Rajendra Singh won the last year’s Stockholm Water Prize for his 30 years’ of work in water conservation. Philip Franses presents here the essence of his acceptance speech at Stockholm.
I am addressing you as Stockholm Water Prize Laureate 2015, as a representative of the many communities and villages who have worked with me and my organisation, Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), to revive seven rivers in India. My message is both a celebration of what we have achieved in 30 years of water work and also a recommendation to adopt such work as a solution for floods and droughts across the world.
On finishing medicine school 35 years ago in India, I went to a village with the idea of putting my knowledge into practice and treating sick people. But after working for a time in a remote village of Rajasthan, I found no one wanted my ideas on health. I asked an old man what was wrong – why the villagers did not accept me. He looked at me quite challengingly and said: “Can you not see? Our problem is not medicine and food. These are things we can get in the shops if we have the money. Our problem is that there is no water in the landscape.” “But how can I help you? I’m only a doctor, not an engineer,” I replied.
“Come with me tomorrow morning, bring a spade and I will show you how you can help,” he said.
The old man instructed me in the traditional wisdom of building structures to hold water. When the monsoons came, the water flowed down from the hills. In the olden days this water had been caught in small check dams called johads. This rainwater in the johads then soaked into the underground aquifer, to be accessible to the rivers and wells in the dry season. But 80 years ago, the deforestation, the mining and the promise of water in pipes had meant that these old structures that conserved water had fallen into ruin. The old man gave me a three-day PhD in the wisdom of traditional water management.
Then started a different type of education.
For four years we worked on building johads in the landscape. Seeing my determination, the community gradually joined me. With nothing to keep us going except our own faith and a memory of the traditional wisdom, we built the structures. And the johads worked! When the rains came, the water collected in the johads, the aquifer levels went up, and the rivers that had been dry now flowed with clean and pure water! Water returned to the wells. Once all the structures were in place the rivers became perennial. Prosperity returned to the region.
The news of this success soon spread. Young people who had left for the cities returned to the villages to take up agriculture again. The nearby national park was re-established and populated with tigers and other wildlife. Water schools were set up. The community took ownership of the rivers and looked after them by setting up river parliaments. A simple understanding and a lot of action turned drought into greenery and made dry river beds flow with water again.
What a journey this was! Slowly thousands of people joined me and Tarun Bharat Sangh, and together we have built over 11,000 such rainwater-harvesting structures. I also want to acknowledge the help of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) in this work. TBS paid fees to the community, who committed their labour to build the dams. The seven rivers that had been dry earlier are now flowing the whole year again and are rejuvenated. Water availability in the villages has resulted in abandoned villages becoming resettled, barren earth becoming green, an increase in biodiversity and a change in the climate of that region, with increased rainfall.
Now, 30 years later, I feel myself a representative of that traditional wisdom around water. Much of my advice to the world at this moment would be similar to the advice I received as a young man looking for something noble to do. At that time the problem in the region was lack of water. The old villager had taught me how to resolve that water scarcity by collaborating with Nature. I am sharing with you the same simple knowledge about working with the landscape to return water to the aquifers. The problem in the world today, as in my village 35 years ago, is still water. The way to resolve this problem is still by working in collaboration with Nature.
I know, as everyone knows, that our planet is one. But what makes it one is water. My community has made a great change to the face of the earth. It has made a barren land green. Displaced people have come back to their native land. The river is flowing. We can make these types of change everywhere across the planet.
Recently I have been developing a worldwide strategy with The Flow Partnership, whom I call affectionately my Flow Family. What if we had in place a three-day PhD for the world, so that every community had access to the knowledge, tools, wisdom and finance to look after their own water resources? Can we implement a strategy that would be applicable to every water-stressed region in the world, to give back to the communities the know-how and responsibility to restore the natural water-holding capacity within their landscapes? The answer is YES. In São Paolo and in California, in India and in China, in the Middle East and in Africa, we could come tomorrow with a spade and begin work to restore the healthy flow of water in all these regions and reduce their water stress!
I was trained as an Ayurvedic doctor for people. Ayurveda teaches us that prevention is better than treatment. People should have the capacity to lead healthy lives and not fall ill in the first place! The same is true of Nature. Prevention is better than treatment.
Now, as the World Water Ayurvedic Doctor, my diagnosis is this: when we look after water at the source, and collect it upstream in the hills where the rain falls, then the flow in the rivers is restored. Moreover, in times of heavy rain the rate of flow decreases and the downstream towns and settlements remain clear of floods. The same expertise of holding the water in the landscape also addresses floods! Such measures have already been trialed successfully around the world.
In England and Slovakia, my Flow Partnership colleagues have been achieving successes with regard to increasing the capacity within the landscape to hold the excess water in times of heavy rainfall. Billions upon billions of dollars, along with the untold heartache of dealing with the devastation of flood and drought consequences, can be avoided by adopting these simple and successful measures.
I have just returned from England, where I led the first World Water Peace Walk from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to the village of Belford. Paul Collins, the vicar of Lindisfarne Priory, ceremoniously filled a vessel with water and blessed both our walk and our longer journey to replace water wars with water peace, adding this prayer:
Lead us from death to life
From falsehood to truth
From fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love.
Lead us from war to peace
Let peace fill our hearts, our world,
Peace, peace, peace.
Belford is a small village that used to flood regularly. The community and local government came together to build small structures upstream, just like our johads in India. And for the last few years, despite the worst floods on record around the UK, the village has remained free from floods, and everyone in the village is happy.
This Water Walk brought together people from across the world to discuss how we can develop a global strategy to tackle water stress with local action. In the spirit of that Water Walk, I come before you and ask that you join us in our journey towards a world learning to live in harmony and peace with Nature again! We are planning these Water Walks in every continent in the next five years.
By rejuvenating seven rivers in India, we have made that region free from floods and droughts. Such work is needed in the whole world. To do this, the Flow Family wants to bring everyone together. India to Asia to Europe – we are now beginning to meet. In such a way instead of globalisation, the whole world is one family. We focus on a global Nature and human family – this is the work.
Thank you very much for the honour you have given in allowing me to present the experience of my villagers and myself on a global stage. We can come together with one vision, the global restoration of healthy flow in our landscapes!
My 30 years have taken me from digging with a spade, creating a johad in the landscape, to now looking at creating a johad in the minds and hearts of the decision makers. Now the people I work with, students, teachers and my communities, know the planet as one and respect the need for conservation and a disciplined use of water. This action is starting all over the planet. Please join us!
Earthlinks UK and The Flow Partnership
Earthlinks UK, a registered charity based in Devon, has been active in many ventures since 2008. It has been the publisher of Holistic Science Journal since 2010, and since 2012, through its flagship project, The Flow Partnership, it has been resolving global water crises through natural catchment management.
The Flow Partnership is a global network and collaboration of local partners committed to developing healthier river catchments as a way of dealing with the increasing threat of floods, droughts, soil erosion and habitat loss, at their source.
The partnership facilitates cross-platform collaborations between government, business, financiers, scientists, landowners and local communities to implement these simple, low-cost landscape interventions as part of an informed, catchmentbased strategy to ease desertification and flooding worldwide. As a part of this holistic strategy, The Flow Partnership is also developing financial mechanisms that could help deliver the necessary funds to communities, business and government to implement this catchment work.