The interlinks of water to almost everything in the world makes it a complex subject. That is why it is all the more important for us to understand as it is essential for our survival and the sustainability of our planet.
Forest, grassland and wetland ecosystems are a critical part of the global water cycle. Thus, when ecosystems continue to function in a healthy way, the fresh water cycle is not disturbed. To ensure future sustenance of the water cycle, it is important to recognise it as a biophysical process and accordingly engage in sustainable water management practices.
However, in depth knowing and understanding comes from observing biophysical phenomenons that are experienced first-hand. Indigenous communities’ historical ties to specific territories and way of life are rooted in their local environment, rendering deep knowledge of natural resources including water. Collectivisation and grassroot democratic processes are at the heart of their complex water harvesting and conservation management systems, developing strong conflict resolution mechanisms parallelly.
Their connections to the natural world go beyond the physical elements, imbibing spirituality at the core of their knowledge systems and practices. Water, seen as a sentient being, is harvested and conserved to balance immediate and future needs of not just people but of plants, animals and even spirits.
The reason why we still have water despite the current crisis, is because of these value-based knowledge systems that have been passed on for generations amongst these communities. However, the crisis worsens when these communities are deprived of their rights to access and govern these resources.
In India, the process of disempowering indigenous communities began with colonisation and continues till date with the current administration. There are landmark laws in India like the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) and The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas 1996 (PESA) which rectifies the historical injustice communities were subjected to by restoring their rights to access, use, govern and take part in decision making processes relating to their forests. However, there is much reluctance and hesitation from the Forest Department – the body setup by the British administration to own and govern all the forests and its natural resources (including water and wildlife)- to implement these laws.
This lack of ownership and autonomy in governing natural resources, most often breaks the cycle of traditional knowledge systems as seen in the case in an Adivasi (Tribal) village in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR), in Tamil Nadu, India. The NBR was declared the first biosphere reserve in India in 1986 by UNESCO. Biospheres recognize and emphasize the cultural and spiritual bonds communities share with their local environment-exemplifying that people are very much a part of nature and it is important to include them in conservation decisions.
Within the Biosphere Reserve is the Nilgiris district which spans across 130 km in width and 185 km in length, approximately, covering a geographical area of 2,465 sq. km. Prior to the British era, the Nilgiris district was home to Adivasi communities such as the Kotas, Todas, Irulas and others. They had customary rules and practices around natural resource management that were based on traditional knowledge systems that sustained their life and livelihoods, without causing any damage to the ecosystem at large. But with the opening of the region during the British era, many other communities migrated up to the hills, marginalising the Adivasi communities, altering the environment as resources were commodified, shifting ownership regimes from the communities to the State and private entities. What was once grasslands and native shola forests, are now tea, eucalyptus and wattle plantations. This shift from a diverse grassland-shola mosaic ecosystem to monocrop plantations, not only affected the biodiversity and groundwater, it also altered the relationship between Adivasi communities and their environment. Moreover, the Nilgiris forming part of the Western Ghats of India used to receive more than six to seven months of rainfall due to the south-west and the north-east monsoon winds. But now, because of the change in climatic conditions, rainfall has become erratic, overall affecting the availability of water.
In Aracode – a predominantly Irula settlement situated at mid elevation (between 1000 -1800m) of the Nilgiris district – the people have a special relationship with water sources such as streams, springs and wetlands. There is a spiritual connect with water and the source of a spring is considered sacred, where women are forbidden because of menstrual taboos. The Irula community are intrinsically linked to wetlands as these areas served as traditional hunting grounds.
Gujjan, a farmer from Bangalapadigai – a Irula hamlet (40 households with 180 people) situated close to the the evergreen forests in Aracode Panchayat, Kotagiri Taluk – says, “We have been performing rituals around water sources as part of our traditional festivities. This has been passed on for generations.” He believes that this is precisely why the streams do not dry up, even in summer. “If we don’t practise these rituals, we will not get any water. As part of these rituals, we also practise agriculture and make some food offerings to give to everyone to eat” he adds. The practice of mindfulness and preservation of water by the community also ensures that the families in the villages are taken care of. According to him the people use the water to wash their clothes as well as for their livestock to drink. Apart from people, there is also enough for wildlife to use. Gujjan says he has witnessed elephants coming to drink water from the source – especially at night, after eating food from the forest. He believes that the best thing to do to improve access to water sources for the elephant is to not disturb the animal. “We share the forest with wild animals, so the water and other resources are not just for us but for them as well” he adds.
Kamala, a village elder from the same village-Bangalapadigai- says, “Earlier, because of good rainfall and abundance of native plants, we never used to see any wildlife near our houses. Now, we see wildlife-especially elephants – quite frequently, coming out of the forest in search of food and water.” She believes that invasive plants have taken over the forests, reducing food availability and restricting access to water sources for wildlife. “If they have no food and water in the forest, we cannot chase them away when they come searching for sources because they too are beings of the earth and need to survive”, Kamala says.
In Bangalapadigai, two springs and a well are the main sources of water with a non operational borewell dug by the government subsequently. The motor of the well was not functioning for more than a year and the people of the village had repeatedly asked the local governing body (Panchayat) to repair it. When there was no action taken by the Panchayat, the community decided to act collectively by fixing the motor on their own. They also started to clean the well, making the water potable. A few feet from the well was the Pulimavakare spring, or Olai baavi. An old folk tale around this name is that centuries ago, a granddaughter and her grandmother saw a tiger sitting under the mango tree near the pond from which they went to fetch water, earning the name Pulimaava baavi (Puli means Tiger and Baavi means open well). At the base of the tree is a hole in the ground from where the spring emerged. A slab had been built for people to wash their clothes next to the spring and well. And the area around the spring was where elephants and other wildlife used to come and drink water from, leaving it in a muddy mess. This was a result of a blocked check dam that was built below for wildlife to drink water. When investigated, it was found that the blockage was caused by a villager who was farming close to the check dam. This caused increased human elephant interaction – especially with the women who came to wash clothes.
To prevent conflict and improve water access for wildlife, the community cleared the path to the check dam by removing invasive plants, and planted native species such as common rush – a wetland grass species – to purify the runoff water discharged from washing clothes. To keep the source clean, they also constructed a spring box with stones and fenced off the area around the spring.
Traditionally, these communities had their own way of preserving water by digging percolation pits in the ground, but now due to government interventions, people in Bangalapadigai are using water from wells that pump up water using motors. These kinds of interventions of providing water by the Panchayat and Government have eroded traditional water harvesting practices, affecting the communities’ connections with water. Furthermore, the increase in size of settlements and growing demands for water in the Nilgiris has rendered a disconnect between the people and resource base, as seen in larger towns, peri-urban and urban areas. To meet this demand, there is a growing market for water tankers or bottled water leading to mining of water resources. This coupled with reduced efforts to harvest water and unpredictable rainfall has accelerated unsustainable water management practices, further stressing the resource. However, the communities are finding ways to address challenges that arise from these interventions through collectivisation, active participation and democratisation.
According to Kannan from Garikiyoor – another Irula hamlet in Aracode – the government has constructed small tanks that are connected to pipelines that provide water to each household. However, he says that the village does face water scarcity during summer seasons and the government hasn’t done much to increase the water quantity. As the need arose, the community decided to form a committee to address water scarcity in the village and have regular discussions around ways in which they can improve the flow of water. They have collectively decided to work with the Forest Department to remove invasive shrubs and restore native grasses around the spring to improve water quality and quantity as well as reduce soil erosion. Additionally, the committee also looks at all aspects of water conservation such as fixing broken pipelines, storage related issues, and when water levels are low, they regulate each one’s usage by locking the tank and opening it for a few hours twice a day. “The water flows into the tank and is stored for use. When it fills up, one person from one household will decide when the tank must be opened for everyone to use. After the community uses it, the tank gets locked again. The next day, when the tank is filled again, another person from another household will open it for the community to use. Again, that person decides how much can be used based on the amount accumulated in the tank. To prevent conflict, the designated person from each household makes the decision on their own. This has been going on for the last month as we have faced water scarcity” explains Kannan.
The ownership of water preservation and conservation is not only for indigenous and rural communities, but also for all of us who live in larger towns and cities. It is in fact us who consume more than needed, simply because we seldom witness the element of scarcity as our taps always provide more than enough water. We are so used to the tap water phenomenon that it is very rare that one actually questions where the source of water is and what is its current state of depletion. It also suits governments when citizens do not question the state of our natural resources as there are many social and ecological costs hidden in the supply of water. Despite the constant flow of water from our taps, it will go a long way if we are a bit more mindful about our water consumption so that others get a chance to access clean water. After all, we live on a planet where 771 million people lack access to safe water, 1.7 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and every 2 minutes a child dies from a water-related disease. We can address some of these issues just by fixing leaking taps, harvesting rainwater, having bucket baths, re-using water whenever possible and using bio cleaners instead of chemical ones. Furthermore, just coming together as a community to participate in lake/streams/river clean ups as well as having regular discussions about water related issues, can lead to more democratised water management practices. These small steps can help us be part of the solution to improve universal access to basic sanitation and water, and prevent deaths alone which can result in $18.5 billion economic benefits each year.
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