It is often said that democracy is too slow to win urgent ecological progress. But when communities in Rajasthan, India, formed a special parliament to represent them and the life-giving rivers they depended on – they showed not only that local democracy can work and secure livelihoods, but that it can rapidly solve an environmental crisis and transform a landscape. And, from California to Cape Town, other rapid measures now are being used to protect water supplies.
Water enables life on our planet. Oversupply or the lack of it rules the lives of many people directly and all of us indirectly. As climate breakdown speeds up, scientists predict we will see ever-increasing extreme weather events, which means more flooding and more drought.
For those whose livelihood depends on farming and for other activities which rely on water, changes to the amount, timing and frequency of rainfall determine their very survival. As water becomes increasingly valuable, there is a danger that it will become even more of a commodity “owned” by the market, and made available at prices unaffordable to millions. Control over water management will, therefore, become ever more important for humanity’s collective future. Any just transition, therefore, needs to consider how to best use water for the benefit of the wider community.
Previous stories of change revealed how a river can be protected by being given it’s own status as a being under the law; and also how nature can be allowed to help us to store and slow down the flow of water as it passes through possible flooding sites. Other stories illustrated how successful communities can be when they work together toward a goal for all, whether to ensure sustainable urban water supply or to respond to an economic crisis by working locally. In India, one community along a river has worked together to not only restore water to an area of desert, but to share the newfound resource fairly, and to protect it for future generations.
Starting from a single village in 1985, in just 10 years the village-based NGO ‘Tarun Bharat Sangh‘ (TBS) brought water back to over 1,000 villages and revived five rivers in the Indian province of Rajasthan that were dry or drying up: the Arvari, Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani and Jahajwali.
Together they have built over 8,600 johads – small, hand built, earthen dams – and other water conservation structures to collect rainwater for the dry seasons. But they didn’t stop there. In 1998 the ‘Arvari River Parliament’ was formed to help manage the health of the river into the future. This unique, highly successful body won a battle with a bureaucracy in India with a reputation for slowness, combatted the powerful mining lobby, and enabled villagers – including women and people from diverse castes – to take charge of their own water management. Through discussion and planning, sharing of information and collaboration, the needs and wants of many different families who live alongside the river are balanced and compromises agreed. In 2004, the river was awarded the `International River Prize’. And in 2013, an ‘Arvari River Child Parliament’ was formed to embed the water culture into the next generation.
Two lessons from this story translate to other locations and across cultures: first, the physical return of water in a controlled way to an arid environment is possible using low-tech, cheap, accessible solutions; second, the guardianship of a natural resource can be achieved effectively by using a communal parliament where all interests are represented equally and fair decisions are taken.
The restoration of the first 45-km long river started with a single hand-built Johad, an earthen check dam at the site of the original source. Following this, villages that lay in its catchment area also built earthen dams, with the largest being 244m long and 7m wide. When the number of dams reached 375, the river started to flow again, and by 1995 it had become a perennial river once again, flowing all year round. The use of a series of small dams is a well known technique also used in the global North to retain water in the headwaters of rivers and to prevent it flowing downstream so quickly that it creates flooding.
Often called Natural Flood Management, it mimics the natural process of rivers blocking with debris and of trees falling across rivers – the same activities and results seen in the complex ecosystems created by beavers. The UK’s Yorkshire Dales National Park and the Sussex Flow Initiative are two examples of this method being used in Europe; the same human-built river dams are actually referred to as ‘beaver dam analogs’ (BDAs) in the US, where beavers are widespread and their dams part of national culture. Compared to hard engineering, this kind of flood management is cheap, accessible to most people and quick to install. However, flood management in many countries is seen largely as the responsibility of government agencies and water companies, and local communities are at best consulted, but rarely in control.
In the Arvari case, ownership rights and responsibilities have been key. Once this dry river had started to flow again, it became valuable and the Government of Rajasthan claimed ownership
However, the people of the area disagreed, demanding that it should be owned instead by those villagers who gave it new life. The state government was accustomed to taking decisions about the river without consultation; for example, it awarded contracts for fishing without the knowledge or input of the people residing on its banks. This had previously led to conflict with contractors who arrived with licences to fish, only to be stopped by furious local people. The state government filed a case against the local community of Arvari basin claiming ownership of the river, but the high court proclaimed it could take care of the river only until a system was in place for local people to take charge. Then, people from 72 villages immediately came forward and formed the ‘Arvari Parliament’, forcing the state government to hand it over to the local community. This meant that people who knew the area and who were directly impacted by the river’s condition were unusually in charge of its management.
The unsustainable use of water in modern agriculture and the demands made on aquifers by conurbations is already at breaking point in many places around the globe. Climate change is exacerbating this with higher temperatures in already dry places. For example, in the US, a ‘megadrought’ has emerged in the western states according to a recent study. Fuelled in part by human-caused climate change, scientists say this nearly-20-year drought equals and may even be worse than any in the past 1,200 years.
In the heavily populated state of California, a drought lasted 376 weeks from December 27, 2011 to March 5th, 2019, affecting 30% of the population – over 11 million people. Efforts are being made to banish lawns and return to more native planting schemes, using species that are better accustomed to desert life, and water rationing is becoming part of life in many countries today.
The Californian city of Fair Oaks is just one community that has come together to protect its local American River by planning ahead for times of drought. The town has invested millions in drilling wells to develop a backup groundwater supply. In years when surface-water supplies get tight for neighbouring water districts, Fair Oaks pumps out groundwater for the city needs, leaving surface-water in the river for neighbouring communities and the river’s own ecosystem. The US city of Montecito moved to rationing in 2014, with a moratorium on new water permits, a ban on draining and refilling pools, strict limits on outdoor watering, and penalties imposed for violations. Usage fell by 48% compared with the preceding year, in a triumph for demand management.
The authorities of Cape Town, South Africa, took similar steps in 2018, when after three years of poor rainfall, the city announced that drastic action was needed to avoid running out. A host of water-saving measures were implemented, with households restricted to 50 litres per day, businesses encouraged to support the move, and social media being used to share data and encourage public compliance. The water pressure was also reduced, which in turn led to fewer leaks. Activities such as washing cars, watering lawns, and filling pools were simply banned. These swift actions plus the eventual arrival of rains averted disaster, but it is likely to happen again unless the underlying issues of lower rainfall, local geology and high water usage change for the long term.
Several EU studies indicate that climate change is reducing soil moisture in important grain-growing regions in Europe, and that droughts are likely to become more frequent in the foreseeable future. Across Europe drought conditions in April 2020 reached from Northern France all the way across Central and Northern Europe to the borderlands of Russia. In France, wheat and barley crops are suffering from the driest soil conditions in five years. Europe’s other big grain producers, such as Romania and Ukraine, say that water reserves are at high risk levels across the entire country. The planting of mono crops that demand high water input is being increasingly challenged. But water remains largely controlled by the government and its consultative bodies, the latter of which often give input but can be ignored and do not form policy. A more local response to the use of resources could ensure that people who live and work where these resources are located might be best placed to steward them, provided this is done under principles of community benefit that do not reduce benefits for communities elsewhere.
Strong local support, the structure of the parliament and certain elements of the Indian justice system made the Arvari case viable and successful. India’s system of local democracy – Panchayati Raj – also made a difference. The 73rd amendment of the Constitution of India (1993) empowered local rural governments as constitutional entities with powers in certain prescribed areas, initiating a new chapter in the process of democratic decentralisation in India. This framework that enables decisions to be taken locally has set a precedent for communities to take up issues more vocally in the hope of actual change. The river parliament currently consists of 162 members representing every village from within the basin area of the Arvari River. It meets every six months with the aim of understanding and taking care of the river by planning water usage and agreeing any related issues unanimously. In carrying out this role, it has already prevented the inappropriate construction of a brewery and a five-star hotel in the valley, thanks also to fundraising for litigation locally and the existing Indian system of government-funded Public Interest Litigation.
Under this process, any person or group of persons can send a public interest application to the state High Court or the Supreme Court of India. If the court feels that the issue is of significant public interest, it appoints lawyers who take up the case and applicants do not have to pay. This makes an enormous difference to poorer communities who may normally not even consider going to court. In fact, the situation is similar in many countries of the global North, where few communities consider legal action – or would even know how to go about organising such a thing – because of the prohibitive cost and the lack of community-led power structures.
Although the parliament started as a predominantly male body, it has made efforts to become more representative of its community, including more landless people and more women. It has also shown itself to be adept at resolving thorny issues about land and water use: for example, they have developed an innovative and sustainable solution to the issue of individual families wanting to grow crops that need more water, such as sugar cane to make sweets for festivals and personal enjoyment.
The ‘compensatory agricultural crop pattern’ supports local indigenous crops, which use less water, but where farmers wish to grow small amounts of water-hungry crops for their own use, the parliament takes into consideration the efforts of these farmers in the overall conservation of water, soil and the surrounding forests. It is recognised that if farmers are able to conserve natural resources in an effective way, then they also have a right to the sustainable use of these resources. Under this system, a farmer may grow a water intensive crop like sugar cane for domestic use on some of his or her agricultural land, in exchange for growing less water-consuming crops like mung bean (gram) on the remaining land. This was unanimously agreed upon in the parliament and is now part of their working practice.
The important principle here is that there is genuine decision-making taking place locally, using lengthy discussion to determine a way forward that is supported by everyone. This takes time and energy but has yielded a successful outcome for all. The practice provides broader lessons, as rivers cross every country around the world, and link communities together. As water resources become increasingly precious to humanity, management by local people for the benefit of all seems like a secure and resilient method.