Stockholm Water Prize Winner Harnesses Traditional Wisdom To Fight Drought

2015 winner of the stockholm water prize rajendra singh
2015 Stockholm Water Prize winner Rajendra Singh. Photo credit: Tarun Bharat Sangh

 

When Rejendra Singh first went to the Indian state of Rajasthan, his plans involved harnessing one school of traditional Indian knowledge: Ayurveda. A trained practitioner of this discipline, he wanted to establish health care clinics in the rural state. When he arrived, though, he discovered that people had an even bigger concern: water. According to a press release from the Stockholm International Water Institute, Rajasthan was suffering from both drought and depopulation: “As wells dried up, crops wilted, and rivers and forests disappeared, many able-bodied villagers left in search for work in the cities. Women, children and the elderly were left behind, without hope, as their villages were being overrun by sand and dust.”

Since his arrival in the 1980s, Singh has focused on bringing water back to Rajasthan; this week, SIWI awarded him the Stockholm Water Prize for his work. In its citation, the awards committee noted Singh’s ability to bring people together around traditional forms of knowledge:

…today’s water problems cannot be solved by science or technology alone. They are instead human problems of governance, policy, leadership, and social resilience. Rajendra Singh’s life work has been in building social capacity to solve local water problems through participatory action, empowerment of women, linking indigenous know-how with modern scientific and technical approaches and upending traditional patterns of development, resource use, and social norms.

Specifically, Singh encouraged the building of johads, earthen dams designed to catch rainwater. This technology existed in India for thousands of years, but fell out of use with the arrival of British colonizers (who, no doubt, saw them as “primitive”). SIWI notes that in the decades since he began working to address drought in Rajasthan,

… 8,600 johads and other structures to collect water had been built. Water had been brought back to a 1,000 villages across the state. Mr Singh, his co-workers in Tarun Bharat Sangh (India Youth Association) had gotten water to flow again in several rivers of Rajasthan. The forest cover has increased, and antelope and leopard started returning.

I don’t know if Rajasthan population has reversed course, but it certainly sounds like a more pleasant place to live these days. Singh will receive $150,000 as part of his award package.

Want to learn more about his ideas and inspiration? Spend some time with this video interview released by SIWI:

Know more about Singh’s work, or the implementation of similar indigenous technology to solve environmental challenges? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at