Health and Clean Water: Rainwater Retention Helps Green Rajasthan

Article excerpt

"Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth."

Koichiro Matsuura. Director-Genera, UNESCO

Clean water, a basic ingredient for good health, is not available to the majority of people on Earth. Currently, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and three billion are without basic sanitation. A report compiled by 23 UN agencies predicts that two billion people in 48 countries will suffer water shortage by the middle of the century. The World Water Development Report, 2003, says that water resources will steadily decline because of population growth, pollution and expected climate change. According to the report, "the 21st century is the century in which the overriding problem is one of water quality and management." Today, more than 2.2 million people die each year from diseases related to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation. Water vector-borne diseases result in a significant number of deaths: about a million people die from malaria each year and more than 200 million suffer from bilharzias (World Water Development Report, 2003). The UN report said that legislative reform, better valuation of water and more private-sector involvement is needed. It is estimated that the first interventions would cost $12.6 billion US.

A multi-faceted approach is needed to solve water problems. These problems are preventable and don't require spending billions of dollars for building mega dams or to tie water into market relations. Vandana Shiva claims "that the water crisis is an ecological crisis with commercial causes but no market solutions. The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological." A traditional water conservation technology is demonstrated in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, India, where rural people, with the help of the local NGO, revived a traditional watershed technology of johads (water reservoirs made of mud and rubble barriers built across the contour of a slope to collect rainwater) in order to face the looming crisis of fresh water.

Rajasthan is the second largest, and one of the poorest regions in India. It is situated in the Thar Desert and prone to drought. In the west, Rajasthan is relatively dry and infertile. In the southwestern part of the state, the land is wetter, hilly, and more fertile. The climate varies throughout Rajasthan. On average, temperatures range from 8 to 28 C in the winter and 25 to 46 C in the summer. Average rainfall also varies; the western deserts accumulate about 10 cm annually, while the southeastern part of the state receives 65 cm annually. Most rain falls during monsoon season: between July and September. The annual rainfall in the Thar Desert is 10 to 40 cm and is technically arid. Rain distribution in Rajasthan is extremely uneven and averages do not give a true depiction of the state's rainfall; it can be up to 100 cm in some places and 25 cm in others. The terrain of Rajasthan - where water is sacred and the heat is strong - inhibits the lifestyle of its people.

For centuries, people in Rajasthan have survived on frugality, ingenuity and patience. They did not allow the lack of rain to translate into a scarcity of water, and thus customs, rituals and practices of indigenous culture continued. In his book, The Radiant Drops of Rajasthan, Anupam Mishra articulates the relationship between Rajasthanis and water: "Rajasthan scaled the peaks of trade, culture, art and standard of living because of the depth of their philosophy of life. This philosophy [gives] a special space to water." Rajasthanis dedicate time and effort in obtaining and optimizing the use of water they receive. Water is regarded like nectar or amrit (ambrosia) in Rajasthan. Over thousands of years, traditions evolved for collecting rainwater in the desert state. Both humans and camels can manage without water for considerable lengths of time. Housewives perform chores with minute amounts of water. …