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Old concept, fresh perspective

May 31, 2013


Abandoned pond (tank), a traditional rainwater harvesting body ©NeerFoundation,India

Abandoned pond (tank), a traditional rainwater harvesting body ©NeerFoundation,India

Its no surprise to read about the repetitive situation and water crises year after year back home in India. The latest one being this article in NY Times, which prompted me to write this post.

Last year I have written about the world’s costliest water. That post was about my general perspective on water and how it relates to the gender issue. Here I want to spell out my experience of the seasonal water crisis that I have seen weighing the most on women in India.

Typically, one would imagine that water crisis might exist primarily in the desert states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and so on or eastern parts of the state of Uttar Pradesh as well as in most  urban slums in major cities (Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi to name a few) as stated in the NYT’s article. From my experience of working in the water sector, especially on the development side of the issue, I can say that the crisis is ubiquitous in most Indian states, only the magnitude might differ from place to place.

Lots of data and stats has also been cited in the above mentioned article including the studies undertaken by independent researcher groups as well as leading researchers  in the past.

The idea behind all these studies and endeavors remains the same. Women are the ones who bear the most brunt as soon as the summertime arrives in India and they must spearhead the initiatives to alleviate water scarcity.

It has also been demonstrated in all these studies and researches that women do not take water for granted. How could they? They have to earn it everyday by doing the most unproductive chore of fetching water from the point source to their homes.

The mention of the environmental magazine Down to Earth’s (DTE) 2012 report on a notable development from 2011 about women from 60 village councils in Bundelkhand, in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, who had established water councils brought back memories flooding for me.

The pani panchayat idea — forming separate bodies in villages, run chiefly by women, to secure better access to water — dates from the 1970s in Maharashtra, but it is only recently that water councils have spread to other states, the article states.

When I worked with the Janhit Foundation (2003-2006) in India, our team had also initiated forming of similar water councils in Meerut as well as other neighboring districts in western Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), similar to the ones now being formed in eastern province of Bundelkhand.

By 2006, the number of councils in our area led mostly by women from the Dalit caste (one of the most oppressed castes in India) in urban slums like Jai Bheem Nagar and others had grown to 6. They had more than 30 female workers who had brought in hand pumps and restored old wells and other traditional rainwater harvesting structures. Through outreach efforts we used to emphasize  the importance of restoring traditional rainwater harvesting structures, like ponds (tanks) and wells, and through “shramdaan” (manual contribution) the community used to come together for the rejuvenation of these structures before monsoons every year.

It is mentioned in the NY Times article that in Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere, women are learning a new term, one the water councils use to describe a member trained in water storage and conservation — “jal saheli,” or a “friend of water.” We used to call them “Jal Behen” (sister of water) and “Jal Bhai” (brother of water) under our campaign.

I know that the names might have changed, people might have moved on, however the endeavor still continues. Now the flag bearer is another organization, NEER Foundation, striving hard to spread the same message and reducing the water crisis in my home town in India and making more “Jal Behens” and “Jal Bhais” along the way. This is what really matters in the end.




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