have age-old traditions and structures for rainwater harvesting, which have fallen into disuse and are now attracting renewed attention (see Sakthivadivel, Chapter 10, and Mudrakartha, Chapter 12, this volume). India's Central Ground Water Board has been harnessing support for a National Groundwater Recharge Programme. Tarun Bharat Sangh and Pradan, two local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Alwar district of western Rajasthan whose work IWMI has been studying, have helped local communities to rehabilitate centuries-old tanks (known locally as johads or paa/s) with dramatic impact on groundwater recharge and revival of dried-up springs and rivulets in a 6500 km2 area (Agarwal, 2000). In southern India, where centuries-old tanks are on a decline, wells are widely thought of as enemies of tanks. Until the 1960s, when modern tube well technology became available to farmers, tanks were preserved, maintained and nurtured as valuable common property irrigation structures. All those who benefited from a tank participated in its upkeep and the cleaning of its supply channels. Recently, better-off farmers have been able to increasingly privatize tank water by sinking tube wells in their surrounding. As a result, their stakes in maintaining tanks declined; and so did the age-old traditions of tank management.

However, in the western region of India, hit hardest by groundwater depletion, well owners have become great champions of tanks because they keep their wells productive (Sakthivadivel et a/., 2004). Catalysed first by spiritual Hindu organizations - such as the Swadhyaya Pariwar and Swaminarayana Sampradaya - and supported by numerous local NGOs, local communities have spontaneously created a massive water-harvesting and recharge movement based on the principle: 'water on your roof stays on your roof; water in your field stays in your field; and water in your village stays in your village'. As many as 300,000 wells - open and bore - have been modified by the people to divert rainwater to them; and thousands of ponds, check dams and other rainwater harvesting and recharge structures have been constructed on the basis of the self-help principle to keep the rainwater from gushing into the Arabian Sea (Shah, 2000). While systematic studies are still to begin of the impact of the movement and the popular science of rainwater harvesting and decentralized recharge that has emerged as a result of farmers' experiments, available indicative evidence suggests that for regions critically affected by groundwater depletion, only mass popular action on regional scale may be adequate to meet the challenge of depletion (Shah and Desai, 2002).

India has begun to take rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge seriously at all levels. These are at the heart of its massive Integrated Watershed Development Programme, which provides public resources to local communities for treatment of watershed catchment areas and for constructing rainwater harvesting, and recharge structures. Trends during the 1990s also suggest a progressive shift of budgetary allocations from irrigation development to water harvesting and recharge. One indication of the seriousness assigned to the issue by Indian leadership is the message delivered by the prime minister to the citizens on 26 January 2004, India's Republic Day; the nation's prime minister and water resources minister went to the people with a full-page story espousing the benefits and criticality of groundwater recharge.

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