Regenerating the Banas system in Rajasthan, India

A rehat, or Persian wheel: a traditional cattle-driven means to extract water of
varying level from an open well (image © Dr Mark Everard)

The International Water Security Network continues its work in the arid/semi-arid landscape of India’s Rajasthan State, progressing efforts to support regeneration of the Banas catchment. Regeneration of the Banas system has a far more than ecological meaning. Our focus is on the whole interconnected socio-ecological system (SES), reflecting the centrality of the water system for the vitality of ecosystems, their services and the millions of people dependent upon them.

The two principal headwaters of the Banas River rise in the Khamnor Hills, joining to flow eastwards for 512km entirely within the state of Rajasthan. The Banas and its many tributaries pass through a predominantly semi-arid landscape – all Districts through which it flows today subject to over-abstraction from aquifers resulting in receding and increasingly geologically contaminated (principally fluoride) and in places saline groundwater. Downstream, after bisecting the hills of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, the Banas joins the Chambal River, the Chambal in turn flowing into the Yamuna River (a major tributary of the Ganga (Ganges) system). A great deal of river length both of the main stem and the tributary sub-catchments of the Banas is seasonal, responding to scarce monsoon rainfall predominantly, and increasingly unpredictably, falling between the end of May and into September.

In the largely rural upper catchment, community collaboration has enabled people to thrive throughout four-and-a-half thousand years by harvesting and stewarding scarce monsoon runoff for year-round use. A diversity of traditional solutions adapted to often highly localised geographical conditions and cultural perspectives include those for rainwater harvesting (such as check dams, roof water collection and johadi), access to fluctuating groundwater (e.g. step wells, ramp wells and rehats) and efficient use, all dependent on balancing equitable exploitation with recharge supported by appropriate local governance arrangements. Unfortunately, adoption and proliferation of mechanised tube wells is breaking down traditional participatory practices, displacing consensual water resource recharge, stewardship and sharing with individualised, competitive pumping of receding groundwater resources without balancing recharge. A net outcome is increasing threats to village viability, as well as broader catchment vitality.

The Banas River was impounded in its mid-course by the Bisalpur Dam from 1987, initially to meet the needs of local town and irrigation schemes. However, from the early 2000s, this water resource has been appropriated and pumped 120km north-eastwards to meet the growing demands of the burgeoning city of Jaipur. The dam operates below design capacity, decreasing flows of increasingly contaminated water arriving in the reservoir from starved influent rivers and aquifers. Progressive catchment drying increases the vulnerability of all water users, rural and urban alike, including the 3.1 million people living in Jaipur City (projected to rise to 4.2 million by 2030) now almost wholly dependent on water pumped northwards from the Bisalpur Dam.

The Bisalpur Dam, a panoramic shot viewed from downstream (image © Dr Mark Everard)

In November 2017, a paper addressing the causes of vulnerability of these linked constituencies but also the feasibility of regenerating the Banas SES was accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Science of the Total Environment. The full reference is:

  • Everard, M., Sharma, O.P., Vishwakarma, V.K., Khandal, D., Sahu, Y.K., Bhatnagar, R., Singh, J., Kumar, R., Nawab, A., Kumar, A., Kumar, V., Kashyap, A., Pandey, D.N. and Pinder, A. (2018). Assessing the feasibility of integrating ecosystem-based with engineered water resource governance and management for water security in semi-arid landscapes: a case study in the Banas Catchment, Rajasthan, India. Science of the Total Environment, 612, pp.1249-1265. (A summary can be found here.)

This was followed up by a workshop organized in early December 2017 on the same topic, hosted by JK Lakshmipat University (JKLU), Jaipur (Rajasthan) and kindly funded by Wetlands International – South Asia Office. The report from this workshop can the found here. The approximately 70 attendees, some participating for limited days in the three-day event, came from a diversity of NGO, academic, business/CSR and other backgrounds. Regrettably, a high-level government meeting meant that planned government keynote speakers and attendees had to send their apologies at short notice, but all expressed an interest to remain informed as this ‘network of common purpose’ was seen as valuable in promoting progress with major Government of Rajasthan initiatives. Most notable amongst these government initiatives is Mukya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan (MJSA: ‘Chief Minister’s Water Self-sufficiency Mission’), seeking water security across the state. Our publications directly support the MJSA programme, and the network we have established serves to aid its uptake.

Some of the cross-sectoral delegates at the JKLU workshop developing a vision and considering means to improve social and economic connections and water security across the Banas catchment (image © Dr Mark Everard)

Mark Everard also presented a paper covering our work on the Banas system at the IGWC2017 (International Ground Water Conference 2017) in New Delhi in December, an international gathering of several hundred scientists, government officers and practitioners. The presentation attracted broad interest and discussion extending well beyond its allotted time slot. An abstract was published in the conference programme, and the full peer-reviewed paper will be published in forthcoming conference proceedings.

Central to the vision developed at the Jaipur workshop was that the fundamental natural capital of the water cycle, so long neglected through competitive pumping and appropriation by powerful urban economies, has to frame sustainable solutions. These including measures to rebalance recharge of the overall catchment water resource, at both local and whole-catchment scale, with the increasingly technically efficient water extraction and diversion technologies that are currently depleting resource quality, quantity and long-term viability. Also, urban communities, particularly those in Jaipur City – now almost 100% dependent on water pumped remotely from the Bisalpur Dam – need to be aware of where their water comes from, to use it more efficiently, and to contribute to measures to harvest and store episodic run-off from monsoon rains upon which reliable dam filling and future security depends. At present, the Bisalpur Dam lacks any planned releases to maintain the viability of downstream river reaches and the communities and wildlife dependent on them; this also exposes ‘blind spots’ and inequities in the current manner in which water is appropriated.

Policy revision is required to make stepwise progress towards a more connected environmental and social vision, also favouring livelihoods and practices founded on water within the system rather than abstracted from it. Transitions need to be backed up by insightful economic measures, for example rethinking how flows of finances from water consumers can be recirculated to those stewarding the upper catchment from which water security for the whole system depends.

This is ‘work in progress’, both in terms of the bold vision, and government and CSR programmes linked to it, but also in the manner in which UWE/IWSN is progressing its support. An updated version of the ‘Wise water solutions in Rajasthan’ guide co-authored by Mark Everard and the Rajasthan-located NGO WaterHarvest is nearing publication, and we continue our dialogue with the Government of Rajasthan and the network we have established through the workshop with the aim of supporting progress towards water security in a regenerative Banas system.