Stating that he was not against construction of big dams and canal networks for irrigation, Rajendra Singh, popularly known as India’s “Waterman” and winner of Stockholm Water Prize in 2015, said that drought-prone states like Gujarat should concentrate on building check-dams rather than look at temporary river rejuvenation solutions like filling Sabarmati with waters of Narmada.
“I am aware that Gujarat has a huge Narmada river canal system. However, in places where such centralised canal irrigation systems have evolved in our country, they have failed to become sustainable irrigation models,” Singh told The Indian Express on the sidelines of a Rotary Club event organised at the Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA).
“When you take water from one place and pour it in another place, like it was done in Rajasthan using the Indira Gandhi canal (popularly known as the Rajashtan canal that ferries water from Harike Barrage in Punjab to the Thar Desert), the adverse implications should not be forgotten,” Singh said while narrating some instances of how local farmers had to battle increased salinity and waterlogging in some areas.
Talking about Gujarat’s attempt to rejuvenate Sabarmati river with water from the Narmada, the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay award winner sounded critical. “On a temporary basis, just to showcase the project, you can say that Narmada waters have been used to bring a dead Sabarmati to life. But, it is nothing but a temporary visual model. It is not at all a sustainable model,” said the water conservationist who brought water to 1200 villages in Rajasthan by reviving seven rivers like Arvari, Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani, Jahajwali, Sabi and Maheshwara.
“The real model lies in recharging the base flow of the Sabarmati. The base flow of the river can be increased by recharging the upper reaches of the river,” said Singh who built over 11,000 structures on the rivers in Rajasthan that harvested rainwater. His work involved building low-level banks of earth that hold back the flow of water during monsoon and allows water to seep into the ground for future use.
“There is no dam in this world that can conserve so much water, as we have managed to by constructing 11,000 structures. Instead of one dam, I created 11,000 structures. I am not saying, do not build big dams or canal systems. Whatever provision for water conservation is made, it has to be done by respecting the geo-cultural diversity and the agro-ecological-climatic zone diversity,” he said suggesting that Gujarat should also fall back on the project of building check dams that it initiated 15 years ago.
“About 15 years ago, Gujarat has done a lot of good work in Saurashtra by building check-dams that were community driven and decentralised. But this work was not continued. Today, these check-dams have become silted and needs to be revived,” he said.
“Today, the state government has taken over irrigation projects. But, I feel that Gujarat’s community can become vibrant in the real sense if people starts building water harvesting structures (as was done in Rajasthan). By doing so, there will be a sense of ownership, sense of belonging and control over management,” Singh remarked.
He also felt that Gujarat needed to develop an efficient water management system wherein waters of the river Narmada is used only for drinking purpose and the only treated waste water is used for agricultural purpose.
Talking about preserving rivers in India, Singh said that state and central governments should employ “conservation and protection technologies” instead of the present “water extraction technology”.