In India, he’s known as the “waterman”. Rajendra Singh, 60 – sat on a cushion in white robes under a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi – really does look like an enlightened guru. The environmentalist and water defender has spent years fighting against the severe water crisis that holds India in its grip, with only 33 per cent of its people having access to safe sanitary facilities. The “waterman of India” won the Magsaysay Award in 2001 and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015, one of the most important accolades for those working to safeguard this resource. Singh runs the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh, founded in 1975 and based in the village of Hori-Bhikampura, in Rajasthan.
The start of Rajendra Singh’s journey
“I didn’t know what water was until my eyes were opened,” Singh recounts during a long Skype interview. “In the 1980s I was a doctor in the city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. I found myself in a village affected by a high rate of night blindness, also known as nyctalopia, which is caused by malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. A man, his name is Mangu Lal Meena, walked up to me and said: ‘These people don’t need your medicines, they don’t need your education. They just needwater. We can’t live here without water‘. Many in the community were refugees without access to water. I told him that I didn’t know anything about water conservation. ‘I can teach you everything in two days’. I ask him why he doesn’t do something for his village himself. ‘The community is divided into two groups, and they don’t listen to me. You’re an authoritative, external voice, so they’ll listen to you’. And that’s how it happened. I learned how to manage water sustainably from that man”.
Singh’s character and temperament do the rest. Bombastic, charismatic, relentless, he works hard to promote water management in Rajasthan’s semi-arid territories, especially those close to the Thar Desert. The techniques deployed include the use of rainwater storage tanks called johads, as well as the monitoring of dams and other tried and tested approaches to controlling water flow. Wherever he goes, people listen. He’s also undertaken a series of padayatras, educational pilgrimages through Rajasthan.
“Travelling from village to village, we built almost 9,000 johads and other conservation structures for collecting rainwater to use in the dry season”. Singh reels off figures and endless names of rivers: Arvari, Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani, Jahajwali. All these waterways were brought back to life after being dried up for decades. “We helped 1.7 million people with thousands of wells, creating tens of thousands of jobs,” he explains. People’s health and hygiene have improved even though Singh’s efforts have often clashed with the mining industry, determined to obstruct his work.
The situation in India still remains critical to this day. “Extremely critical!,” Singh exclaims. “As much water as possible is extracted from the ground without replenishing groundwater reservoirs. 72 per cent of aquifers today have a negative recharge balance, and 39 per cent are in a critical state. In India, 65 districts are affected by water shortages, and only 19 have overabundant water – with possible exposure to flooding. Drought and floods are the main threats in the country. Many Indian cities are at risk of reaching Day Zero, like what happened in Cape Town. Zero water. How could we survive?”.
The coronavirus pandemic has been causing further problems. “It has refocused attention on the lack of health infrastructure. It must be said, however, that the shutting down of industry has relieved environmental pressure on rivers for a while. Yet as the country has started up again, industries are going back to exploiting water and groundwater resources. We don’t understand that our lifestyle doesn’t connect with nature. And yet, we’ve seen how stopping has a positive impact it. But the education we receive tells us to exploit and extract more and more resources”.
India has a long tradition of indigenous knowledge about water resources, as the use of johads goes to show. “We have to rediscover ancient knowledge and respect nature. Not everything can become a commodity”.
Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.