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Thursday, May 25, 2000

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Hold it, do we know what we want?
Anil Agarwal

In the last few weeks since the media storm on drought hit our politicians, several of them have made statements regarding the importance of a community-based rainwater harvesting strategy to drought-proof the country. The first statement came from the rural development minister, Sunderlal Patwa, that the government will gradually replace a government-oriented rural water supply programme by a people-oriented, decentralised and demand-driven programme.

Equally heartening are reports of people themselves beginning to promote rainwater harvesting, especially in Gujarat. A voluntary Lakhota Jal Sanchay Abhiyan Samiti has collected money from the residents of Jamnagar town to desilt the huge Lakhota Lake constructed by the former royal family. Under the leadership of the Swaminarayan gurukul in Rajkot, foundation stones were laid for check dams in more than 15 villages in just five days around the middle of April.

In Ahmedabad city itself, the Khadia Itihas Samiti has completed a survey of the underground water tanks (tanka) that were traditionally built in each house to harvest roof-top rainwater and is planning a campaign to revive them.

These developments show that community-based rainwater harvesting may well become a widely adopted paradigm in the years to come both in the urban and rural areas a fortunate result of the current drinking water crisis created by last year's monsoon failure. But the question is. Will this all lead to effective results, especially in the rural context?

Building water harvesting structures is a very easy task, but building an effective structure which starts off a process of self-management in village communities is a much more difficult. This is possible only if each structure is the result of a cooperative social process. Water is a strange natural resource: it can unite a community as easily as it can divide it. Therefore, it is essential that a strong social process precede each structure to build what economists call the ``social capital''.

This is an area where the track-record of government agencies is literally non-existent. In other words, the good intentions of state and Central officials to husband their water resources are as much a cause of worry as of applause. Fixed annual targets will prove to be a total disaster: money literally going down the drain. At least the first two years of any water harvesting programme will have to be spent on social mobilisation and getting the community to recognise the importance of water harvesting.

The whole community will have to involved by making each section from the landed to the landless and women's groups appreciate the benefits it will derive from the exercise.

It is for this reason that water harvesting works best when combined with watershed development. It is in the nature of structures to benefit mainly those who have land leaving the landless without any benefits and therefore alienated from the exercise. But development of watersheds to conserve both water and soil not only increases soil and water conservation and leaf and grass production on what are usually common lands, which can greatly benefit landless households, but also increases the life and effectiveness of the structures that benefit the landed. Contractors must be totally kept out and all wage benefits should go to the landless.

Nothing works better than when villagers see all this in actual practise. For this purpose, it is important to have funds to take interested villagers to see villages where such principles are being observed and how water harvesting has changed their lives. All this means that the progress in the first few years will be slow. But the experience shows that replicationscomes very rapidly once ``the idea'' catches on.

Management experts always point out that ``God is in the details''. Politicians will have to make sure the culture of rigid and inflexible government rules is changed to fit the rules of social mobilisation. And as government officials are not social workers, all this will will happen only if they hand over to the work to NGOs with a track record, howsoever few they might be, and wait patiently for results to come, or they themselves oversee the implementation of the programme.

Otherwise the result will be a lot of wasted mud, bricks and mortar and alienated people, with water still elusive and the concept of water harvesting getting a bad name.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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