Anupam Mishra and Traditional Indian Rainwater Harvesting

Welcome to another edition of Water Heroes (formerly Amazing People Doing Amazing Things).  This week we’re talking about Anupam Mishra who is renowned for his work with water management and traditional rainwater harvesting techniques.  He also helped to start the Gandhi Peace Foundation as well as the Centre for Environment and Food Security and is editor of Foundation’s magazine ‘Gandhi Marg’.  Anupam is known for his travels throughout India studying and teaching about the traditional techniques used for centuries to make water available for people year round.  He has won a number of awards for his work and has written several books on the subject which have gained him worldwide notoriety.

A little background on Anupam.  He was born in India and spent his childhood in Gandhian communities around central India.  Let me stop for a second and tell you what a Gandhian is.  A Gandhian is someone that follows the inspirations, principals, philosophy and beliefs of Gandhi, using things like non-violent resistance to protest.  It goes much deeper than a one sentence explanation, but I think that’s all you need to know for this article.  When he was 22 he received a master’s degree in Sanskrit from theUniversityofDelhi.  From there he went on to become the admired and loved social and environmental activist that he is today.

Let’s get into the good stuff now.  Unlike the other people that I’ve written about Anupam didn’t start his carrier with water.  One of his earliest projects was studying and chronicling the Chipko movement that was going on in Indiain the 1970’s.  The Chipko movement started with Indian villagers challenging government contractors that were on their land to cut down their trees.  The villagers knew that if the trees were cut down they would face landslides, flash floods, and eventually water scarcity.  So they decided to make human chains around the trees in order to keep them from being cut down.  The name Chipko means hug the trees, and that’s exactly what they did, mimicking Gandhi’s practice of non-violent protest.  The villagers were successful in stopping the contractors, and the Chipko movement became a symbol of environmental conservation leading to the cancellation of logging licenses and the declaration of a decade long moratorium on logging.  In 1978 Anupam published Chipko movement: Uttarakhand women’s bid to save forest wealth which told the story of the movement and the people involved.  From there he joined the Gandhi Peace Foundation and received a mandate to study water shortage, and this led him to studying the traditional water management techniques that have been used for thousands of years in India.

In the simplest terms Anupam is trying to revive the traditional water harvesting traditions that have worked so well in the past. India has been around for thousands of years, surviving through droughts on dry and arid land yet it has survived because of these systems.  An article on has some good descriptions of the different systems that Anupam is trying to revive.  One is the kuin which is used in areas where the groundwater is too saline to drink from the ground.  One requirement of a kuin is a belt of gypsum that naturally occurs in the ground and keeps the water from mixing with the saline soil, and so it is kept fresh.  It just so happens thatIndiahas a few of these gypsum belts.  They’re also very simple; there’s a sloped platform with holes in it on the top and as the rain falls it flows into the holes and down into the kuin, which is traditionally 30-40 feet deep.  Some of the kuins that are still in use inIndiaare over 100 years old and can catch up to 100,000 liters of water per season!

Another kind of traditional water harvesting uses water tanks and roofs.  It’s a very simple idea.  The rain falls onto the roof of your house, runs to a hole in the roof that is connected to a pipe, and the pipe runs to a storage tank.  These types of systems can store up to 25,000 gallons of water per year.  In a town named Jaisalmer every house has one of this type of system and still uses them to this day.

One of the largest examples of traditional rainwater harvesting is the Jaigarh Fort near Jaipur.  This 400 year old building can store 6 million gallons of water in one season.  Yeah…I said 6 million.  It collects water from a little over 9 miles of canals that run out from the building.  Anupam makes a joke in a video of a speech he gave at TEDindia in 2009 that from the fort you can see a road that was built in the last 50 years, but the canals and fort are in better condition than the road after 400 years.

The last kind of water harvesting system I’m going to talk about is step wells.  To me these are the most amazing of them all.  Before I start talking about them here’s a picture of one

Amazing right?  Some genius realized back in the 11th century that as the seasons change the water table goes up and down.  So the way the step well works is that you have stairs that reach all the way down to whatever depth they decided.  When there’s a lot of water it may come all of the way up to the top so you just walk in and grab some water.  But as the season turns dry the water table drops, and so does the water in the step well.  Not a problem.  You just go down the stairs until you reach the water.  Then the next wet season it fills up again and the cycle continues.  Besides being a great idea step wells are an amazing feat of engineering and architecturally beautiful even after thousands of years.

When you think about these different systems you have to think about the engineering that goes behind building something like this.  The people that built them did not go to school and get their engineering degree…they figured it out on their own.  It’s an amazing feat, and the fact that they’re still standing today attests to the quality of work done.  Anupam told a story at the TEDindia conference in 2009 about how the government spent millions of dollars to build a number of large canals to bring water in from the Himalayas.  While they were building there were advertisements telling people to abandon their traditional systems because these canals would bring them all the water they want.  While the canals did work in some places in other places they were plugged up with Water Hyacinth (a type of vegetation) and in other places sand blew into them, eventually plugging them up too.  Good thing there are still guys like Anupam to help people keep the traditional systems alive.

After all of his success Anupam is still a very humble man.  He has never taken a dollar from the sales of his books (1993: Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab (The ponds are still as good as gold), 1995: Rajasthan ki Rajat Boondein (The radiant raindrops of Rajasthan)).  He prefers the simple life in accordance with his Gandhian beliefs.  I’ve never met the man but I know I would like him.  While watching the video of his presentation at TEDindia he cracked a few jokes, smiled a lot, and was genuinely happy.  He is passionate about helping his people hold on to their traditions, and wandering the earth teaching other people without clean water how they can easily attain it through these practices.  Many that pass his path say that he encouraged them to get involved in the water crisis and continue his teachings.  We need more people like him in this world; those that help others just to help them, not to get something in return.

Anupam Mishra and Traditional Indian Rainwater Harvesting

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