January 2001


Not even the best policies and technologies can help solve the world’s problem of diminishing and deteriorating resources, unless people’s attitudes and habits change. It is time to re-adopt the ancient value of regarding nature and natural resources as sacred, and to tap the successful, traditional systems of resource management to suit our present-day needs.

By Neeru Singh

In ancient times, water was acknowledged and regarded as a valuable resource. In fact, almost every ancient culture has regarded water as sacred and essential to life.

In the 20th century, however, the advent of the industrial revolution and the consequent dawn of Western materialism have led to a non-traditional commodity-based perception of nature’s resources. This has resulted in a price tag being placed on water and, ironically, a devaluation in the intrinsic worth of water. Western materialistic society scorned ancient values, which regarded nature as sacred.

Just as the 20th century focused on the importance of oil, the 21st century is likely to be focused on issues concerning safe and adequate drinking water. The most important step in the direction of finding solutions to issues of water and environmental conservation is to change people’s attitudes and habits.

If the world continues to treat water as a cheap resource that can be wasted, not even the best policies and technologies can help solve the problems. If humanity continues to feel that as long as you can pay for it, water will be there to use and abuse, no major breakthroughs in water conservation can take place.

Water Deprivation in India

At the current rate of population growth in India, combined with the growing strain on available water resources, India could well have the dubious distinction of having the largest number of water-deprived persons in the world in the next 25 years. This is the scenario if the available resources are not managed judiciously and with care.

Urbanisation and an ever-increasing population in the recent decades have contaminated water bodies, thus making them unfit for use. These, coupled with growing needs, have led to increasing dependency on ground water. Excessive tapping of ground water, through numerous boreholes, has led to a decline in the water table, whose means of replenishing itself have been greatly hampered.

Eighty-five per cent of India’s urban population has access to drinking water but only 20% of the available drinking water meets health and safety standards. It is estimated that by the year 2050, half of India’s population will be living in urban areas and will face acute water problems (US Department of State, 1999. Industry Sector Analysis).

Furthermore, there are serious inequities in the distribution of water. Consumption of water ranges from 16 litres per day to 3 litres per day depending on the city and the economic strata of the Indian consumer.

The water in rivers is wasted as it flows into the oceans and is not properly harnessed. The debate on dams as a means of harnessing water continues to make this issue politically and environmentally sensitive. No clear ecologically stable and financially viable solution has emerged.

The poor state of local and municipal authorities renders them unable to provide basic water to the cities. Strengthening of local bodies could lead to another means of addressing this issue.

India’s national water policy gives overriding priority to drinking water and the policy requirements of urban development projects include a drinking water component. India is developing both ground and surface water resources. Current policies prioritise the utilisation of static reserves to prevent ground water mining but development of ground water mining is very intensive in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and some other parts of India.

Traditional Solutions Revisited

While the Indian government is making efforts to solve the country’s water problems through modern means, India’s population is now looking to traditional proven methods. Indian communities have long been aware of the interdependence of their lives on the natural resources around them. When unscrupulous traders were felling trees, local people, under the leadership of environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, spearheaded the Chipko movement, which involved local people physically embracing trees to prevent loggers from cutting them.

India has a rich legacy of water-harvesting technologies and these methods, combined with modern science, could lead to a permanent solution to this problem. Rainwater harvesting, simply put, is putting water back into the soil where it is stored in underground rivers and reservoirs so that it can be drawn when needed. In cities, rainwater harvesting is merely collecting rainwater in large tanks constructed on rooftops, to be used when required.

As a result of the failures and shortcomings of the water system and its distribution network inherited by India from the British colonialists, local indigenous populations have begun to think of innovative alternative solutions to the water problems based on a revival of traditional rain-harvesting systems, which have transformed some of these areas from places of economic backwardness to areas of abundance.

The advantages of traditional methods such as rain harvesting are numerous. They have the potential of providing a solution to rural poverty and unemployment resulting in an overall improvement of the economy. They can give high agricultural returns and their installation and maintenance are cost-effective. Tlhey are also highly sustainable.

As we enter the new century, further growth and urbanisation will go hand-in-hand with environmental crises. We must rejuvenate our ‘dying wisdom’ and tap the traditional systems of resource management to suit our present-day needs.

This basic simple wisdom is underlined by the continued success of traditional methods of managing the earth’s resources in India as well as in other parts of the world. Modern communities the world over should, therefore, be encouraged to look at time-tested traditional methods of resource management. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Neeru Singh is Executive Officer at UNCHS  - the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (Habitat). The above article first appeared in Habitat Debate (2000 Vol. 6 No. 3), the UNCHS magazine.