Drought and dried-up rivers can spell catastrophe for rural communities that rely on their crops for survival. But villagers in India have shown that both threats can be reversed and livelihoods restored – with the backing of the law.
Having succeeded in restoring their rivers’ flow, the villagers faced another battle with their local government and vested interests which wanted to take over the new water supply for their own use. So they went to court, formed their own “water parliament”, and wrested back control.
The story began back in 1985 in the parched lands of Rajasthan in north-west India, when villagers were suffering acutely because the rivers they relied on to water their crops were running dry. They resorted to building johads, traditional hand-dug earth dams, which capture water in the rainy season so that it can soak into the earth and be retained instead of flooding away uselessly.
Often called natural flood management, this approach mimics the natural process of rivers which become blocked by debris and trees – with the beneficial results seen in the complex ecosystems created by beavers, which build their own dams and thereby prevent flooding downstream while also storing water for the dry season.
The first dam was built at the original source of the Arvari river, which for the first 45 kilometres of its length had stopped flowing at all. It took 375 earth dams before the Arvari started to flow again, and 10 years before it became a perennial river once more.
“The unsustainable use of water in modern agriculture and the demands made on aquifers by conurbations is already at breaking point in many places around the globe”
Success was infectious. Altogether, over those 10 years, the residents of 1,000 villages built more than 8,600 johads and other structures to collect water for use in the dry seasons. Remarkably, five rivers – the Arvari, Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani and Jahajwali – began to flow again, their valleys turning green with crops.
The rivers gained in value again. So the government of Rajasthan, seeing an opportunity to make money, claimed ownership, even awarding fishing licences to contractors, who were stopped by furious local people.
Fortunately the courts sided with the protestors and handed control of the river to them after 72 villages formed what they called the Arvari River Parliament to administer the river and allot rights to water resources in a fair manner.
They were lucky: the Indian constitution allows local people to get financial and legal support in cases against perceived injustices. This meant they had access to justice which they could not otherwise have afforded. The system favours local democracy where it can be shown to work.
The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change).
The story of the success of the earth dams is told by the RTA as part of its series publicising global examples of how projects and communities can combat the environmental destruction caused by the effects of climate heating.
The drying-up of water resources, combined with climate change, is one of the key problems of poor river management in many parts of the world. Climates vary markedly, but on rivers in Africa, Europe and the US vital water resources are also drying up, often through over-exploitation as well as drought.
The Alliance says: “The unsustainable use of water in modern agriculture and the demands made on aquifers by conurbations is already at breaking point in many places around the globe. Climate change is exacerbating this with higher temperatures in already dry places.”
It cites a range of schemes used to tackle the problem, similar in essence to Rajasthan’s diversion of the wet season rains by the johads into underground aquifers rather than letting the water run to waste.
Its message is that solutions need to be low-tech, cheap and achievable by local people acting together democratically to decide what is best for the community. Often this involves resisting local government and big business in their attempts to exploit and profit from the scarce water – frequently the cause of the original damage to the river.
The Alliance says two lessons from Rajasthan translate to other locations and across cultures: first, the physical return of water in a controlled way to an arid environment is possible using low-tech, cheap, accessible solutions.
Second, it says, the guardianship of a natural resource can be achieved effectively by using a communal parliament where all interests are represented equally and fair decisions are taken.
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