Water in the Thar: Adaptation in the midst of scarcity
From the traditional to the modern comes the rescue
By Yangchen Choden Rinzin, Ifham Nizam and Swechhya Singh
Jodhpur, December 2011

The Thar Desert in Rajasthan, once considered a scrooge when it comes to water resources especially for day to day usage, is now somewhat in the right track due to a better management of traditional harvesting system. Certainly, there are some improvements in the recent past due to the painstaking efforts taken by individuals which were backed by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Many families, who once battled to quench their thirst, are now in a situation to even possess more livestock due to larger volumes of water stored.  Some villagers believe that authorities in power can do much more to make their lives easier, but do nothing, necessitating the fight for basic rights.

Decades ago villagers had to travel more than eight kilometres to get water from the Indira Gandhi Canal. Now they get drinking water from the Rajiv Gandhi Canal, branch of the Indira Gandhi Canal catering exclusively for drinking water needs. People in the area are very appreciative towards the timely initiative taken by the government following numerous requests by NGOs and the village community.

A mother of three said she has to walk less than two kilometres to fetch drinking water. “Now I am left with ample time to help my family and to focus more on animal husbandry and cultivation. Certainly this has increased our income level and the living standards,” she added.

Fifty-one year old Pabu Ram still remembers how he had to walk about 10 km from his house to fetch water along with his five children every day and fill his handmade 5000 litre traditional tanka (water storage) which lasts for up to 3 months. “It was tiring but we needed water,” he explained. Ram, who lives with 10 family members, said it was especially hard to live with less water when he had to grow cash crops.

Tanka (small tank) are underground tanks, found traditionally in most Bikaner houses; they are built in the main house or in the courtyard. They are circular holes made in the ground, lined with fine polished lime in which rainwater was collected.

But today Pabu Ram said now it has become much easier. He goes about three km from his home to fetch water that is distributed by Indira Gandhi canal, which began operations about three years ago in the area. Villagers collect water from the canal, which are supplied to them for two hours each day. Most of the villagers now have to walk only about one kilometre to collect water for their tankas, which they constructed themselves. Gone are the days when women had to walk kilometres to fetch water with a pot on their head. Villagers are now able to take a bath thrice in a week, which previously used to be once in a month.

Like others born in Sangasawi village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Pabu Ram depends on the monsoon season for his yearly water requirements. The cultivation of food grains is also mainly dependent on this.

Demand for water from hitherto insubstantial uses, such as industry, tourism and recreation, as well as sanitation and environmental purposes, has been growing apace. The supply of water, however, has remained unchanged due to lack of water sources.

Most of the villagers in neighbouring villages are still without water supply services at homes even today. Although the situation has now slightly changed from before, people still have to depend on the rain water harvesting system in the village.

With increased use of tankas, some villagers are now eased. Villager, 40-year old Kamala Devi said life has become more easy with the tankas and coming up of water distribution, although have to ferry water instead of receiving water at home. “Me and my children fetch water eight times in two hours of distributions,” she said. “Sometime they doesn't distribute for three days”. Kamala has been living in a village called Gagadi for decades. “The water situation has definitely changed when I look back as a young girl,” she said. “I didn't even have a source to fetch water then,” she added.

However the situation may be or the developments are seen, but villagers have to depend on the tankas or well in front of their house. Rajasthan is believed to face drought once in every three years and they experience rain three months in a year. “This is when we harvest rainwater and save for whole year,” Devi said. “When the monsoon season ends, we depend on our cattle for livelihood”. Many villagers in this region depend on livestock because there is little water after the monsoon that is why they don't grow vegetables that require more water.

According to the villagers, with less rainfall and shortage of water, they have stopped using pesticides or chemicals for the vegetables. “It requires plenty of water and we rather choose not to use them,” a villager said. “So this makes our crops purely organic.”

A large number of villagers are also benefitting through a tractor service which collects water and sells at a reasonable rate to the villagers. The tractor owner collects water and fills in his tanker and sells it to those who cannot reach the distance or for those who like to get water in their door step.  Pabu, who owns a tractor, collects Rs. 300 for filling 5,000 litres during winter and Rs. 250 during summer.
The water that fills in the tankas, usually kept for the entire year or so for consumption.  People admire this service as it makes their tasks easier especially when the think of their recent past.

If we are to talk about the resilience in the village, tankas are not the only answers. Villagers also like to develop more and more have khandins which is also called as dhora, an indigenous construction designed to harvest surface runoff water for agriculture. Its main feature is a very long (100-300 metre) earthen embankment built across the lower hill slopes lying below gravelly uplands.

A village called Daukiyogi Dhani Chira today has an embanked Nadi, meaning a small man-made pond used for storing water from an adjoining catchment during the rainy season. Water from the nadi is used for drinking purposes, and so the catchment area as well as water is kept clean and free from pollution. “Sheeps are not allowed to drink water from nadi because they pollute the water with the mucus they secrete” said Mr. Rajendra Singh, Programme Coordinator at GRAVIS. Villagers fetch water from the nadi, when the tanka becomes empty and there is no other source to collect water, unless they buy water from others.

Villagers are also greatly benefitted from a technique called tube well irrigation system. A tube well is made by inserting a long pipe into the ground to extract ground water. Villagers have come up with the group tube well concept in which a group of families shares the water for irrigation.

“Women and children suffer most due to water scarcity”, the present General Secretary of the Gravis; Mrs. Shashi Tyagi said. Along with her husband, she campaigned and fought for the right to accessible water in the region, a basic human need. Though their mission is yet to be completed, they have done a remarkable service within the space of nearly three decades to bring relief for women and children in the desert.

Surely, the state could do much more to uplift the living standards of the needy in the Thar Desert, by supporting to build more tanks in close vicinity. After all, these people are part and parcel of the rapidly developing nation in the world.