German Agro Action Seminar in Pune:
By: Rainer Hörig
In the summer of 2004 Indian
meteorologists predicted a "good" monsoon, meaning plenty of rain. Not much
later news reports about a major flood in eastern parts of India and Bangla
Desh appeared. The world sent emergency teams and supplies. At the same time
millions of people suffered a drought in Rajasthan and central India. Drought
and floods are two sides of the same coin. For the peoples of South Asia a good
monsoon is necessary for survival. But rains can turn from blessings to curse
when natural resources are destroyed or misused by man.
Through the Hindi-word "jangal" the forests of South Asia have presented the
world with the prototype of a rich, thick tropical vegetation. But since
colonial times many of these forests have been plundered mercilessly.
Conservationists estimate that there is just a third of the original forest
cover left in India. A healthy forest is able to absorb a large amount of water
and release it in small doses over a long period of time. That is why many
rivers carry water even in the dry season. But today in areas where the forest
has been destroyed the monsoon rains often rush down naked hills and flood the
plains. In the hills many springs dry up shortly after the rains stop.
The wild rivers emerging from Himalayan heights were to be tamed by high dams
and long embankments. Through these structures man has robbed the rivers of
their freedom to expand in times of high water availability. If embankments
break, the river's water flood vast landscapes. Since it can not retreat back
into the river, the floods last for many weeks and months. In Bihar, e.g.,
scores of villagers are thus not able to farm their lands.
Poverty forces the poorest to search for livelihood in risky environments like
river islands, marshes or steppes. Unfortunately they are also most affected if
any disaster occurs.
Droughts and floods are the harbingers of a much more broader water crisis
which countries like India are heading for. While the demand for water is
rising steadily, sometimes rapidly, the resources are being depleted. Where the
destruction of forests has not stopped, in future rivers will carry less water.
In regions with intensive agriculture groundwater is often either poisoned with
nitrates and pesticides or depleted beyond repair.
Citizens of wealthy countries share the responsibility for such disasters.
Eighty million Germans pollute the earths atmosphere with as many gases as one
billion Indians do. The world over our climate is been thrown out of balance.
Storms, floods and droughts occur more frequently. South Asia is no exception.
The water crisis will dominate this century and will lead to numerous
conflicts, said development expert J.K.Arora while addressing participants of a
workshop held in Pune recently. Donor agency "German Agro Action" had invited
Indian partners to discuss water issues in Maharasthra's boom town. In his
opening lecture Arora, a retired civil servant, referred to India's experiences
with the Green Revolution and large irrigation projects. Large dams have in
most cases not lived up to the expectations set in them. In his view, In spite
of thousands of big dams water will get scarce in many regions of India in the
near future. Conflicts over water will rise manifold, predicted Arora and
pointed to the river Kaveri in South India, where farmers and riparian states
have consistently failed to arrive at a consensus on the sharing of river
Water expert and former World Bank consultant Sudhirendar Sharma estimates that
not even half of all Indian villages operate a proper drinking water supply
system. For the poor staying in city slums the supply situation is even worse,
Sharma emphasized in his lecture. Achyut Das, director of the development
organisation "Agragamee" which works in the hills of Orissa, reported how the
construction of large dams and opening of mines have destroyed local water
resources and put villagers into trouble. "Rivers are dead, their water
unusable," said Das.
Over three days development experts exchanged experiences and networked their
groups scattered over the whole of India. Most participants agreed that the
privatization of water supply, as supported by the World Bank, would not
provide an adequate solution for India. The poor would not be able to afford
the higher costs of private water supply. But most of water problems could be
solved in the villages itself, by regenerating natural water resources. What is
known as "watershed development" is a low-tech solution which directly involves
local people. Some call it "water harvesting".
Villagers dig shallow ditches along the contours of the hills surrounding their
village, put up series of mini dams made from bolders and mud in small
rivulets, construct small dams and reservoirs in local rivers. Cost-effective
water structures like these help to catch the rain water where it falls, give
it a chance to percolate into the ground und replenish groundwater stocks.
People plant trees and feed their cattle in stalls so that natural vegetation
can recover. With progressing regeneration water collects again in the wells.
Soon water is available for a second harvest. Many a village has achieved a
surplus in food production this way.
More and more NGO's dedicate themselves to watershed development. The Center
and many state governments run programs to propagate it. But in order to
succeed, it is crucial to ensure active participation of local residents,
emphasized participants of the German Agro Action workshop in Pune.