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Reviving traditional water bodies is essential for smart cities

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Most of the cities in India are grappling with the issue of demand and supply gap, with their administrations going beyond the city boundaries to lift water from distant sources to meet the rising demand. On the other hand, these cities experience the problem of urban flooding during the monsoon. Even one intense shower can lead to water-logging, as was seen in Gurugram city last year. The 2015 floods in Chennai are also an example of rampant development encroaching upon traditional water bodies. An estimate suggests Bangalore has lost around 79 per cent of its water bodies due to rapid urbanisation and encroachment, with many other cities following suit.

The problem these cities face is common: most of the traditional water bodies in the cities and towns have been ignored and today these water storage structures are no more than ruins or sites of archaeological value. These age-old structures were the strong support systems during the times when the modern infrastructural marvels didn’t exist, but they were more than efficient in managing the water resources even at the time. India’s history is witness to how well-planned cities of our ancient civilisation were equipped with outstanding systems of water harvesting and drainage.The structures were built to address the regular occurrence of problems like floods and droughts in India.

Traditional water bodies were built to harvest the rainwater and prevent any flooding into the city core and use this water for various purposes; even to tide over the situation of drought. Besides these two main functions, water bodies provide innumerable benefits to the society. Each region of the country had a unique structure to conserve and store the water. In states like Rajasthan where water scarcity and drought is a common scenario, these structures were built in abundance and most of the households built following the ancient methods still have their individual water-storing structures. But today most of these water bodies have vanished because no one claims responsibility to manage these precious resources.

Poor management of these water bodies is one of the main reasons as is encroachment of the water bodies because of urbanisation and unplanned development. Many of the traditional water bodies have no water, but lot of solid waste and have primarily become garbage dump sites. In rural areas, there is impetus to adopt the watershed approach and construct farm ponds and other water-harvesting structures. Programmes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are also aligned towards these strategies of constructing water-harvesting structures to manage the drought situation or to provide extra water for irrigation purposes.

Rural India is still managing some of these traditional structures. But in urban areas many water bodies are still in a dilapidated state and are on the verge of extinction as no programme or stakeholder is responsible for their management and maintenance. But water is everyone’s responsibility and as India is walking towards a water-stressed future, it becomes extremely important to save our traditional water bodies to secure our future. The varied benefits provided by such water bodies in the urban ecosystem are of great significance. Since they have always been subject of reverence for Indians, reviving these traditional water bodies by involving locals could be a strategy that every city needs to adopt.

Through a participatory approach, these water bodies could be revived and put to use for drinking or recreational purposes. Additionally, these revived water bodies also help to recharge groundwater and most of the cities have over-exploited the reserves that can be recharged through local water bodies. Even if used for recreational purposes, they will contribute to ecosystem services and when locals have access to these water bodies, they also get a sense of ownership and willingly maintain the water bodies. The government has launched some promising initiatives like the Smart Cities, where a key area of focus is preserving and developing open spaces.

This initiative could be expanded to explicitly promote the revival of traditional water bodies to help better manage the water resources of the city besides reducing urban heat effects and promoting eco-balance, as intended in a smart city programme. Also, the latest tools and technologies can be used for better management of these water bodies. Our traditional water bodies have saved humankind in the past and they will save us in the future only if we care for them in the present.

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