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Water Management: Historical Lessons Lost

Our rich past is a treasure trove of ancient wisdom and knowledge. Need is to apply it to today's concerns. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


It is indisputable that we are living in a water stressed world. Pertinent question is, can we draw useful lessons by examining how early society lived in their immediate surrounding and environment. Did they make an effort to strike a balance between nature and human activity? Though the nature and challenges spanning the past and the present are of diverse character and magnitude is it possible to draw some inspiration from the old practices? Population growth, unplanned industrialization, and rapid urbanization have together made virtually all societies water stressed. Can we apply old wisdom to at least partially remedy the problem? We should try to analyze that although earlier times also water issues did exist, yet how did they create fewer problems in the historical past. What steps were taken then to mitigate the issue? Is it possible to implement the same solutions now?

Rainwater harvesting has been a traditional practice in India since long. Various storage systems were developed, managed, and preserved. These water bodies were built by rulers of the region who also encouraged local communities and individuals to build and maintain these on their own. Some of the ancient and medieval hydrological structures actually proved to be landmark structures employing rainwater harvesting techniques and adding to the efficiency of contemporary water management. Right from Mohenzo-Daro times (Great Bath) to medieval baolis (Delhi), not to talk of water supply mechanism to Rajasthan forts all were notable structures. As early as during Indus valley civilization there existed irrigation and drinking water supply lines. Dholavira, Mohenjodaro, and Harappa had many reservoirs to store rainwater. At other places small bunds were constructed by the local people to store rain water for drinking and irrigation. The Indus settlements were particularly known for their advanced drainage and sewerage systems.

The Mauryan Empire witnessed the construction of several dams and bunds. Around the beginning of the Christian era, during the reins of satavahanas and later under the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas as too tank and well irrigation was prevalent. The chola dynasty built chain tanks i.e. a number of tanks with connecting channels. And villages used to have tank committees which would be responsible for the maintenance of community water resources. Then the Rajput dynasties promoted irrigation works in north India. In fact, to sum it up in all regions of India be it east India or north-west India, overground and underground storage tanks were built. Waterwheels (king Lalitaditya Muktapida) or extensive network of canals in Kashmir, all are ample testimony to the fact that the rulers cutting across the geographies and dynasties were keen to manage the water conditions being created by natural factors. Delhi Sultans constructed numerous water reservoirs, step wells, canals, tanks and similar edifices to efficiently manage the water resources. We can give innumerable examples of Iltutmish, Alauddin Khalji, Tuglaqs, Lodi, Vijayanagara rulers, and so on. 

Apart from the water reservoirs, tanks, ponds, artificial lakes, step wells etc. which formed the mainstay of rainwater harvesting and water management, the rulers also created system to manage water in arid, semi arid regions like Rajasthan. Through excellent hydraulic and craftsmanship arrangements water was transported to the forts situated on the hillocks.

Alas overtime due to the forces of ‘modernization’ these systems are being lost and the knowledge lies unused or even forgotten. To take one example and there are numerous, at the eastern border of Thar Desert (Aravali Hills) there is a water fort. At one point it had 84 water bodies; now only about 22 exist. These water bodies included ponds, wells, step wells, etc. While the ponds had a natural catchment, the wells and step wells were located below the ponds, to protect possible seepage from ponds. 40 percent of the area of the fort was devoted to water bodies, which could collectively store 4 billion litres of water, sufficient to maintain 50,000 people in the fort for four years.  

So what led to a loss of such knowledge and its continued application? Well, a short answer would be British colonization.

With the British stepping in to India major transformation started taking place: First, the economy, which was earlier resource gathering and food production focused, started converting into a commodity oriented economy. Second, there was a decline of traditional community fabric and social cohesion leading to fundamental alterations in long standing social relations and social customs so that local social and community relations became less important. Third, the market system was introduced which placed premium on private property and wealth. Four, traditional and customs based methods of rainwater harvesting and water management were frowned upon; these were consciously replaced by advanced applications of science and technology. But all this led to a detrimental effect on the Indian land and waterscape.

One, commercial production replaced subsistence. Two, exploitation became more important than conservation. Three, in order to promote agriculture and to access coal and timber large scale deforestation took place. And, finally, community ownership over forests, minerals, water bodies, gave way to government control which decided to exploit them for maximization of profits. The alien govt. was of course not interested in investing in social equity, welfare, or community harmony.

So, the British government singularly aimed at destroying the traditional knowledge, methods, practices, and management of rain harvesting. When subsistence existence gave way to large scale trade and commerce, this meant that water resources too become a commodity to be sold in market and to be commercially exploited. Native community ownership rights and management were found upon instead; a series of legislation replaced them by private ownership. 

Moreover, the British rulers did not appreciate the fact that while in England precipitation is distributed the whole year round in India monsoon is seasonal. India would always require water storage and harvesting for usage during non monsoon months. In any case due to tropical climate there is a greater need for water for domestic, agricultural and other purposes. In other words, lack of knowledge about stark difference between cold English climate and hot Indian climate was another contributory factor as to why there was little appreciation of the need for rainwater harvesting and water management. Accordingly the traditional methods were not appreciated and were bled to death. 

Then in the zeal to exploit the vast availability of resources from even the hinterland of India, the British government set up rail, road, and telegraph networks, alongside the river bed. But these projects caused obstructions to the natural flow of river water.

Finally, again the colonial government emphasized on perennial irrigation for which barrages, canals, etc. were built. These again would aim at regulating water flow through the rivers. But this would, again, mean interruption in natural flow of river water.

Post independence we have inherited that legacy. But more alarmingly there is no concrete work, barring sporadic ones, to set the historical mistakes right. No lessons learnt from history, alas! 

Dr Jaya Kakkar teaches History, Culture, and Environmental Studies at Shyam Lal College, Delhi University.

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