Learning from Water Conservation in Indian Culture


Author – Shashank Singh

The nature of water itself is soulful. It is evident in the way it starts its journey from the sky, flowing down from mountains, making paths to flow through ripened green fields, eventually trickling through the soil, enriching civilizations on its way and finally flowing into the sea to start its journey once again.

Indian religious ceremonies often involve water in some kind of ritual around the village well, pond or river. It is also a common practice to make daily offerings of water to the deity of the village temple from the village pond.

Ages ago, people of India practiced rainwater harvesting traditions and water conservation as not merely a solution to solve water scarcity, but as ‘punya’, a religious vow. In Rajasthan, constructing a pond is still considered as ‘Punya’ and people try to contribute or volunteer as much as they can. They believe that a contribution towards building a pond is as good as earning blessings for 2-3 generations, which actually indicates the wisdom of offering water resources to the future generations and securing their future.

Religious rituals of water

traditional water conservation methods in india
Traditional ways of harvesting water in Bawadi step wells

During the rainy season of ‘saavan’, or monsoon months in north India, devotees of Lord Shiva carry water from the river Ganga and walk to consecrate the Jyotirlinga, as a tribute to the devotional representation of Shiva. Similarly, the Chhatth festival in Bihar is celebrated on the river banks. It involves offering prasad, fruits & water for the setting or rising Sun god in order to thank him for granting life on earth.

Adhvaryu Sookt of Rigveda explains the 10 responsibilities of nation-building, in which the second priority is given to rainwater harvesting. It would be difficult to define Indian culture without water. Historically, India was a water-abundant country, but it is now facing a serious water crisis, while water conservation is entwined in Indian culture. Hardly any summer passes without news of water scarcity in rural and urban regions.

Politicians and governments promise to resolve water scarcity. They take up huge dam projects, diversion projects, and controversial plans to interlink the major rivers in India, which are widely criticized for displacing villagers, wreaking havoc on wildlife, and pushing India further into debt.

Water-related conflicts and violence are increasing each day between different religious groups, regions, urban and rural areas, and border-sharing states and countries. We are well aware of the conflicts between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery River, the conflict between India and Pakistan over the waters of Sindhu river; and the historical agitation between India and Bangladesh over Teesta.

Rainwater vs. groundwater resources

Villagers volunteering to restore the dried up pond in Chota Narena in Ajmer, Rajasthan

Traditionally in Indian culture, we have always focused on rainwater sources (Paaler paani) like rivers, pond, wells,, etc. With the onset of modern technology, we can now access groundwater (Paatal paani), which is deep inside the ground. One must try to utilize the first one, and groundwater should be used during harsh summers or droughts. Ironically, our present society is doing just the opposite; we mostly use groundwater because either we have almost exploited other sources of water and have forgotten the practice of conserving rainwater!

The dire facts about groundwater are absolutely alarming. Groundwater irrigation has been expanding at a rapid pace across India since the 1970s and now accounts for over 60% of the total area irrigated in the country. About 85% of the rural drinking water supply is being met from groundwater sources.

According to Indian Agricultural Statistics, the most significant change in the groundwater scenario in India is that the share of borewell irrigation went up from a mere 1% during 1960-61 to 60% by 2006-07. The estimated number of wells and bore wells in India is now around 27 million, with bore wells accounting for more than 50%.

Cultural solutions to water shortage

Restored pond in Chota Narena village in Ajmer, Rajasthan

Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) is now acknowledged as the best solution to our problems of water scarcity, depleting groundwater table, dried wells, drinking water problems, all over the country. It is not a new tradition in India, in fact, it has been a major source of irrigation for centuries. Archaeological evidence of building rainwater harvesting tanks date back to around 1500 BC, and references are made in ancient texts.

A study shows evidence of irrigation systems and hydraulic structures that used water harvesting as early as 5,000 years ago in the Indus Valley civilization. During the medieval period, rulers across India financially supported the construction of village-level structures for rainwater harvesting. Now it is being realized that the water sources in urban and rural areas need to be checked and rainwater needs to be harvested as much as possible to secure future needs.

RWH is just about collecting water where ever it falls and if it cannot be collected, then it must be simply let to seep into the ground. Consider the roof catchment of a building, a surface, a road nearby or a field. All that needs to be done is to create a passage for the rainwater to fall and connect it to a well or long drills into the ground. It will quickly recharge the groundwater reserves by percolation. This will certainly show results in 3-4 years by recharging or increasing the groundwater table.

Groundwater recharge through bore well in Sakri, Maharashtra

A simple groundwater recharge through a well in a small house in Sakri, Maharashtra is an easy concept to adopt in our houses, malls, schools and other government buildings. A bore can be also connected very easily to the well. Similarly, there are many other traditional and modern innovative methods of water conservation in Indian culture that have been attempted across the country.

Can you look around and think of anything that may not have used water in its production at any step? That’s how dependent we are on water, which very aptly called the elixir of life. There is still a chance that we can revive and recharge the most precious resource on this planet. Hold that drop before it goes wasted!

Author bio – Shashank Singh is an ex SBI-Youth for India Fellow, formerly associated with the Barefoot College as a water coordinator on water conservation projects. He also did a motorcycle campaign across 9 states of India to promote rainwater harvesting. Currently, he works for GRAM Association for water and forest conservation in Surguja, Chhattisgarh.

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  1. In the Thar Desert, in Rajasthan, is there enough moisture in the air to use air harvesters (cloud harvesters)? Sheets of materials that capture moisture and direct it down into a container.

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for sharing your knowledge about cloud harvesters. Thar desert in Rajasthan has extremely low humidity most of the year. So i dont think this innovation can work, but please check with any expert on this


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