A UNESCO expert lays out how the ingenuity of humankind can be combined with the ingenuity of nature for a more sustainable approach to water management.
India is rich in freshwater resources, yet faces drought, floods and increasingly exacerbated consequences of tropical cyclones, which disrupt the water cycle.
In Rajasthan, just over 30 years ago, unusually low rainfall, combined with excessive logging, led to the worst droughts in its history. One of the poorest districts in the state, Alwar, was forced to impose restrictions on groundwater extraction as water fell below critical levels.
This is when local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Tarun Bharat Sangh, decided to take action. It began working with communities to undertake landscape-scale restoration of local water resources, introducing small-scale water harvesting structures, and regenerating the forests and soils.
The impact was significant. Water was brought back to over 1,000 drought-stricken villages across the state. Five rivers that used to run dry after the annual Monsoon season began to flow again. Fisheries, farmland and forests once again flourished, leading to improvements in livelihoods and the vitality of wildlife. Women were leaders of this project, as they are usually the ones to bear the greatest responsibility for providing their families with safe freshwater.
This is one of the examples highlighted in the recently published 'World Water Development Report'. The United Nations' report produced by UNESCO, in close collaboration with UN-Water, focuses on how we can combine the ingenuity of humankind with the ingenuity of nature for a more sustainable, more harmonious approach to managing water. These “nature-based solutions” are innovative, but also thousands of years old.
In recent times, we have predominantly relied on man-made infrastructure to manage water resources, which have been put under increasing strain. This means that over three and a half billion people, roughly half of the world's population, live in water-scarce areas for at least one month per year, which threatens their right to clean water and sanitation.
By 2050, one in five people could face the constant risk of flooding - losing their homes and their livelihoods. The effects of water-related disasters - the most economically and socially destructive of all natural hazards - are set to increase, disproportionately affecting poor and disadvantaged people.
Women and girls bear a particularly heavy burden, as many miss out on an education, forced to drop out of school due to insufficient hygiene facilities, or obliged to fetch water from distant sources.