JOURNEYS WITH THE WATERMAN 

Ethan Hirsch-Tauber

This past December, I had the privilege to spend two weeks following the “Waterman of India”, Dr. Rajendra Singh, through his homeland, carrying his message of water protection and ecosystem restoration. The journey furthered my belief and understanding that widespread ecological healing is possible if we work together with the right energy and approach. Through Dr. Singh’s lens of water consciousness and decentralized watershed restoration, I perceived that it is possible to raise groundwater tables, create sustainable rural livelihoods, improve the rights of women, revitalize biodiversity, and even reverse the impacts of climate destabilization. 

To give a brief introduction to his life journey: Dr. Rajendra Singh was born in Rajasthan and eventually trained as an ayurvedic doctor. He worked in rural villages and in one village he met an elder who showed him the reality of the water situation in the region and convinced him to switch from healing people to healing the planet. He showed him the indigenous wisdom of traditional water knowledge in a matter days, and from then on, his life was changed. He has since been working to transform India’s damaged ecological systems through growing water consciousness and the direct actions that it precipitates. Taran Bharat Sangh (TBS), Dr. Singh’s NGO has worked with rural villages since 1985, using water education and democratic community decision making to construct over 11,800 water retention structures, and has restored at least seven dry rivers to perennial (year-round) flow! 

I have spoken about these numbers for years, having known of Dr. Singh’s impressive work, but being able to see the profound transformation in person made a much deeper impression. Visiting the TBS office near Sariska Tiger Preserve, one can observe the long-term effects of running an education center which functions as a living model. TBS welcomes groups of villagers who are interested in learning how to do the water restoration work. They train people in how to build catchment systems using traditional methods: johads, check dams, and other technologies. They also show water-saving farming technologies such as drip irrigation, which create huge reductions in water consumption for agriculture. 

Rajendra Singh and TBS staff, educate visiting villagers from another part of Rajasthan at the site of the first water catchment that TBS constructed, now as a demonstration model.

The work in that region, over years, has transformed the landscape, and it’s people. Water retention measures implemented locally throughout a region allow groundwater tables to rise and stabilize, also causing vegetation to reestablish in the landscape. These actions restore the local water cycle as increased water in the land and evapo-transpiration from plants allows for additional cloud formation and regional rain patterns to increase. The cycle of climate breakdown and desertification that we are now experiencing in so many parts of the world is actually reversed.  

While preventing the impacts of drought by creating a store of water in the landscape, watershed restoration can also reduce the potential for destructive flooding. Land with vegetation and non-eroded soil is much more capable of holding water. When the landscape becomes more capable of catching and holding heavy rains, it can reduce rapid runoff and erosion, slowing dangerous and destructive impacts.

Water is a crucial piece of the social and economic fabric of rural Rajasthani villages. When traditional farming villages run out of water, they are forced to switch to illegal mining or other basic subsistence activities. Village women and girls walk for miles every day to bring water back home. Many families are forced to leave their villages and go to the cities looking for work. By restoring water to the region through building catchment systems, they can start farming again. 

The social impacts of ecological restoration are profound: farmers can return to their traditional work, halting damaging extractive activities and slowing the migration from rural to urban areas. Women and girls who would walk for miles can actually stay in their village and girls can return to school. The connection between land, people, and water is abundantly apparent in the villages of this region. 

After seeing the inspiring projects on the ground, I traveled to other parts of the country to witness how Rajendra engages people, mobilizing a national movement of water advocates and activists. He uses clear evidence, humor, and a strong ethical voice in connection with the being of water to mobilize people to take action on the topic of water. In his presentations he poses playful questions to the audience in pop quiz-style, asking attendees to integrate and express their understanding of what he has shared. 

The Waterman, as he is referred to by many, is able to talk to anyone about water and get them passionate and motivated. At the head offices of the Reserve Bank of India, India’s central bank, which controls the issue and supply of the Indian Rupee, Rajendra spoke to a packed room of bank directors, receiving a standing ovation for stressing the need for watershed restoration to prevent climate change. At Birla College in Mumbai, we attended a Water Day where he was welcomed as the honored guest. He addressed the student body, and then toured each department of the school, commenting on the numerous student water projects. 

I want to give a few examples of our travel days to try and demonstrate the range and intensity of Rajendra-ji’s efforts. 

Upon arriving in the eastern state of Bihar, we met early morning with the District Magistrate of the town of Sasaram, where Rajendra advised about illegal settlement, land grabbing, and destructive sand mining by corporations. We then drove to the Sasaram Wildlife Sanctuary and met with the park’s Director to talk about water issues such as illegal grazing on park land, and assess their installed water retention measures. Later that afternoon we traveled muddy roads by jeep to a small village on the edge of the park where Rajendra spoke to a school class about the need to give respect to the plants, the water, and the sun, and then gathered the whole village together to speak about collective action for reforestation and watershed restoration. Not yet finished with that day, we met another District Magistrate in the town of Gaya, speaking about the water issues in their region. Experiencing my own exhaustrion in this whirlwind of action, I felt deep awe and admiration in perceiving Rajendra’s seemingly tireless efforts, fully energized in the fulfillment of his dharma. The man is non-stop.

On the banks of the Kshipra River which flows through the central Indian city of Ujjain, Dr. Singh leads a rally during a three day water conference with the key purpose of protecting the rivers of India.

I got an increased sense of the scale and power of Rajendra’s movement a few days later when we traveled to the city of Ujjain, in central India. We arrived in the early morning and traveled to the site of a ‘Water Guardians Conference’ with the focussed purpose of protecting the Kshipra River that flows through the city, but with the extended inclusion of protecting all the great rivers of India. The gathering kicked off as we met up with a crowd of several thousand people ready to walk! We commenced to march through the streets of Ujjain to demand ecological rights and water protection, with Rajendra in the lead. The chants of the march, in Hindi, voiced the collective belief that we can only succeed if we stand together. The march was then followed by three days of focused meetings of water activists from around the country. What affected me the most was the dawning understanding of the general water consciousness that I could see is carried within the culture and people of India. It kindled a sense of hope. 

At the end of my time with Rajendra, I journeyed back to Rajasthan and traveled with the Director of TBS, Maulik Sisodia, who also happens to be Rajendra’s son. He took me to a very remote area in the far eastern part of the state, somewhat close to the city of Agra, to visit some of TBS’s active projects. For me it was a deeply emotionally-moving experience to see the desert land restored, and meet some of the villagers who took action to make it happen. Tears of awe and joy filled my eyes whilst looking out over a shimmering body of water in this extremely dry region, hearing the sound of birds as they flew across the water, and seeing the verdant green farmland below, which had not been possible merely a few years prior. This stunning picture accompanied the knowledge that, through these efforts, the region, even while experiencing three years of drought conditions, still has enough accumulated groundwater for its inhabitants to survive without importing or drilling for more water! 

If there is one key message that I carry with me from this eye-opening journey it is this: rejuvenating our ecological systems is both possible and crucially necessary at this time of uncertainty and great change. The work that TBS has done and continues doing demonstrates the resilience that will be needed for the future climate instability that we will certainly be (and already are) facing all over the world. Implementing and relearning indigenous technologies local to each region can create extremely effective and positive results in holistic restoration of social and ecological health. These inspiring examples must be used as models and replicated, as soon and as rapidly as possible, all over the world. 

The most recent action that Rajendra is planning will come in the form of a water pilgrimage in Europe. This September a group, led by Dr. Rajendra Singh and other water protectors, will walk in the area between Marseille, France, and Geneva, Switzerland to bring attention and action towards corporate and government control and misuse of water resources on a global level. More information coming soon!

Ethan Hirsch-Tauber is an environmental educator, student and activist, now wholeheartedly dedicated to watershed restoration all over the world.