Sustaining Water Supplies in the Drylands through revival of Traditional Water Harvesting Systems

Society which tries to move ahead without keeping itself firmly rooted on its own traditions tends to fall. Bringing new water technologies and neglecting the old proven can’t bring sustainable solution to water problems.

Om Prakash Sharma

1.0       Drylands and its challenges

1.1        Drylands are inhabited by approximately 2 billion people globally accounting for nearly 40% of the world’s population. Approximately 54 million km2 or 40% of the land area of the earth can be classified as drylands. Asia contains substantial drylands, with 39% of its total land mass, mostly of the arid, semi-arid categories found in central Asia and Western China.

1.2.       Drylands in India extends to about 32 million hectares, which is about 10% of the country’s geographical area, and is found in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and the southern parts of the states of Punjab, Haryana and certain areas of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Out of this, nearly 61% covers the state of Rajasthan, the remaining mainly being in Gujarat (19.6%). Rajasthan is the second largest state of India in terms of area. The Human Development Index (HDI) developed by UNDP ranks India 115 amongst the world’s nations and places Rajasthan in 12th position amongst the major India States. The hot arid regions are a part of the rain-fed drylands of India, which constitute about two-third of the country’s geographical area. Much of the hot arid region constitutes the “Thar” desert, covering an area of about 196,150 The “Thar” desert is considered as one of the most densely populated deserts in the world. The decadal growth rate of human population is around 29% as against the average 23% recorded in the rest of the country.  Density of livestock (cattle, buffaloes and camels) per 100 ha of grazing land increased from 72 in 1951 to 175 in 1971 (293% increase). This has, over the years, led to excessive grazing, changing the ecology of the region and accelerating problem of wind erosion, which is very high in the region.

1.3.       The States of Rajasthan and Gujarat, which are the two major states in the drylands of India, are recurrently faces droughts. The frequency of droughts in Rajasthan is an alarming reality. The analysis of rainfall data indicates a drought once in every 2 to 3 years. There are indications that a crisis situation is developing particularly due to the increased impact of both the human and livestock population which continues to put tremendous pressure on land, surface and groundwater resources. The situation of ground water in the Thar Desert is also alarming. Safe, drinkable ground water is become increasingly scarce. More than half of the total ground water in the desert region is brackish, highly saline and unsuitable for human consumption. Due to the loss of natural watersheds, poor mining practices and large-scale tube-well exploitation for agri-business, the water table continues to fall at an unprecedented rate.

1.4.       Rain has always been crucial particularly in these regions, which lacks perennial rivers and the annual average rainfall is about 100 to 600 mm. During the major part of the year the region remains dry. The region also suffers from problems of wind erosion, and water problems such as water-logging and salinity, wherever a large number of tube wells are in operation, affecting the productivity of the land.

2.0 Traditional Water Harvesting Wisdom 

2.1.       Rajasthan has a rich history of use of traditional systems of water harvesting in almost all the districts of the state. The types of water harvesting are different depending on the physio-topography of the region and the extent of rainfall. These small scale traditional water harvesting works uses decentralised structures, which reduce cost and losses of delivery, aids local use and local recharge, uses diverse technologies, mostly appropriate for ecological system, uses local communities as managers as scale is too small for centralised bureaucracies and uses fiscal incentives to promote rainwater harvesting in the area.

2.2.       The storage of even the scanty rainfall, through simple as well as extensive types of traditional water harvesting of surface and ground water have been the important sources of water in arid regions such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. These include surface water systems like the lakes, talabs, nadis, canals and groundwater systems such as wells, Kunds or Kundis, baoris, and Johads. These practices have often saved the drought-affected regions from problems of water famine. The serious problems of water shortages in many parts of the country are being largely attributed to the discontinued use of traditional water harvesting practices.

2.3.       In many parts of Rajasthan rooftop water harvesting was common in cities and towns. Rainwater collected from roofs was taken to underground tanks, called tankas, built in the courtyard or in the house. Tanks are different from talabs, in that they are constructed in situ with impermeable floor and massive masonry stonewalls on all sides. Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bhuj, Jamnagar, Anjar are some of the cities, which, till recently were supplied water principally from tanks and lakes.Step wells were another way of harvesting rain and providing drinking water in the arid parts of the country.

2.4.       In Jodhpur city itself there were over 200 water bodies in all, many of them over 500 years old. The city’s 40-odd talabs still exist today and many of them are over 300 years old. Jodhpur was perhaps the only city in India where an all out effort was made to capture all available rainwater.  The Chittor fort once housed at least 50,000 people, there were more than 80 water bodies which could hold water that would last the citizens for more than 5 years incase of a siege, even today, there are 22 water bodies. Udaipur, known all over the world as the city of lakes, has a network of lakes, which provided the city with drinking and irrigation water and also provided water for its numerous wells and step wells.

2.5.       For irrigation, livestock and drinking water in rural areas, there were yet other forms of water harvesting. Nadis were village ponds and tobas were watering holes with grass around them which pastoralists used for their livestock. Kundis are found all over the region,while kuis or beris were dug next to tanks to collect their seepage.

2.6.       The khadin is used even today in agriculture in the Thar Desert. It involves harvesting rainwater in farmlands and consists of an embankment built across a slope in such a way that rainwater is collected within an agricultural field. Virdas was developed by the nomadic Maldhari tribes who inhabit the arid-saline regions of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The maldharis identify the natural depressions (jheels) from the flow of the monsoon runoff, and then dig small wells (virdas), within the depression, to collect rainwater. The wells lie over the top of the saline layer, with a transition zone of brackish water between. Bushes and trees, planted on the bunds, protect the virdas.

2.7.       Water in the drylands is an integral part of the web of life. Only special guests were offered water, that too only one glass, second glass will be of milk. In Jaisalmer, people bathe on a wooden platform, water collected from underneath is given to cattle. Rajasthan has maximum number of folk songs with water/clouds as theme. Agors (catchment) considered sacred. Defilement was prohibited and thus kept clean. Digging of a tank/silting was considered one of the seven great meritorious acts in a lifetime.

2.8.       Dryland communities have also developed deep knowledge of water and its elements. From the name of a particular system,(eg. a nadi) people knew how the water is collected, catchment prepared, embankment constructed, etc. Diverse systems to suit local ecology, geology, climate: nadi, talab, johad, bandha, etc. So many kinds of wells: Dugwells: kua owned by individuals; kohars community wells. Step wells: Baolis for drinking; constructed for philanthropic purposes; jhalaras not used for drinking. Different in architecture, Sagar ka kua : never run dry, Seer ka kua: underground channel opening into a well.

2.9.       Apart from infrastructural side of this wisdom dryland communities have also designed social discipline such as before the onset of monsoon, Agor (catchment) of tanks would be cleaned by all beneficiaries. Anga system for rational and equitable distribution, requirement calculated for each household based on number of humans, cattle and goats. Payment for water in terms of voluntary labour to draw out water from its sources. Upstream users were not allowed to plant water intensive crops. Violation of rotational irrigation arrangements were punishable by fines. Every person could hold a certain amount of lands in irrigable area and others in areas with less water. Water for water-intensive crops rotated from year to year. Physical policing also done through guards etc. Sometimes the water manager was from the landless class. 

3.0 Decline of Traditional Water Harvesting Wisdom 

3.1.However, many of these traditional practices were abandoned in the past and introduction of new technologies and large scale systems. Decline of traditional systems were mainly due to introduction of a bureaucracy to manage water resources. Emphasis on larger irrigation projects like canals. Less emphasis on minor irrigation projects like bandharas. Destroyed community ownership as well as community responsibility and most importantly continued by independent Indian policies – Big is beautiful – water bureaucracy completely took over water management. In many States in India, cost-effective minor water projects such as tanks, reservoirs and canal systems have been replaced by the construction of major hydel projects, dams and irrigation canals and systems.  The traditional wisdom of water harvesting was steadily discarded for safe drinking water through piped systems. These now form the major sources of water for drinking, agriculture and energy.  The local communities have not continued with the practice of cleaning up or repairing these systems, many of which were filled with rubble, sand and mud and were used for dumping garbage.

3.2.       In Rajasthan, the Indira Gandhi Nahar (Canal) Project (IGNP) was constructed in the northwestern part of Rajasthan, covering part of the Thar Desert. It provides irrigation to over 2.5.m ha of the Thar Desert of which 1.2.mha is in the cultivable command area. Under an externally aided project, canal side plantation (11,522 ha) road side plantation (603 ha), block plantation (2,279 ha) and pasture development (3,207 ha) has been covered since 1990-91 to protect the IGNP against deposition of sand and to develop the land adjoining it. However, major problems encountered in the IGNP are water-logging and salinity-alkalinity. Excess irrigation in the soils having gypsum-rich barriers at shallow depth and wrong drainage planning are the major causes for degradation in these canal command areas, leading to saline-sodic water and a salt-rich hard pan. The construction of the Rajasthan Canal has been both a boon and a bane for the region. While extensive areas were brought into agriculture and the economy of the region improved, there have been negative ecological consequences such as problems of water logging. The shift from nomadism to agriculture based economy has also changed the ecology of the region.

3.3.       Increase in population of humans and livestock in these regions has also contributed to the destruction of the land, particularly, destruction of catchments.

3.4.       The importance of water harvesting structures have been lost over the time – younger generation have not been a witness to the practice of such harvesting practices and cannot appreciate the importance these play during lean seasons and during droughts.

4.0       Success stories of Revival of traditional Water Harvesting Systems 

4.1        The village community of Bhaonta-Kolyala in Rajasthan’s Alwar district have been able to turn their once parched land, into lush green through the resurrection of a river which had almost totally dried up. This was done by creation of a series of earthen dams which harnessed the rainwater, recharging the wells and eventually the Arvari river flowing through their region.  The water level has presently risen to about 15-20 foot from the surface.  The river, which slowly and steadily sprang back to life, has become a perennial river. The area now stands as an oasis in the desert region of Rajasthan and has sufficient water in current drought in Rajasthan. The support for this effort came from an NGO – Tarun Bharat Sangh lead by Shri Rajendra Singh popularly known as Waterman and Water Gandhi.

4.2.       The 7 villages community of Pabupura cluster in the Phalodi block of Jodhpur district after construction and repair of 895 tanka ensured water security to over 1000 familes. They have got a water source at their doorstep for a period varying from 2 to 6 months. The intervention has helped women in saving time, money and labor. Their working hours have reduced from 18 to 15 hours and now they can relax for around 9 hours a day as compared 6 hours in the past. The increased water availability for a longer duration has reduced physical workload, mental stress and health related problems of women. Tanka beneficiaries started to take bath and wash clothes more frequently. The water use in washing clothes and taking bath has increased by more than 4 times, whereas the water used by animals has increased by 2.5 times. Moreover, daily cleaning of utensils and water storage pots has substantially increased. Above 70% of the tanka families have started using alum/chlorine tablets to purify their drinking water, whereas more than 80% of the families have started using ladle to take water from the pot. Last but not least, expenditure incurred on water for drinking and domestic purpose including the water for animals reduced from 2 to 3 times.

4.3.       Similarly in Aravali hills villages in Bhinder block of Udaipur seen the  significant impact on increase in irrigated area on account of mainly ground water / well recharge due to construction of small water harvesting works such as loose stone check dams, masonry dams etc. Prior to construction of these structures the total irrigated area under the command of these 39 existing wells (i.e. in 2004) was only 22.58 ha., which has now been (upto Rabi 2008) increased to 38.59 ha. An increase of about 16 ha. (About 70%) in irrigated area is definitely showing the significant impact of these small water harvesting works on  increasing the availability of water.


5.1.A number of such successful examples are available from different parts of the Rajasthan. These success stories indicate that small-scale water harvesting is being increasingly seen as a viable cost-effective option for mitigating drought and for meeting water needs. The successful examples of water availability even in hot arid desert regions in Rajasthan indicates that incorporation of even simple cost effective water harvesting practices can help in meeting the needs of the local people. The poor, erratic monsoon and the frequent droughts faced by these regions highlight the urgent need for revival of water harvesting structures. It is vital to the desert communities that the modern and the traditional systems of water harvesting are integrated to suit the local conditions. Traditional water harvesting systems definitely have relevance in areas where there is acute water scarcity or where the rainfall is scanty or unpredictable. It is important to understand the significance of these structures as an important sources of water.

5.2.       The success of the traditional water harvesting systems has been due to the involvement of the community at large.  The community in many villages regulated water harvesting, distribution, and use. Before the onset of monsoon, the catchment of the tanks needed to be cleaned of all waste and rubbish. Similarly disiltation of tanks, ponds, cleaning of baoris, nadis, kundis, etc., and their repairs would be carried out by the entire community, in an annual or biannual operation just prior to the monsoon. In many villages where people had cared to maintain their traditional water systems, even after the arrival of piped water supply systems, there is no drinking water scarcity. But in the villages that had neglected their traditional systems, the drying up of the Rajasthan canal had meant waterless pipes and hence an acute water crisis.

Om Prakash Sharma is Country Director, Wells for India – India Office. Om Prakash has 25 years of experience working in drylands of India with various civil societies. Being a professionally trained Civil Engineer, he has developed his expertise in socio technical solution to water issues specially blending traditional water harvesting wisdom with modern technologies

Wells for India is an international development organization supporting small scale rain water harvesting, livelihood, education and health projects in India for last 30 years.

[1]Country Director, Wells for India – India Office, 1139, Sector, No 4. Hiran Magri, Udaipur Rajasthan, India, email: [email protected],