Wednesday, April 1, 2020

India’s water wisdom in times of climate crisis

Ahar in Nawada revived by Ahar Pyne Bachao Abhiyan organised by Janhit Vikas Samiti of Bihar (All photos by Shailendra Yashwant)

The worst impacts of the unfolding climate crisis, on both people and ecosystems, will be felt through its effect on water. In India, erratic monsoons, prolonged dry spells and extreme rainfall incidents are already overwhelming its 1.3 billion citizens.
Relentless groundwater extraction, unprecedented pollution of surface water, and alienation of communities from their water resources have further compounded the water stress situation across the country.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For decades, environmentalists and social scientists have repeatedly pointed to India’s long history and diversity in water harvesting and conservation. For centuries, Indians have crafted ingenious water conservation system of all size and varieties that channel water from rivers and monsoon runoff and nearby hills and elevated areas.
The water is usually directed to storage tanks, sometimes built in a series, with overflow from one becoming runoff for the subsequent one, like Talaabs, Pokharas, Ahars, Johads, and Eris. There is a plethora of such traditional, low-cost, easy to maintain, and community-run examples of water systems all over the country.
A number of these ancient traditional water harvesting, and irrigation practices have survived the test of time and social upheavals and continue to give sustenance to communities through periods of water scarcity.

Ahar Pyne of Bihar
Ahar Pyne is a 5,000-year-old floodwater harvesting system that evolved during the Mauryan Empire to bring water to the undulating and rocky terrain of Magadh, in south-central Bihar. In Hindi, it means to capture rainwater in channels — Aa (to come), Har (to capture) and Pyne (water channels).
Jalsar Ahar, Siur, Nawada, Bihar. Ahars are reservoirs with an embankment on three sides while Pynes are diversion channels laid from the river or the catchment area for impounding water in the Ahars and channels
Jalsar Ahar, Siur, Nawada, Bihar. Ahars are reservoirs with an embankment on three sides while Pynes are diversion channels laid from the river or the catchment area for impounding water in the Ahars and channels
Ahars are reservoirs with embankments on three sides and are built at the end of drainage lines such as rivers or artificial channels called Pynes. Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes where necessary diversion works are carried out.
Bansi Mohana Pyne, Sakri River, Bihar. Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes, artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in South Bihar, which is otherwise unsuited for this crop
Bansi Mohana Pyne, Sakri River, Bihar. Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes, artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in South Bihar, which is otherwise unsuited for this crop
Water for irrigation is drawn out by opening outlets made at different heights in the embankment. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in south Bihar, which is otherwise unsuitable for this crop. In particular, it helped farmers meet the crucial water requirement for paddy during hathia (the grain-filling stage).
Pyne, Nawada, Bihar
Pyne, Nawada, Bihar
Pynes are constructed by considering various parameters like the slope of the terrain and the location of crops grown. To create a network of Pynes well-connected with Ahars is a labour-intensive job requiring a considerable amount of work and engineering skills. Ahar and Pyne assist in controlling floods by distributing surplus water into its system. Drought is also managed as it makes water available in the reservoir for a year.
Through this system, one Pyne can irrigate up to 400 acres. For decades, the system is not just used to collect, store, and distribute water but also hold people from various castes and classes together resulting in group action for irrigation operation and maintenance.
Farmers checking Pyne level, Nawada, Bihar
Farmers checking Pyne level, Nawada, Bihar
Ahar beds were also used to grow a Rabi (winter) crop after draining out the excess water that remained after Kharif (summer) cultivation. While Ahars irrigating more than 400 ha are not rare, the average area irrigated by an Ahar during the early 20th century was said to be 57 ha.
The area irrigated by the Ahar Pyne systems has witnessed a sharp decline and yet, even today, they constitute nearly three-fourths of the total irrigation facilities in south Bihar. More than 60% of these are defunct, and the rest is poorly managed.
These structures not only have relevance for sustainable water management but also have essential socioeconomic importance as it allows community participation and distribution of responsibilities simultaneously opening alternative avenues for earning a livelihood for the local population.
Paddy fields, Siur, Nawada, Bihar
Paddy fields, Siur, Nawada, Bihar
One Pyne can irrigate up to 400 acres. It helps controls flood and drought and acts as a protecting mechanism for the villages. These channels may be of various sizes. The small ones are those found originating in Ahars and carrying the water of the Ahars to cultivable plots.
Ahar and Pyne assist in controlling floods by distributing surplus water into its system. The routine upkeep work involves cleaning and desilting of Ahar and Pyne and maintaining the water conveyance network is done by the cultivators before the onset of monsoon.
All farmers grow the same crop (paddy) all over the irrigation command around the same dates. As a result, agricultural operations undertaken by all cultivators are similar throughout the irrigation command. Since Ahars and Pynes have to be used collectively, all farmers have to synchronise their operations.
Johad of Uttar Pradesh
Johad, a crescent-shaped dam of earth and rocks found in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and the Thar desert of Rajasthan, is probably one of the oldest rainwater harvesting systems in India. Archaeologists have dated some of these rainwater storage structures in India as far back as 1500 BC.
Baba Bhurewala Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh revived by Development Centre for Alternative Policies
Baba Bhurewala Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh revived by Development Centre for Alternative Policies
The water collected in a Johad during the monsoon is used for irrigation, drinking, livestock and other domestic purposes while recharging the groundwater. During the dry season, when the water gradually recedes, the land inside the Johad is used for cultivation.
Typically, building a Johad involves digging a pit and shaping the excavated earth into a semi-circular mud barrier. A stone drain is sometimes set up, allowing excess water to seep into the ground or connecting it with Johads nearby. When many Johads are built in one area, they have a cumulative effect, resulting in the replenishment of whole aquifers.
The height of the dam varies from one Johad to another, depending on the site, water flow, contours of the land, etc. In some cases, to ease the water pressure, a masonry structure is added for the outlet of excess water. The water storage area varies from 2 ha to 100 ha. The villagers share the expense, supply labour, and materials like stone, sand, and lime.
Reed bed channel, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Reed bed channel, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
In the 1980s, deforestation, reduced rainfall, depleting groundwater, polluted surface water, and the failure of the modern irrigation and water supply systems brought back attention to the forgotten, decrepit and silted Johads. A mass movement for the revival of traditional methods began in Rajasthan and quickly spread to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
In the last 20 years, several innovations have improved the efficiency of the Johads. An initiative by New Delhi-based Development Centre for Alternative Policies (DCAP) in the Dhikoli village of Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh stands out for replication.
In 2001, the Dhikoli block of Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh was declared a dark zone by the Central Ground Water Board due to excessive groundwater exploitation. With no sewage system in place, the ponds in Dhikoli, like other villages in Baghpat, were overflowing with domestic sewage. DCAP’s project included an innovative reed- bed system, also known as the biofilter system, for treating wastewater before it reached the ponds.
Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Seven years later the villagers of Dhikoli are benefitting from the higher water table that ensures round the year water supply in their wells but also are grateful to the unique sewage treatment system that has also dealt with the menace of mosquitoes and malaria making this traditional system, that came into existence decades ago, as relevant today as it was then and perhaps even more given the water crisis and problems like water pollution, scarcity and climate change.
A 650 ft long channel — 8 ft deep and 10 ft wide — with weirs that had alternating tiny waterfalls and ditches brought the sewage water and rainwater overflow from the village drain to the lower Johad that was constructed on the panchayat owned land.
Since the project was completed and the three Johads have been able to capture around 5.5 million litres of rainwater per annum from the surrounding catchments per year, recharging the groundwater in the process. In addition, every year, 11 million litres of treated wastewater go into the newly made big Shamshan Johad. Several tube wells downstream of the Johads have also reported an increase in the water table.
Lower Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Lower Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
The success of reviving these traditional practices illustrate the urgent need to reengage communities in water management, using simple, low-cost, traditional and highly efficient systems to ensure water security. They demonstrate how empowered communities, having access to and control over water resources, can significantly contribute to reducing poverty and inequality, and achieve prosperity.
The efforts by local communities in India to improve water availability are lauded universally. A widespread revival of these traditional practices will contribute to India attaining its Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring water security, food security, and disaster risk reduction.

Extracted from Water Wisdom in Times of Climate Crisis, published by Oxfam India for the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project.
First published on Indiaclimatedialogue.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Budget 2020 | On climate change, it was business as usual

Presenting the Union Budget 2020-2021, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that India’s commitment towards tackling climate change made at Paris conference will kick start from January 1, 2021.
She also referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two international initiatives in the climate change arena; namely, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) and the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which according to her will also help achieve India’s commitment to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, enhance adaptation and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The efforts to this end, she said, will be executed in various sectors through normal budgeting process.
Rs 4,400 crore has been allocated to give incentives to large cities (more than one million population) to formulate plans for ensuring ‘cleaner air’. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) will notify the parameters for such incentives.
Sitharaman also announced that old thermal power plants that do not meet prescribed emission norms will be asked to close down and their land will be used for unspecified alternative purposes. She also said PM-KUSUM scheme will be expanded to help 2 million farmers in setting up standalone solar pumps. A slew of other announcements for uptake of renewable energy and organic agriculture were also referred to in her speech.
The only thing remarkable of today’s budget speech was that, ‘climate change’ found space in her over 2 hour 40 minutes long budget speech after four subsequent budget speeches (2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19) under the same government had ignored it. The last time we heard climate change referred to in a full budget speech was in first budget presented by Arun Jaitley in 2014-15.
However, today’s announcements are nothing but a lip service to climate change and the proposed incremental measures fall short in their intent to transform India into a sustainable, low-carbon, high-growth economy is disappointing.
As Nicholas Stern famously said, “Climate change is the biggest market failure the world has ever seen”, Budget 2020 with its deafening silence on budget allocations to the National Action Plan on Climate change (NAPCC) and the National Adaptation Fund, does not augur well for India’s campaign to combat climate change.
Instead of a strategy that will re-orient how we execute climate action via an economy-wide green industrialisation that puts money into low-carbon and climate-resilient sectors such as renewables, public transport, ecological restoration, what we got was yet another set of vague and unclear announcements.
“She did not recognise climate change as a major threat to people and economy, ignoring the estimates that climate change impacts could cause a reduction of 2.5 to 4.5 per cent of GDP, and did not give any indication of revising its emission reduction targets. The message to the states on old and polluting coal fired power plants is weak and advisory in nature,” said Harjeet Singh, global climate change head of Action Aid International.
“…the finance minister had no clear allocation or incentives in today’s speech on how India intends to develop resilient infrastructure, retrofit existing infrastructure for resilience, and to enable a measurable reduction in infrastructure losses, ” said Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia.
While forest cover has been increasing in India as claimed by the MOEFCC in its recent report that will put India on track to achieve Paris Accord target of creating an additional carbon sink by increasing forest cover, the Finance Minister was silent on any further investments required for research into restoring biodiversity, conserving landscapes and preserving the natural balance of biodiversity in various parts of India.
Considering that she referred to climate change as part of the three themes woven around ‘aspirational India, economic development and caring society’, there were high expectations that the Finance Minister will go the extra mile to mainstream climate change in the design of the first budget of the decade — but it was business as usual with no real incentives to mitigate or adapt to climate crisis.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

First published in Moneycontrol

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Budget 2020 | To fight climate change, correct anomalies in fund allocation

India, like the rest of the world, is facing an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis caused by climate change and environmental degradation, as is evident from the increasing intensity and recurrence of floods, droughts, extreme heat and cold, cyclones, sea level rise and an erratic monsoon.
According to a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, climate change hazards such as extreme heat waves and humid conditions could potentially cause a reduction in India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2.5-4.5 per cent due to decline in labour productivity and reduced working hours.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 says India suffered an economic loss of $37 billion due to climate change in 2018. Another study by Stanford University’s Earth System Science, measuring the effects of anthropogenic climate change on GDP per capita by country, has estimated that global warming has made the Indian economy 31 per cent smaller than it would have been otherwise.
Preliminary estimates by the Government of India indicate that around $206 billion (at 2014-15 prices) would be required between 2015 and 2030 for implementing adaption actions in key areas such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, infrastructure, water resources and ecosystems. Beyond these, additional investments will be needed for strengthening resilience and disaster management, pegging the total funds requirement at $2.5 trillion for the 15 years.
Unfortunately, consecutive Union Budgets since 2015, under the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, have failed to consider the real cost of climate change and environmental degradation. The 2019-20 Budget by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was hailed by the Prime Minister as a “green Budget” with a vision for “pollution free India with green Mother earth and blue skies”, but the actual budgetary allocations did not match this rhetoric, with little or no reference to climate change, mitigation, adaptation or disaster risk reduction.
As she prepares the Budget for 2020-21, Sitharaman must acknowledge the undeniable fact that anthropogenic activity is eroding human capital (education and productivity) as well as produced (infrastructure and property) and natural (air and water) capital at an unprecedented pace.
In this context, Sitharaman must prioritise and scale up fiscal action to address the unfolding climate crisis and environmental emergency by first and foremost bolstering allocations to the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).
The NAPCC was adopted in 2008 and incorporates India’s vision for ecologically sustainable development by creating eight national missions, i.e. for deploying solar energy, enhancing energy efficiency, creation of sustainable urban habitat, conserving water, sustaining fragile Himalayan ecosystems, expanding forest cover, making agriculture sustainable and creating a strategic knowledge platform to serve all the national missions. The success of these missions is key to India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change and achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Another area that the minister needs to urgently look at is ways to mobilise funding for natural calamities and climate-induced disasters. Collections from the National Calamity Contingent Duty -- a major contributor to the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) -- have been declining, having fallen to Rs 3,660 crore in FY18, from Rs 6,450 crore in FY17.
A panel of state finance ministers is exploring whether a disaster cess/tax should be imposed nationwide to fund the NDRF, but it is well known that a cess may not be the best way for funding disaster management. According to an Indiaspend report, just 29 per cent of the clean energy cess on coal was transferred to the National Clean Energy and Environment Fund between 2010-11 and 2016. Instead, Sitharaman must find ways of provisioning for these funds in the Budget.
Finally, the finance minister must also correct the anomaly in allocation to the National Adaptation Fund. One of India’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement is “to better adapt to climate change by enhancing investments in development programmes in sectors vulnerable to climate change, particularly agriculture, water resources, the Himalayan region, coastal regions, health, and disaster management”.
The allocation of Rs 100 crore, a fraction of the total budget of over Rs 2,900 crore allotted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) in 2019-20 is woefully inadequate. Mitigation of climate change depends on the international policy, but at a national level, it is critical that we invest in adaptation to prepare our most vulnerable communities to survive and thrive.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

First published in MoneyControl

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Climate Change | 2020 is the year of climate emergency

Children at Thousand Islands of Indonesia, that are disappearing due to sea level rise.

Fear, not hope, reigned in Australia on New Year’s Day. A string of fires all the way down the South Coast region of New South Wales and Victoria are burning at emergency levels . This year’s bushfire season is widely regarded as one of the most severe on record. Since September, fires have spread across much of south-eastern Australia following a period of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures.
At least 25 people killed and ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than one billion birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone are likely to have died in the rapidly spreading wildfires. Reuters reported that by January 7, the fire had expanded to 10 million hectares or “an area the size of South Korea”.
The direct cost of the fires to the Australian economy has been estimated to be at least $2 billion and rising. With summer only one-third over, the situation is likely to grow even grimmer in Australia.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, torrential rains, which began on New Year’s Eve, set off deadly flash floods in the capital Jakarta and elsewhere on the island of Java, killing at least 66 people and sending over 173,000 residents to temporary shelters.
Jakarta is a sinking city built on swamps, riddled with punctured aquifers, clogged waterways, and weighed down by an unwieldy population that is regularly inundated by floods as sea levels rise steadily. This is why Indonesian officials are already seeking to relocate the country’s capital to East Kalimantan Province, on the island of Borneo.
However, the deluge in the first week of 2020 was the heaviest in the capital since record-keeping began in the 19th century. “This rain is not ordinary rain,” warned a statement from Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
As always multiple factors are at play in this annual cycle of fires and floods on the Australian continent and the Indonesian archipelago, but the scale and intensity of this year’s unfolding disasters unequivocally reiterate that the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is scientifically undisputable.
If Indonesia is naturally prone to floods, Australia is naturally primed to burn. Every year there is a fire season in the summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread.
More than a decade ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that ongoing anthropogenic climate change was virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency of fires in Australia and flooding in Indonesia. This assessment of the science evidence has been repeated in countless reports, including the IPCC’s Climate Change and Land report, released in August.
Yet neither the Australian nor Indonesian governments have announced any significant changes to their climate policies. Australia produces iron ore and a third of global coal exports and the Indonesian economy is fuelled by export of palm oil and coal. Both countries are also among the top 20 CO2 emitters.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison openly promotes coal industry, which is allegedly a major funder to his party. “I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” he told Australian broadcaster Channel Seven.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pledged to rein in the illegal expansion of palm oil sector, the largest driver of deforestation, but at the same time in a bid to bring “development” to remote regions, he is accused of surreptitiously allowing vast tracts of peat land forests to be cleared for palm oil in the Indonesian part of Papua New Guinea.
Australian fires and Indonesian floods are merely a glimpse of a world careening irreversibly into a climate emergency that appears to be set to unfold across the planet in 2020.
As Cate Blanchett put it so succinctly at the 77th Golden Globe Awards night, “…when one country faces a climate disaster, we all face a climate disaster, so we are in it together.”
The question is if Morrison and Widodo are willing to accept that climate change is aggravating natural disasters in their own countries, that they urgently need an alternative business model to shore up their GDPs, that bold and decisive action to end coal extraction and deforestation once and for all will go a long way in helping the world survive the ongoing climate crisis.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

First published in Moneycontrol