How can India’s rural poor deal with ‘wild water’?

First published on Thomson Reuters Foundation News

A story of extreme drought

The landscape is bleak. Browns and greys are the predominant colors. A few scrawny cattle desperately forage on the dead stems of shrubs. The color green is conspicuous by its absence.

This is Bundelkhand. One of the poorest and most backward regions in India, it is spread across the two states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The region has been neglected since the Raj era, when the British neglected its development as punishment for the region’s role in the 1857 revolt. This apathy continued post India’s Independence as well and a potent combination of corruption, government neglect, and extreme weather events like a prolonged drought have ensured that the people in this region live in extreme poverty, barely surviving.

Bundelkhand has suffered three consecutive droughts from 2013 to 2015. Over the past 15 years, it has faced drought 13 times. In 2016, thankfully, the area received above average rainfall but one good rainfall was not enough to make amends for what local communities in the region have suffered for almost a decade. As a result, dozens of farmers committed suicide and majority of the young population migrated to cities for work. The acute water shortage has led to hunger, cattle deaths and a huge agrarian crisis.

Kubri is a small village that falls in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and is located 25 kilometers from the main town Manikpur with hardly any mode of transport connecting them. With a population of 250 people in around 75 households, the village lacks basic amenities. There are a few handpumps that function but the water table falls every summer and most handpumps go dry.

And then life becomes even more difficult for Sheela, a 35-year-old mother of five children, who has been living in Kubri village for almost 20 years.

“I spend half of my day in fetching water as a minimum of 12-13 rounds are required for this big a family. Each round takes around 20 minutes. Sometimes we have to wait because of the queue as there are only few working handpumps in the village,” she explains.

Sheela’s body aches because of carrying this heavy weight every single day. As a result she has started sending her 12-year-old daughter Kanchan to get water. Her daughter does three rounds in the morning but because of that she is often late for school. “Even after all this my kids keep on falling sick as I can’t clean them for days due to water shortage,” adds Sheela.

Water for everyone, everywhere

One of the greatest crisis that humankind is expected to face in the 21st century is inadequate availability of clean water for everyone, everywhere, which can be exacerbated by extreme weather events and climate change. India is particularly vulnerable with the World Bank estimating that most parts of the country will experience increasingly extreme weather events like unpredictable monsoons, prolonged drought and falling groundwater tables. There is evidence that this is already happening. There has been a decline in monsoon rainfall since the 1950s and the frequency of heavy rainfall events has increased. This has a direct link to groundwater levels with increasing withdrawals occurring due to erratic monsoons and inconsistent water availability. The rate of groundwater extraction in India has increased tenfold since the 1950s and 54% of the country now faces high to extremely high water stress.

While Indian governments have done well to increase access to drinking water, with 94% of the country having access to some form of improved drinking water source, the reality on the ground is different. Of key concern now are households which previously had access to water, and now do not. More critically, most drinking water sources are not resilient to climate change and can get damaged or become non-functional due to extreme weather events.

India ranks in the top 38% of countries worldwide most vulnerable to climate change and least ready to adapt, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. With 67% of the country’s population living in rural areas and 7% of the rural population even now living without access to clean water, India’s rural poor are highly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events and climate change. As we have seen in Kubri, prolonged drought renders many handpumps, the only water source in the village for residents, nonfunctional and thus increases their hardship and economic burden.

Dealing with Wild Water

As WaterAid’s latest State of the World’s Water analysis argues, extreme weather events and climate change are going to have a disproportionate effect on the rural poor who are least equipped and resourced to deal with their drinking water sources running dry or becoming non-functional. ‘Wild water’ or in other words unpredictable weather patterns can lead to more storm surges, ruinous flooding, prolonged droughts and contaminated water sources. To tackle this, governments and all stakeholders along with local communities will need to work together to increase the resilience and adaptability of vulnerable communities to effectively deal with extreme weather events and climate change.

India has immense traditional wisdom and knowledge in water storage and groundwater replenishment, developed and successfully used over centuries, which needs to be harnessed. Some examples include the use of simple and traditional water storage and replenishment structures like johads (traditional earthen dams for water storage) and anikets (traditional check dams or barriers made on gentle slopes for storage and ground water replenishment) by rural communities in dry and drought-prone Rajasthan to successfully improve ground water levels and crop yields.

Since Independence, successive governments in India have mostly focused on large and centralised water storage and management projects, which come with huge economic, environmental, social and human costs. Instead, it would be better if governments in India focus on development or repair of localised, community-managed water storage and replenishment structures that are climate resilient and will lead to sustainable water sources that local communities can depend on even during extreme weather events.

There is some change happening. The state government of Sikkim has been investing in reviving mountain springs, on which mountain communities are dependent, across the state using a mix of traditional and scientific watershed management tools. The state government of Telangana has launched an ambitious programme to help restore and revive village level water storage and replenishment structures. This needs to spread to more states across India. It is only then that someone like Sheela, instead of descending deeper into back-breaking poverty, will be able to focus on the well-being and education of her children and enable a brighter future for them.