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Indigenous knowledge - water should be everybody's business

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

Consultant with the UNDP-World Bank Water & Sanitation Program, Regional Water & Sanitation Group (RWSG) - South Asia, New Delhi

The millennium that will soon fade away into history has taught some bitter lessons to mankind. One that will continue to haunt us well into the next millennium is `water' - a critical input for human survival. Within a short span of hundred years the wisdom collected and nurtured over centuries for managing water has just got washed away. What is left behind is a pathetic situation where we have water and water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

This period of virtual eco-degeneration has seen the concurrent emergence of the state as a centre of power to govern people's lives. The centralisation of power led to unscrupulous control by the state over natural resources - water being no exception. This transition, from decentralised community control to monopolised state ownership, has brought about manifold impact on water management

  • Technologies, as opposed to community designed and community managed systems, were put in place to harvest surface and groundwater, often causing irreparable damage to hydrological cycle by over-exploitation of water resources.
  • Subsidised water supply (piped), aimed at servicing the poor and underprivileged, has led to poor coverage of the target population on one hand alongside squandering of water by the rich and the privileged on the other.
  • State intervention has neither been able to serve the population nor to provide resources to deal with the shortage. The result is mayhem both in terms of the quantity and the quality supplied by the state.

Take yourself back to the past century and the ones' before that - no state ever supplied water anywhere in the world. And yet, each human habitation had its own assured supply of water for domestic and related usage. Built over centuries, the indigenous systems of water management for almost agro-climatic and ecological zones sustained human growth all across the globe. Today, a majority of these systems are slowly degenerating into archives.

Despite the neglect, these systems in many parts of the sub-continent hold promise to bring water back to our doorsteps. Thanks to water shortages in major cities, the rainwater harvesting systems are finding their way back into the urban water supply systems. Rural sector isn't far behind. Unscrupulous excavation of groundwater with its resultant load of chemicals, arsenic and fluoride being the dominant ones, has driven communities back to the indigenous systems in several parts of the sub-continent. There is a clear writing on the wall. The paradigm shift, from modern to indigenous, will make room for bringing an ecological continuity within the system. It will help support:

  • Communities manage water within their means without causing an undue burden and dependence on the state.
  • Ecological management of water resources with adequate safeguards against overexploitation.
  • Reduction in pollution load on water bodies alongside bringing water management back under communities' control.

Human survival in the next millennium pivots around the paradigm shift in which water should become everybody's business. The indigenous storehouse of knowledge has systems for all strata of the society in almost all possible situations. All that is needed is to re-examine the systems to suit our present-day needs. The paper examines some of these systems, studies the possibility of their integration within the existing rural-urban water supply systems and highlights the projects (including World Bank) with the South Asian region where these systems have been put to test.


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