a website of resources for peace is a documentary website whose purpose is to promote an exchange of knowledge and know-how at the service of the construction of an Art of peace.
This website is coordinated by
Modus Operandi


Bangalore, November 2006

Water : Scarcity, Conflicts, Conservation and Harvesting

The maximum renewable fresh water resource in India is 1,869 billon cubic metres. Alarmingly, this represents only 4 % of the world’s fresh water resources for 16 % of the world’s population. With the population of India slated to touch 1.6 billion by 2050 the annual availability of water per person will further decrease from 1700m3 to 1140m3.

Keywords: | | | | | | India

Already, the poor in most cities pay from 2 to 3 rupees for a plastic pot of water sold to them by private water distributors. Often a poor family in Bangalore has to spend fifteen to twenty rupees to meet its daily water needs

The over-exploitation of ground water and the destruction or neglect of lakes and tanks has contributed to the serious nature of the problem in both rural and urban contexts. In rural areas the practice of flood cultivation has led to enormous wastage of water due to evaporation, apart from increasing the salinity of the soil.

More than 25 % of the urban population does not have access to safe drinking water. About 50 % of the urban population suffers from poor sanitation and water-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, dysentery and gastro-enteritis. It is estimated that the above listed conditions are responsible for 60 % of deaths in urban areas. Untreated sewage and lack of sanitation leads to breeding of microbes, bacteria and fungus. This in turn leads to the eutrophication of surface water bodies.

How to provide clean, potable drinking water to the cities at a reasonable price, especially to the urban poor, is the challenge that civic bodies face all over the country.

Given the fact that the various state governments do not have the money or interest to replace/repair installations and infrastructure for urban water supply there is great temptation to privatize supply and distribution of water. Multinational corporations are assiduously trying to strike deals with governments to gain access to the lucrative water market.

There are several cases of privatization of river water, overdrawing of water for private companies (like the case of the Coca-Cola company in Plachimada, Kerala), and privatization of urban water supply, which have triggered stiff resistance from citizens’ groups and social movements. There is an increasing awareness that water is a public good and cannot be privatized. It is also felt that water is a fundamental right and that the state has the responsibility to supply a minimum amount of water per citizen.


Because of the short duration of heavy rain, most of the rain falling on the surface tends to flow away rapidly leaving very little for recharge of groundwater. Most of the traditional water harvesting systems in cities have been neglected and fallen into disuse, worsening the urban water scenario. One of the solutions to the urban water crisis is rainwater harvesting - capturing the runoff.

River water ; water in lakes, ponds and wells ; water that seeps into the ground, collecting in the belly of the earth ; tapwater ; even bottled water! The source of all water is rain. Supply comes from the sky.

In order to meet demand, then, what we actually need to do is harvest the rain. Not dam a river, and block its flow. Not boost water out the ground, and suck the earth dry. Not build canals, lay kilometers of pipes. But merely harvest the rain.

In essence, harvesting water means harvesting the rain.

In India, the monsoon is a deluge. Flash floods churn up dry river beds. Dry wells come to life; lakes and ponds brim with water. But the monsoon is brief. We get about 100 hours of rain in a year. It is this 100-hour bounty that must be caught, stored, and used over the other 8,660 hours that make up a year. The water harvesting rationale: extend the fruits of the monsoon.

The water harvesting basis: catch water where it falls. From rain will come local food security. From rain will come biomass-wealth that will eradicate ecological poverty. From rain will come social harmony.

The water harvesting method: build systems that enable such an extension, and create a structure to manage the extension. These structures are eco-region specific.

The water harvesting experience: millennial and born of local wisdom; scientific and still in use; participatory and the basis of people’s movements; the focus of innovation in the present and the best way to a non-scarce future.

Approach India’s history from the point of view of human-nature interactions. Come face-to-face with a history of water harvesting since antiquity.

There are 15 agro-ecological zones in India. In each of them, there are systems that exemplify the myriad ways in which human needs and limits imposed by the physical environment balance each other. The history of these ways is the story of many little traditions of survival and adequate use.

Some of these systems are still in use today. Most of them are in ruins. None of them have been forgotten. Let us revive, for our sakes, this dying wisdom. Let us understand, all over again, how to value the raindrop.

The irrigation tanks (earthen bounded reservoirs constructed across slopes by taking advantage of local depressions and mounds) of South India are symbols of an ancient and rich tradition of harnessing local rainfall and stream flow for agriculture. The advent of large-scale water storage and energised systems may have left these exemplary examples of local efforts and community management somewhere along the way. These need to be revived.

In the urban context, waste-water recycling is one answer. Recycled water can be used for toilets, gardening, air-conditioning, industrial and household use and groundwater aquifer recharging. The new sanitation programmes developed by NGOs (e.g. Grama Swaraj Samithi, Bangalore) in urban slums have low-cost wastewater treatment plants where re-cycled water is used for kitchen gardens and flushing. The ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore (ISAC) decreased its water requirements from 1 to 0.5 MLD through waste water recycling.

Along with adequate sewage treatment plants to recycle water it is also necessary to have pipes laid to carry the recycled water to consumers. Apart from water recycling it should be mandatory for all buildings in urban areas to have rainwater harvesting systems. Chennai and New Delhi have already made it mandatory.

Finally, concrete city pavements are the worst offenders as far as recharging of underground aquifers is concerned. Authorities must avoid this practise, and if need be, dismantle existing pavements to allow for groundwater recharging. Citizens need to take this up as an urgent public cause.

Advocacy and Communication

Our advocacy and communication strategies will be based on the following insights and principles, derived from our years of work on water conservation and harvesting:

In particular, we see the need to address the following issues :

  • The issue of local ownership and knowledge, which can be defined as ecological democracy, is fundamental to our understanding of water issues.

  • That peoples’ knowledge based, non-technocratic solutions are the need of the hour

  • Local decision making process helps conflict free problem solving

  • To rally peoples’ movements, NGOs, and civil society groups around the issue of the 2002 National Water Policy. Critics have pointed out that it is designed to take away peoples’ right to water, therefore a water literacy movement (so far replicated in 3 states) is to be taken up in all 80 agro-ecological zones of the country.

  • To network, broad base, share resources, information, strategies, success stories, and so on.

We will actively promote the following practical strategies:

  • Urban strategies:

    • Roof top rainwater harvesting

    • Uproot concrete surfaces, and re-lay them with more permeable material

    • Create percolating tanks

    • Revive dead tanks

    • Recycling waste water

  • Rural strategies:

    • Rotation of crops

    • Reduce dependence on chemicals/fertilizers

    • Promote sensible water conservation/ management

    • Achieve balance between cash / food crops

    • Work towards balance between anthropocentrism and biocentrism (human vs ecological needs)