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Indian history is 'replete with knowledge' on wise water conservation, management

By Monami Bhattacharya, Proshakha Maitra, Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

With the increasing pollution and over exploitation of natural resources in the modern times, there is a genuine urge to find our ways back to the roots. While the awareness about tribal/indigenous community efforts of natural resources conservation and management is slowly gaining ground, few actions are also undertaken across the country in order to preserve the traditional knowledge and wisdom that lasted for centuries.
Focusing on water here, traditional knowledge and wisdom sets a crucial guide in getting modern adaptation of the water resources conservation and management. This argument laid the basis of the conversation on, ‘Socio-cultural Placemaking and Intangible Heritage’ as part of the ‘Riverscape’ series in the Wednesdays for Water conversations toward water conservation.
The Riverscape series is initiated by the ICOMOS India (Council on Monuments and Sites) in collaboration with the WforW Foundation. The conversation was hosted by the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technical University Lucknow on March 15, 2023. The session speakers were, Dr. Deepak Acharya, Dr. Vandana Sehgal, and Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava and was moderated by Dr. Ritu Gulati. Architect Nishant Upadhyaya, central zone (UP and MP) representative & executive committee member of ICOMOS India conceptualized the session and the series. 

Traditional knowledge on community based natural resource management

The traditional knowledge and wisdom of communities form the basis for adequate management of natural resources. Efforts are being made to document the traditional knowledge practices of the tribals in some parts of the country. For example, Deepak has been documenting ethnobotanical knowledge of tribals of Central and Western India for more than 18 years.
An interesting case study from that is about a serene valley where the outreach of the modern world has not reached its fringes and hence the natural biota of the area is still maintained by the tribal people. The occupation and lifestyle in general in the area is deemed better than the outside world where modernization has jeopardized a lot of things. For the tribals, water in the form of lakes, ponds, rivers, water channels etc. indeed remain central to their lives and livelihoods. This can be observed from historical times when civilization developed near rivers.
For example, in the course of the river Narmada several tribal communities’ such as Bhil and others dwell on its banks. These communities are culturally very rich who pay high importance to water. 
The region is also highly rich in floral and faunal diversity. While following the course of the river it can be observed how the diversity changes and each holds a significant cultural value amongst the dwelling tribal communities. The evidence of dependence of the tribal communities on the river since the historical times is even found in the form of fossils.
Another example from Rajasthan, where the Mahi River is called the ‘Ganga of the tribals’. It is holy, and forms an integral part of the culture of the tribals. All cultural activities are surrounded in and around the river. Then, the example of the banks of the Poorna River in Gujarat, where dense bamboo forests stand. Here, when a baby is born the water of the river by the bamboo forest is collected and used for all the religious and cultural ceremonies.
It was also found that owing to the natural herbal remedies available in the area, the natives have never been affected by cancer. After discussions with the tribals it was found that they adopt a traditional method of distilling the river water and use the traditionally made herbal medicines to keep themselves healthy.
The traditional knowledge derived from such tribal communities not only project healthy lives and happy livelihoods, but goes a step further to promote sustainable management of natural resources like water. Their lives and livelihoods have clues to address the modern world issues of scarcity of water by adopting simple traditional methods which in the modern concept can be considered as smart.
Studying about the traditional knowledge require, alongside theoretical knowledge, a lot of practical exposure in terms of establishing dialogues with the tribal communities. Such studies are challenging and time consuming, one needs to blend in with them in all aspects for true learning to happen.

Cogent knowledge on traditional water conservation and management

Indian history clearly points out the presence of wise water conservation and management. Since floods and droughts were common occurrences of the tropical landscape, different geographies and cultures of the country had over the time developed their own traditional methods for harvesting, using, and managing water. The practice of water conservation has a long history in Indian science and any plan to address India's water issue must include water conservation as a fundamental component.
Historic evidence also points out that water as prime mover of ancient civilizations, a clear understanding of hydrologic cycle, nature, and patterns of its various components along with water uses led the civilizations to flourish for thousands of years. Then, extreme climate impact leading to water crisis led to the end of the civilizations in the past for example, the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization.
Water scarcity, though not realized by many (especially upper-middle class), is a real problem of the current times. Both the quantity and the quality of surface water and groundwater are under tremendous strain due to water pollution and extinction of lakes and rivers under the pressure of growing urbanization, and climate change. Much of the climate crisis is manifested through water crisis.
Much of the water crisis of flood, drought and asymmetric access to safe water are manufactured and manipulated by the elites and result of poor water governance. The poor water governance leads to over-extraction of groundwater and discharge of polluted wastewater into the lakes and rivers. Water crisis is also a gender crisis and a patriarchal problem.
While in most societies, women bear most of the brunt of the water crisis, it is the men who are taking decisions on water matters. Adding all these, it is important to analyze and find out whether the current civilization is also inching towards extinction due to water crisis.
To address the growing issue of deteriorating water resources and increasing water crisis, it is important to inspect the missing pedagogy of water in the current mainstream water education and figure out ways to add it to the main curriculum. The Schools of Architecture and Planning is one of the crucial areas where this must be introduced. Since, these disciplines have the responsibility of planning and designing the built environment alias the modern cities through buildings and infrastructures, the key areas where water concerns need to be considered.
These disciplines need to teach and learn the significance of water on human life beyond the aesthetics. The long-recognized importance of water finds several mentions in the old historical and religious Indian scriptures. This has been acknowledged by all cultures and religions in their own ways. For example, Hinduism considers the importance of water in physical and spiritual wellbeing by achieving purity.
Water(body) is a sacred place as believed to hold purifying and cleansing powers. In the Islamic scripture of Quran, water symbolizes wisdom. It recognizes water as part of life; that we are made up of, live, breathe and consume. To know this is a conscious awareness of the self. In the Christianity, Bible links water to the ritual of Baptism, where a follower professes his/her faith by bathing in ‘holy water’. It symbolizes rebirth and purity.
In Buddhism, water is considered as a life giver. Water symbolizes purity, clarity and calmness. It considers path to enlightenment includes a diligent cleansing of body, mind and spirit. In Sikhism’s Guru Granth Sahib, God is equated with water, land, sea and pool, thereby signifying the strong divine connect. In almost all scriptures, the universe is considered to be formed through the five elements of nature, i.e., water, fire, air, earth and sky.
Various ancient scholars and spiritual leaders across the world have highlighted the use, misuse, and abuse of water to alert the society about the scarce and precious resource. For example, Kabir wrote, बहता पानी निर्मला , बाँधा गंदा होय। साधू जग रमता भला , दाग न लागे कोय ॥ Raheem wrote, रहिमन पानी राखिये , बिन पानी सब सून । पानी गए न ऊबरे , मोती मानुस चून ॥


One thing is managing resource/water and another thing is managing the knowledge of it. Both are crucial but the former is dependent on the latter, hence there is a need for practice induced education as well as education induced practice. A cogent knowledge and ideas of water conservation and management come from the ancient past which is inherited by only few surviving indigenous communities. Ancient knowledge and wisdom on water (supply-demand-services) and water resources management was intertwined-integrated which were given ritualistic meanings. 
Those must be learned, understood and adapted should we wish to advance into a future where the water worries are minimized. Present day literature and management needs a pedagogy and practice of integration between disciplines, sectors, regions, and beliefs. That, water management is people management has to come out clear in the modern water governance approach. That, while we are concerned about water we should also celebrate and communicate water amongst all.
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, and Garbhit Naik (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at and WforW Foundation is reachable at and The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
*Monami Bhattacharya and Proshakha Maitra are Independent Scholars and Fellows at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Mansee Bal Bhargava is Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants, EDC, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation.,



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