While world population continues to increase, our freshwater supplies appear to have stagnated and in some cases even trickled to a halt. Residents all the way from California to Brazil are battling multi-year droughts. Earlier this year, some citizens of Sao Paola were so desperate that they drilled through basements and parking lots to try access groundwater. Experts estimate that there are currently a billion people in the world that lack clean drinking water.
Amid this stream of dire news is a ray of hope - Rajendra Singh AKA "The Waterman of India." The water conservationist has succeeded in restoring groundwater levels and even reviving dried-up rivers in rural Rajasthan. What is even more fascinating is that this miracle has not been achieved with modern technology but by implementing ancient water conservation techniques.
Singh's journey began in 1985 when he was just 28-years-old. The young social worker along with four other medics made their way to Rajasthan's Alwar District to set up a free health clinic. However, when they arrived, Singh realized that the villagers were more concerned about the lack of water than their health.
Within a few months, he had abandoned his original mission and embarked on the impossible task of restoring the parched hinterland's water supply. The social activist who is trained as an Ayurvedic doctor had no knowledge about water conservation. Luckily for him, he met two locals who did. Mangu Meena and Nathi Bhalai taught Singh the ancient art of building 'johads'- water storage tanks constructed with stone, concrete, dirt, or any other available material.
Though rudimentary, the structures that date back to 1500 BC, are an extremely efficient way to store rainwater for future use. Also, as the accumulated water gradually permeates into the ground, it helps increase groundwater levels. The only problem? Johads require extensive amounts of manual labor which is why they are typically community projects.
Singh says it took some time to convince the residents of Gopalpura where he began the project. However, once they saw it working, the community wholeheartedly joined in the effort, and the idea started to spread like wildfire. Soon, residents of the neighboring villages came seeking Singh's help to try restore water levels to their parched lands as well.
In addition to creating the reservoirs within the villages, Singh, and his team also built check dams across streams or small rivers. Unlike johads that store water, these allow excess liquid to flow out. As it flows downstream, the water seeps into the ground uniformly, helping raise the water table across the entire length of the river or stream.
To ensure the conservation efforts were not lost due to corporation negligence, Singh and his group have managed to stop over 40 water-intensive companies from setting up shop in the area. They also convinced the government to shut 470 mines, whose large pits collected so much rainwater that the groundwater never got replenished.
The activist who has worked tirelessly on this project for the last 30 years, says these strategies have helped rejuvenate vegetation and increased the water retention capacity of the soil. Also, five once dormant rivers, including the Arvari that had been dry for 80 long years, now flow year-round. Land under cultivation has grown five-fold leading to an increase in farm incomes. The best part is that men no longer have to leave town to seek employment and women only have to traverse the short distance to the village well to obtain freshwater.
Singh's hard work that has changed the lives of the residents of over 1,000 villages has earned him several accolades, including the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize. The honor that comes with a cash prize of $150,000 is regarded as the Nobel Prize for water.
Torgny Holmgren, the director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, said," In a world where demand for fresh water is booming, we will face a severe water crisis in decades if we do not learn how to take better care of our water. Mr. Singh is a beacon of hope".
The 'Waterman of India' now plans to embark on a five-continent tour and convince water constrained communities to take matters into their own hands. He believes they should resist money and technological solutions offered by corporations and find ways to help themselves.
Resources: guardian.co.uk, odditycentral.com, qz.com, ecotippingpoints.com