Conservation: Lessons from ancient India

By Jayant Sriram onMay. 27, 2016in Food and Water
Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi, built-in pre-Lodhi era (14th century) by Raja Agrasen, to collect rainwater during the monsoon.
HARVESTING HISTORY: Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi, built-in pre-Lodhi era (14th century) by Raja Agrasen, to collect rainwater during the monsoon. File photo: V.V.Krishnan | The Hindu

As drought-like conditions have gripped many parts of India this year, the pressure to drill borewells in search of increasingly scarce groundwater has escalated. Many regions are in the grip of a vicious cycle of drilling causing the water table to sink further. There is an urgent need to explore what benefits water conservation can bring, whether through modern or ancient water storage structures. As the report below, the concluding part of the six-part series, explains, ecologically safe engineering marvels of water conservation have existed in India for nearly 1,500 years, including traditional systems of water harvesting, such as the bawari, jhalara, nadi, tanka, and khadin. Even today these systems remain viable and cost-effective alternatives to rejuvenate depleted groundwater aquifers, according to experts. With government support, these structures could be upgraded and productively combined with modern rainwater-saving techniques such as anicuts, percolation tanks, injection wells and subsurface barriers. This may be a far more sustainable approach to alleviating the water scarcity crisis across India. Ultimately, water conservation has to be a key element of any strategy to bring an end to India’s perennial swings between drought and flood.

It’s half past four on a sweltering afternoon in Jodhpur. At the end of a narrow lane in the walled city a metal gate seems to close off a dilapidated monument. Walk through it though, and a series of steps leads you into a well the size of a large swimming pool. There are arches above the well at regular intervals and it’s easy to sense, from the surrounding air, that the water runs cold. A group of young men are splashing about inside, occasionally emerging with handfuls of dirt or stray pieces of garbage that they place at the top of the steps. They have been working for days and through their efforts, the water inside seems clean, almost luminescent.

Satayanarayanji ka bawari, the small stepwell named after the temple next to it, is one of hundreds of similar structures, all part of an ancient network of water storage that the city of Jodhpur was once famous for, but now lie neglected. On this afternoon, the young men from the colony around the stepwell are participating in an initiative started by a local environmental activist, Rajesh Joshi, to clean and revive some of them.

“The old city of Jodhpur has over 200 stepwells and they were built from around the 6th century onward as part of an incredibly sophisticated water architecture,” he explains. During the little rain that the region receives between June and September water is diverted from canals built on the hilly outskirts of the city to man-made tanks or talabs.

It then seeps into the ground, raising the water table and recharging an intricate network of aquifers that were built deep, with steps narrowing down to the well to minimise the water that could evaporate.

All that changed after 1996, when the Indira Gandhi canal brought water from the Sutlej River in Punjab and the government started supplying piped water to households. “Earlier people had to collect water from the stepwells with buckets but once piped water came there was suddenly a surfeit and then people no longer cared. They started using the stepwells to just dump garbage,” says Dhananjaya Singh, whose family owns a hotel in Jodhpur and is involved in the restoration of the Toor ji ka jhalra, another stepwell in the old city.

The surfeit, however, didn’t last. Mr. Singh says that over the past few years water from the canal only supplies some households once in two or three days. That, and the constant possibility that Punjab could one day decide to terminate the water supply, made Mr. Singh and others think seriously about making the walled city at least, self-sufficient for water consumption. Cleaning and recharging the stepwells, he says, is the first step toward that.

Since most of them have fallen into disuse, stepwells are often seen as archaic structures that are not factored into modern town planning.

In an upscale housing colony called Umaid Heritage on the outskirts of the city, a Jodhpur-based architect, Anu Mridul, is attempting an experiment to change that by creating a modern interpretation of a bawari.

A 900-foot-long structure with endless panels of interlocking beams and pillars, it is the first new stepwell created in over a century and Mr. Mridul says it can hold up to 17.5 million litres of water. Once operational, it will be used primarily for rainwater harvesting.

Mr. Mridul says the idea of building a stepwell rather than relying solely on tanks was motivated by the recognition that the State had a falling water table and the government was struggling to supply water through the canal.

The model, he says, can be emulated in other parts of the country even if it is not built on the same scale as the Umaid project. “All you need is a natural slope to build a stepwell or otherwise, water can be lifted from different parts. Like the way in which the ancient system in Jodhpur connected all parts of the water architecture, city planners can look at incorporating stepwells into the existing networks,” he says.

Implementing rainwater harvesting

Beyond Jodhpur, districts of western Rajasthan suffer from acute drinking water shortages as they receive only about 200 mm of rainfall per year. Water-restoring structures such as the rainwater tanks and talabs have fallen into disuse given the over-reliance on the government.

“Successive governments promise pipelines and other things because politics in this region is played out through water. So what we are trying to do is teach people to be more self-sufficient,” says Kanupriya Harish, head of the Jal Bhagirati Foundation, an NGO that works to optimise management of scarce water resources.

She adds that despite the acknowledgment by the State government that rainwater harvesting is vital — Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in January this year launched the Jal Swavlamban Yojna to promote the use of rainwater accumulated through traditional methods — implementation on the ground remains slow.

First published in The Hindu

Also read The ancient stepwells helping to curb India’s water crisis

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