By Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
To say that there is a water crisis in the world today is to grossly understate a looming global catastrophe. Earlier, the world used to discuss the global water crisis in terms of access to drinking water. Today, it’s no more about just drinking water. With drought in water-rich countries, water rationing in developed cities, flooding in unlikely places and frequent hurricanes, the global water crisis is no more confined to just scarcity.
The situation isn’t any better in India. A growing population, rapid urbanization and industrialization, mismanagement of resources and a lifestyle that requires significantly more water are leading the country towards a water disaster. Over 54 per cent of the country is under high water stress and most of our water bodies are either drying up or are grossly polluted. Add to it, the crisis of depleting groundwater. More than half of India’s groundwater wells are drying up while over 60 per cent of irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of domestic use are dependent on it. Also, India’s groundwater is being progressively contaminated owing to a lack of proper waste treatment system and rising use of hazardous pesticides and fertilizers.
The good news is that practical and effective ways of solving the huge problem plaguing the country aren’t very hard to find. We just to need to look at the problem in a holistic way. In the summer of 2016, I visited Latur in Maharashtra. It was the fourth consecutive year of failed monsoon and the whole landscape was parched. Everywhere in the city, one could witness water tankers sent in by the state government and various civil society organizations. Special trains were made to run to bring in water from as far as Rajasthan. Fearing violence, the district administration of Latur district imposed prohibitory orders on gatherings of more than five people around storage tanks.
It was then our volunteers decided to initiate the project of reviving the Manjara river. The volunteers, through their hard work and collaborative efforts, brought together local villagers, civil societies, local government, corporate agencies and technical experts to examine the situation, create a holistic scientific plan and undertake immediate action.
Working day and night, the diverse group of volunteers accomplished the task, which would have normally taken over nine months, in just three months. Thanks to the project, the area received record rainfall and there was water in the River Manjara after five long years. Today, even fish have returned to the once dry river. With support from community, donors and the local government a forest of native trees such as Banyan, Peepal, Neem, Mango, Jamun and Jackfruit is being created along the banks of the river.
Since 2013, The Art of Living is actively engaged in reviving thousands of water bodies and drying rivers across India. Thirty-three rivers in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are being rejuvenated with support from scientists, civil society, corporates and the government.
These efforts have started showing highly encouraging results. Communities in these regions have witnessed significant improvements in groundwater levels. Wells, which were dry for many years, are now filled with water, and farmers who were facing low yields and contemplating suicides are now more confident of a better life with rising income levels. In some areas womenfolk no longer have to walk long distances to fetch potable water.
Systematic and scientific plans were drawn up to rejuvenate the rivers. Our multi-dimensional approach includes building recharge structures, undertaking extensive afforestation focusing on native species, and training the local farmers on sustainable agriculture. A team of geologists, hydro-geologists, environmentalists, remote sensing experts and agriculturists is working alongside community leaders from rural parts to make clean water available and make the rivers perennial.
Local communities are getting increasingly aware of this challenge and adopting ways to wisely use water and undertake water-efficient farming practices. Energizing, empowering programs to build youth and community leadership stand at the core of these efforts and is one of the keys to the amazing results we are witnessing at the grassroots.
Water is the very basis of life. Nearly, 70% of our body is made up of the water element. Water is present everywhere. You find it when you dig deep into the earth and also as clouds up in the sky. It is also present in the atmosphere as vapour. We cannot imagine a world bereft of water. There is a saying in Sanskrit – “For people, water is God and there is no divinity without water”. It is imperative that we protect and maintain natural sources of water such as ponds, lakes and rivers.
In ancient civilizations across the world, it has been a tradition to maintain and revere water bodies, especially in this country. Earlier, a king’s greatness was often measured in terms of the number of ponds he built. Till the recent past, India had elaborate systems to manage its water resources. In South India, every village would have an interconnected series of irrigation tanks that would store water and recharge the water table. Each temple would inevitably have a pond, which in times of drought would act as the source of drinking water. This whole system was developed by the local rulers, and was owned and maintained by the local communities. Today, this feeling of ownership of natural resources has ceased to exist. We need to restore this sense of belongingness with nature. It is important to make sure that our rivers are kept clean. We must refrain from throwing things into the river in the name of religion. We must avoid all rituals that pollute our environment.
We need to make conservation of nature a national movement and revival of rivers to become a national priority. It’s heartening that the government is undertaking many efforts and devising new policies to revive the rivers. One of these plans includes interlinking the rivers across the country. While there are many advantages of interlinking rivers, such as better management of river waters and avoiding floods, one of the disadvantages is that sewage, industrial waste and other pollutants dumped in one river can travel to all the other rivers as well. So before linking rivers, water should be tested for pollution and care should be taken that no waste is dumped and no drainage is let into these rivers.
Over the last few years the central government has also laid special emphasis on natural resource management under MGNREGA. The Prime Minister himself has been driving the Namami Gange project to revive the river Ganges. However, projects like the Namami Gange or community driven schemes like MGNREGA will be successful only if other stakeholders join in. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu we have successfully supported the government in community building and such projects have provided employment to over 30,000 people.
Similarly, many state governments are working to undertake extensive afforestation initiatives. While it is beneficial to plant trees in the catchment of the rivers, the right and water-friendly plants need to be chosen. Else it could backfire as it happened with the case of massive acacia plantation across India. Though acacia, which is not a tree of this land, grows fast and gives quick green cover, the tree absorbs a lot of water. Soon after planting these trees, it was found that the groundwater was getting depleted.
What we need is a national water management agenda that is scientific and holistic in its outlook. Civil society, corporates, scientists, academicians, artists, students, farmers, NGOs and each and every one us will have to become a part of the agenda. The biggest pollutant in the environment is man’s greed. The feverishness for petty gains blinds us to the reality that this whole earth is one organism and the rivers are its lifelines. Our lives can only flourish when these lifelines are healthy.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is a globally revered spiritual and humanitarian leader. He has spearheaded an unprecedented worldwide movement for a stress-free, violence-free society. Through a myriad of programs and teachings, a network of organizations including the Art of Living, and a rapidly growing presence across 155 countries, Gurudev has reached an estimated 370 million people. Gurudev has developed unique, impactful programs that empower, equip and transform individuals to tackle challenges at global, national, community and individual levels.