India has had a long history of water conservation through harvesting and storage. It is due to the fact that traditionally the country relied only on the monsoon season for rain which lasted for 3-4 months. The people knew the importance of its conservation, particularly that of rainwater, for meeting their water needs in the long term.
Communities from different locations of the country came up with unique ways of water harvesting and management that suited the local topography, climate, and precipitation in their respective areas. Stepwells of Gujarat, Tanks of Tamil Nadu, Johads of Rajasthan, Zabo system of Nagaland are some of the examples of traditional water harvesting systems that have helped people meet their domestic and agricultural water needs. These systems are the summation of traditional knowledge of the water cycle, water harvesting, storage, maintenance of quality, and proper utilization even during the lean water period. These systems use minimal or no fossil fuel-based energy and are not technology-intensive. All the members of the community collectively own them, and therefore the responsibility of ownership and allocation of water is also determined by the community collectively.
Adaptation measures are going on to better conserve these traditional water resources and harvest rainwater for future use due to the changing monsoon pattern. Revival of local rainwater harvesting systems on a global level could provide substantial savings in water for nature and society. Traditional technology like ponds and earthen embankments continues to be the mainstay in most parts of the country when it comes to meeting the requirements of the domestic and agricultural sectors.
Water use and conservation in India are often balanced with the monsoon season
Indians rely on traditional knowledge of the water cycle, for harvesting, storage, quality and utilization
Techniques use very little fossil fuel energy and minimal technology
Different regions have different conservation practices
We travel through India to look at how different regions conserve water
Water Resource Management in the Trans Himalaya
In the difficult, water-scarce areas of the Trans Himalayas, storage is done of melting ice in tanks known as khuds or kuhls for water storage for later use. Kuhls prevents runoff and helps meet irrigation needs without the use of complicated machinery run by electricity. This also helps to make maximum use of scarce resources. The water flows from field to field irrigating the terraced fields, which prevents runoff. This also prevents the use of excessive amounts of water, as the surplus water, if any, is drained back to the tanks.
In Ladakh which receives less rainfall than the deserts, melting snow is the only source of water and this water flows down in the form of a stream in the evening. By then, it is too late for irrigation. Traditionally the people of Ladakh had a system of diverting water from the streams and storing these in tanks called zings so that it could be used for irrigation in the morning through channels.
A similar system exists today where a network of guiding channels brings the water from the glacier to the zing. During the day, the channels fill up as the glacier melts and in the afternoon this turns into flowing water. The water that collects by the end of the day is used the next day.
Groundwater Utilization in Western Ghats
Surangas can be translated to tunnels, a traditional water harvesting system found in the Western Ghats, especially in Kasargod District of Kerala. The local people cannot depend on surface water as the discharge in rivers is too high in monsoons and too low at other times. They, therefore, depend on groundwater which they access through surangas.
A suranga is a cave, which is manually dug through laterite rocks. The site of the suranga is traditionally identified by studying the slope, soil structure, catchment area, flora, and fauna. The digging is carried on till the water is struck and flows out of the tunnel to be collected in a pond or tank constructed outside the suranga. The length of the tunnel can range from 30-300 m and in the case of longer ones, vertical air shafts are provided at regular intervals to maintain the atmospheric pressure. Many families in Kasargod depend on this water for their drinking, domestic, and sometimes irrigation needs. The cost of digging the suranga and constructing the pond is the only cost involved in this system, as there is practically no maintenance cost.
Rajasthan has very few perennial rivers because of its geographical location. In order to provide for water needs, temporary lakes were made called Khadeens. The rivers that flow in the rainy season were held in Khadeen. In summer when the Khadeen dried up, the soil still remains wet and this allowed for the cultivation of crops. Khadeen is built below the sloppy land and the soil embankment is raised around its two sides and the pucca sheet around the third side. It spreads over an area of about 5 to 7 Km. Even a barren land can be made cultivable by the Khadeen technique. The place where the water collects is known as Khadeen and the dam which checks it is known as the Khadeen dam.
In the arid climate of Gujarat, water is available in plenty during the rainy season but cannot be stored in shallow wells at other times due to the risk of evaporation in high temperatures. The stepwells (locally known as Vav) were dug deep into the ground to reach the water table and were not just a place for storing water but also a space for the community to interact while washing and cleaning.
These multiple-use water sources were strategically positioned and their location is also indicative of the purposes for which they were used. For example, if a vav was located within the boundaries of a village, it was generally used for domestic purposes such as for drinking water and washing clothes. The stepwells that were placed in the periphery of a village, dotted along trade or pilgrimage routes, would serve as resting lodges as well as a space for intercultural interaction.
Ahar Pyne is a traditional floodwater harvesting system in Bihar where floods are common. This system continues to irrigate substantial areas even today as it ensures equity in water distribution in fragmented land holdings and promotes community participation and distribution of responsibilities.
It is a system that utilises the water which otherwise would have been wasted. The soil here is porous and sandy, and is therefore unable to hold water. As a result of this poor water retention capacity, the groundwater levels are low. The rivers get replenished and the water table rises only during the monsoon, but due to run-off, eventually, the water percolates leaving the soil sandy and dry. The Ahar pyne is a catchment basin embanked on three sides while the fourth side is formed by the natural gradient of the land itself. Pynes are artificial irrigation channels diverted from rivers.
Non-Mechanised Water Lifting System in Rajasthan
The Saza Kuwa are open wells from which water is lifted using an elaborate mechanical structure but without electricity. Cattle (buffaloes or camels) are used to lift the water by rotating a large gear-like structure that does not require electric power. A huge circular hill or elevated platform is constructed with the soil that is dug out to make the pit for the well. A rehat or wheel is a traditional water-lifting device and is placed on the platform. The sloping platform is the chada which is like a ladder and when rotated by the animals moves the wheel to help draw water. This large and complex structure that requires no fossil fuel is used to meet the water needs of a large community. These structures are jointly owned and constructed by farmers who have land adjacent to each other. This ensures maximum use of resources. It is especially popular in eastern Rajasthan even today, where the majority of farmers are still small and marginal and cannot afford private, highly mechanised, and resource-intensive water structures.
Rejuvenating the Water Table in Tamil Nadu
Eris are tanks that are found in the state of Tamil Nadu. They are a major source of water as one-third of Tamil Nadu’s cultivated lands are irrigated through these water harvesting structures. These were constructed keeping the micro-climate and ecological harmony in mind as they prevent soil erosion and runoffs and rejuvenate the water table. They also act as flood control systems.
The presence of these tanks near temples makes these sites self-sufficient and serves as a place of social interaction. Many religions are characterised by the presence of tanks and other water storage structures. The concept of ablutions as a ritual is an integral part of almost all religious practices.
Water Harvesting in the Hilly Terrain of North-East India
The hill streams are tapped as soon as they emerge from forest and water is channeled to connect in a series of terraces. In this system water flows continuously from upper to lower terraces. This method of irrigation is widely used in non fertile land to raise paddy.
Submergence of water up to 5-8 cm is maintained throughout the year. After harvesting the paddy at a length, the straws are left to rot in the field to improve soil quality. Bench terracing is an important conservation measure for valleys and hill slopes. In bench terrace agriculture practice, topo sequence crops such as maize, bean and potato are planted on upper slopes and crops requiring more water such as rice and jute are grown on lower slopes. The nutrient rich excess runoff from the upper portion of slope is used for the lower hill crops. Anja Disseldorp, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Earthen Pot as a Water Cooler
The earthen pot is a staple in almost every household of India. Come summers and the streets are lined with these earthen pots which people gladly welcome home. These pots are known to keep drinking water cool, thus quenching the summer thirst more satisfactorily. In order to further cool the water, a wet muslin cloth is wrapped on its sides, making the water a few degrees cooler. Different types of locally available clays are used in making these pots.
The water inside the earthen pot is cool due to the evaporation process. The earthen pot has tiny pores on the surface and water gets evaporated very quickly through these pores. Due to this evaporation process, the heat of the water inside the pot is lost, which lowers the temperature of the water. த.உழவன், CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Discuss and Share
These sustainable traditional practices for water conservation are still prevalent in large parts of India to make the best use of water. Water is a precious resource and different cultural regions around India have many years of practice conserving and preserving water resources.
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Ketki is a content writer and sustainable travel blogger, who loves nature, wildlife and traditional architecture. While she is a professional environmental educator by day, her passion for travel has her jet-setting all over the world during her free time. Ketki enjoys bringing places to life through her informative writing style on her blog, Explore with Ecokats. She documents her journeys to inspire readers to travel sustainably and become responsible and ethical travellers. Her sustainable tips and suggestions help make travels immersing in the history, culture, and wildlife of a region. Readers can get in touch with her on Instagramor her website.