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For a country its size, India has some serious water-related issues. Niti Aayog report from 2018 states that nearly half of India’s population of around 600 million people could face severe water scarcity by 2030. The country also ranks poorly in water quality. Almost 70 per cent of India’s water is contaminated. Nitrate and iron being the top contaminants. To make matters worse, India’s groundwater supply is slowly running out. 256 of 700 districts have reported ‘critical’ or ‘over-exploited groundwater levels. Community participation can be a great way to better prepare people to tackle climate change and directly involve them in the conservation effort.


As a water conservation initiative, GuruJal has been actively working to educate and work with the local community to restore communal ponds in and around Gurugram. Ponds act as a secure reserve of water during drought-prone months and restore groundwater levels in urban spaces. Many of the ponds especially in urban centres face major issues related to neglect and waste dumping. By educating the people about the benefits of conserving the said pond, we hope to initiate collective action towards its conservation, since it is the local community themself who are the direct beneficiaries of their action. Our other notable interventions include rainwater harvesting, water-proofing against leakages and biodiversity management.

Check Dam; Monishasakthi96; Wikimedia

Why Community Participation Is Important?

Every conservation effort relies heavily on strong community participation for its success. A community-driven conservation effort ensures that the people are directly responsible for their actions, i.e., they have control over their lives and livelihood. Such conservation efforts are symbiotic and make room for grassroots changes as opposed to policy-driven conservation which merely account for a legal and judicial framework. Hence, a community-driven effort can instil behavioural response and a sense of entitlement which can act as a catalyst for practical action as opposed to latent policy-driven reaction.

Numerous NGO’s, and concerned individuals are working to resolve the impending water crisis. Pune based Watershed Orgainsation Trust has been working in as many as 3754 villages and impacted 3.8 million people and farmers across India. Their conversation model is known for “participatory watershed development and ecosystems restoration, climate resilient sustainable agriculture, integrated and efficient water management and climate change adaptation.” They are famously known for employing local volunteers called Jal Sevaks that overlook water conservation efforts in adjoining villages.

Bundelkhand’s Pani-Panchayats have a similar volunteer group led by women called Jal Sahelis. This movement is notable because it has brought a sociological change in a region known for holding conservative views about woman leadership and participation outside of household activities. Aside from conserving ponds, the movement has also led to setting up of kitchen gardens and has brought the discussion of gender equality to the forefront in the form of direct involement of woman in gram panchayat meetings and decision-making around water resources.

How To Involve The Community?

  • Education : Education and awareness is an important aspect of any community-driven approach and is imperative for social change. The goal of education in the conservation effort is to spread awareness about the direct benefits that the people can reap through their collective action, while ensuring that children are taught about their environmental responsibilities at an early age.
Figure 1: Community mobilisation at the pond, Gurugram
  • Water Harvesting: Water harvesting through borewells, check dams and rooftop water harvesters to restore aquifers has seen a good deal of success in various parts of the country. Initiatives have been taken by numerous NGO’s to mobilise local communities in the conservation efforts. Gurujal’s Catch the Rain campaign is actively working with the community in water conservation through various rainwater harvesting schemes.

     

  • Community Toilets: Open defecation has been a major sanitary concern responsible for airborne diseases in the country, which is being tackled under the Swachh Bharat Mission. In 2019, the country was declared open defecation free, however, conflicting reports suggests, that many of the toilets are out of maintenance and running water. To improve the sanitary situation, community maintained low flush toilets can further complement SBM to improve sanitation standards.

     

  • Women Representation: According to a UN study from 2018, data from 61 countries suggests that in 80% of water-deprived households, women and girls carry the burden of water collection. The burden of water collection also deprives girl children of school hours and education. However, women have little representation in decision making and technical fields, with a meagre 17% labour force in the Wash (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) sector in developing countries. An inclusive communal strategy that takes into account woman’s concerns, such as education, sanitation and participation can be beneficial for any society.
Figure 2: Meeting with biodiversity management committee

 

  • Economic Incentive: Conservation is largely overlooked since there may not be any direct economic benefit in incentivising major changes. Ponds and lakes can be a good source of income for aquaculture and irrigation. Conservation methods such as check dams and rainwater harvesting can also benefit water retention during drought-prone months which can be preserved for economic-use for industrial, agricultural, commercial and also household consumption.

     

  • Practical Incentives: Water scarcity is becoming ever more common in rural and urban spaces. Still-waterbodies like ponds can naturally restore groundwater levels. Rooftop water harvesters can also be incentivised in ways to make water more readily available throughout the year inside a gated apartment block. Water conservation should be presented as a problem solver rather than a tax burden. Thus, policies that seek to incentivise the practical benefits can increase community participation.
Figure 3: McKay Savage; Woman Fetching Water; Wikimedia

Closing Remark

The threat of global warming and looming water scarcity is very real. Though policy framework cannot be undermined, policy changes tend to be slow due to red tape and bureaucratic bottlenecks. For grassroots changes to effectively take place, community participation is instrumental in imbibing the importance of environmental issues amongst people. Whereas large scale infrastructure projects like sewage treatment can be an effective water treatment method for alternate water resource, they are capital intensive and may even be ecologically detrimental as evident from some of the large scale hydel projects in the past. Thus, it requires serious ecological studies before implementation.

Community efforts like restoring ponds, maintaining borewells and building check dams on the other hand are retroactive approaches that have existed for generations prior. These are proven methods that can effectively inhibit water crises with minimal capital and no ecological side effects. Furthermore, community participation can also effectively induce a state of common ownership, sense of belonging, communal harmony, gender-equality while inducing active participation. It can lead to production of public goods and urban commons like lakes, ponds and rainwater harvesters, with the community members as the stakeholders.

Author:
Raj Shekhar Nath | rajshek10@gmail.com
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