[permaculture] Water Johads: A Low-Tech Alternative to Mega-Dams in India

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Mon Jul 20 07:06:26 EDT 2015

NO TECH MAGAZINE <http://www.notechmagazine.com/>
Water Johads: A Low-Tech Alternative to Mega-Dams in India

Water Johads: A Low-Tech Alternative to Mega-Dams in India

[image: water johad india]

When the British colonized India, they imposed their own system of water
management, which included the building of large-scale dams, sewers, and
irrigation channels. This high-tech approach continues today, as the World
Bank is urging India to build enormous dam projects to fight drought and
depleted aquifers. The Indian government has followed its advice. Its first
Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called dams the “Temples of modern
India”. Since then, India has built over 5,000 dams and large reservoirs.

However, before the British arrived, people on the subcontinent used
traditional low-cost, low-tech engineering to collect rainwater for
thousands of years. This involved the placement of thousands of small
structures throughout rural areas which, in one way or another, catch
excess rainwater from the monsoon months and allow it to slowly percolate
into the groundwater during the dry season. To maintain and manage these
structures, community-based management schemes were necessary. However,
these were actively discouraged during British rule and following
independence. As a result, in the 20th century many of these small
reservoirs fell into disrepair.

In the 1980s, the Alwar district in the North-Western state of Rajasthan
was one of the driest in all of India, even though older villagers
remembered that its rivers used to flow in the past. Many farmers were
migrating to the cities, as there was no longer any means of subsistence
from the land. In 1985, Rajendra Singh—now known as the ‘Water Man of
Rajasthan’—arrived in the area and started encouraging villagers to rebuild
their old water reservoirs, or water johads. When the villagers had
constructed 375 johads, the river began to flow after having been dry for
several decades. [2]

By 2003, Singh, through the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh, had helped with the
construction of over 5,000 johads and the rejuvenation of 2,500 old
reservoirs, providing irrigation water to 140,000 ha. and 700,000 people.
[3, 5] In 2015, 8,600 johads had been built, bringing water back to 1,000
villages. [4] The johads are incredibly cheap and productive—at 100 rupees
per capita, they can raise economic production by as much as 400 rupees per
year. Compare this to nearby Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which cost 300
billion rupees, and cost 100 times more per person supplied with water, and
340 times more per hectare irrigated. [3]
[image: water johad drawing]

The design of water johads. Source: Anupma Sharma, National Institute of

And yet water johads are extremely simple and low-cost structures that
require no large equipment or expensive materials to build—simply a village
of able hands and local elements. After digging a pit, the villagers shape
the excavated earth into a semicircular mud barrier. A stone drain is
sometimes set up, allowing excess water to seep into the ground, or
connecting it with johads nearby. Essentially the johad will capture runoff
from monsoon floods and allow it to slowly percolate into the water table
during the dry months. When many johads are built in one area, they have a
cumulative effect, resulting in the replenishment of whole aquifers. [5] In
addition, it has been shown that the water stored in the aquifers does not
draw away water from communities downstream. [6]

It’s important to note that water johads are place-specific technologies
and cannot necessarily be replicated to other geographical locations or
climates. They require steady sloping land—where each johad can feed water
into another downstream—and a rainy season, where floods can fill up the
reservoirs during the dry months.

In addition, constructing and maintaining thousands of water reservoirs
also required new forms of resource management. Since the government
refused to participate with the johad construction efforts, or recognize
that they were effective—its policies remain tied to the development
narrative. Villagers decided to take matters in their own hands and
organize their own water management councils, which have now expanded to
managing forests and parks through participatory and democratic methods.
The result is what some have claimed a miracle: bringing water back to a
water-scarce and impoverished area.
Building Community

An engineer might look at a johad and claim that it is far too simple a
technology—there is no innovation here, let alone a miracle. This is true:
similar technologies exist all over the world. In Mediterranean countries,
for example, rain water catchments were built over a thousand years ago and
continue to provide water to farmers during dry seasons. Rajendra Singh
attributes the success of the johads to the fact that the technology
encourages people to work together, building community while addressing
essential needs. This is in strong opposition to the large government-built
dams, which have displaced millions of people in India and, on average,
have increased poverty. [5]

So, perhaps the key innovation with the johads is that rather than relying
on engineering expertise or governmental action, villagers have constructed
the johads themselves through traditional methods and community
participation. The result is the revival of a low-tech tradition that is
far more cost-effective than high-tech dams could ever be.

Aaron Vansintjan


[1] International Commission on Large Dams

[2] The Water Man of Rajasthan
Frontline. Sebastian, Sunny, 2001.

[3] Water-harvesting in India transforms lives
Alternet. McCully, Patrick. 2003

[4] An ancient technology is helping India’s “water man” save thousands of
parched villages
Ghoshal, Devjyot. 2015.

[5]. Water Harvesting: Alwar, Rajasthran. National Institute of Hydrology
(Roorkee, India). Sharma, Anupma.

[6]. Traditional Water Harvesting Structure: Community behind ‘Community’.
Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 41, No. 7, pp. 596-598. Kashwan,
Prakash, 2006.

[7]. “Dams,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, MIT Press, vol.
122(2), pages 601-646, 05. Esther Duflo & Rohini Pande, 2007.

Related: Madakas
June 17, 2015 Filed Under: Civil engineering
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/civil-engineering>, Desertification
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/desertification>, Farming
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/farming>, Food
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/food>, Irrigation
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/irrigation>, Low-tech solutions
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/low-tech-solutions>, Water
<http://www.notechmagazine.com/category/water>, Water management

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