Desi Dawaa for a Blue Catastrophe

Water scarcity, a third world war over water – these ideas are doing the rounds to stress just how critical India’s water crisis is. For a country so well endowed with water, with the world’s richest tradition of local community-level water management systems, it’s strange to have come to this pass.

India gets the most rainfall per square unit of land area of any country in the world. If we walled the country and didn’t let any rain escape into the sea, each year we would have water one metre deep on the ground. That’s a lot of water. It’s enough to comfortably meet every Indian’s need for water – drinking, washing, bathing, manufacturing, farming and wasting. But we do not have that imaginary wall, and are not about to stop rivers in their tracks. So we do not have much water to play with.

It wasn’t always like this. India believe in self-help, which is why we are such entrepreneurs and trend-setters abroad. At home, lethargy strikes, bringing the ‘let the government do it’ attitude. Amnesia strikes. The same Indians that pine for ‘the good ole days’ when abroad find nothing to cheer about once in their country. They forget 5,000 years of traditional knowledge that stands behind them, which made India the richest countries in the world in not-to-distant past – just before the British invasion, India accounted for some 27 per cent of the global economy and trade.

OK, I am not about to bemoan our long lost past. But I am about to make a case for respecting, learning from and incorporating our traditional knowledge, especially about water, the basic resource.

I’ve humbly learnt – that was what I set out to do without too much baggage – that our ancestors understood how to handle water, leaving the smallest ecological footprint. In simple words, they knew how to make the most of what nature provided.

We used local material, the topography, labour and money from our rulers to build an amazing variety of systems. These range from water harvesting and storage to distribution mechanisms. Every one of them evolved in situ and underwent organic modifications and improvements – more like farmers using selective breeding to improve their crops. In this, they were supported by the wealthy as well – 10 percent of profits made by businessmen and traders went towards community water works, and privatization was not on the agenda then.

Each region had a variety of mechanisms for different end-uses. It was never one-mechanism-suits-all-uses. So you had covered wells for drinking water in Rajasthan and open, deep talaabs for bathing, washing and watering animals, sheltered by trees from the sun to reduce evaporation. Agriculture was mostly rain-fed save for some places along rivers or where sub-soil water was easily available and could be lifted using Persian wheels or bullock-drawn systems. Social norms governed the use of water. These were not equitable, given our caste hierarchy, but still ensured that everybody had some sort of access to water. Groundwater was hard to get and scarcely exploited.

The local people – villagers and townspeople – helped to build most of these structures. It was contributory – labour from the people and money from the wealthy. Cash never covered the whole cost of the work, usually accounting for between half and three-fourths of the total. This gave the locals a sense of ownership over the structures. They protected and repaired them as needed to the extent that money was not involved. If money was needed, to pour fresh mortar, for example, the headman would raise it from the ruler or other source.

This system worked fine for many centuries. Once the structure was built, its maintenance was assured. The ruler could get on with other business. It was impossible given the country’s diversity and spread to attend to each and every well, tank and pond. If a structure was large, several communities shared the responsibility for its upkeep. Most structures carried edicts from the builders detailing the sharing of water and their preservation. People respected these and there were penalties for violators.

The map below gives an idea of the diversity of these systems. In the book, I have highlighted examples from eight locations but there are many more that remain to be explored. The areas are Uttarakhand, Delhi, Sekhawati (Western Rajasthan), Chambal, Bundelkhand, Meghalaya, Goa and Tamil Nadu. Mouse over these areas on the map to read more.

Map of India Bundelkhand Delhi Chambal Shillong Goa Hills


From the Himalayas comes the bulk of our water. People in the hills used only as much as they needed since water is hard to come by. And used it super-efficiently. But the times, they are a-changin'

Nawab Tank

In Bundelkhand, the Rajputs left behind an incredibly rich legacy of water - enormous tanks or talaabs. Each covers hundreds of hectares and stores millions of acre-feet of water. They have helped maintain the groundwater levels, sustain people and agriculture. But now they are seemingly doomed, by an indifferent public and a rapacious government


Agrasen Baoli

Agrasen's Baoli in Central Delhi is testimony to this ancient city's competence in managing its water, once. It was dotted with baolis, wells and check dams that collected rainwater and held it during the dry season. Of course, there is the River Jamuna, but that is now a drain. Read to see where Delhi goofed up on water

Chand Ki Baoli

Chambal. It conjured up an image of a barren moonscape. It does bear a certain resemblance to our nearest neighbour in space. But an equally out of the world experience awaits you if you make so bold as to visit Karauli Ki Dangs. Read on >>


A wizened arecanut (betelnut) farmers weaves a tracery of bamboo across his plantation. This incredibly scientific, ancient way of irrigation called shyngiar delivers the exact amount of water to betelnut plants. It is entirely handmade by rule of thumb and 100% eco-friendly. Read how its made >>


This part of Rajasthan gets less than a metre of rain a year yet sustains life on a large scale. The large satellite-dish shaped structures are the reason why. These efficient rainwater collection tankas store precious rainwater underground for months, providing drinking water to those who live in this harsh land. Read how they are made >>


These gates of the khazan lands in coastal Goa control the flow of water between tidal rivers and the low-lying paddy fields. They are a simple yet ingenious way to flood the paddy fields alternately with salty tidal water and fresh water, and allow farmers to grow rice and fish on the same acreage. Read how they are made >>


Southern Tamil Nadu gets little rain from the north-east monsoons. The people have a highly evolved system of tanks, often connected in series (or cascades) for collecting this water. Ooranis, like the one shown here, are exclusively for drinking water, kept protected from contamination by barbed wire and social fencing. Read how they are made >>