Reminiscing World Water Day: Resolving Water Stress, Orissa Style!

Snehasis Das

This year there are two days for World Water Day celebration! On March 20, the UN observed as the water day due to reasons unknown but could be drawn out of the long weekend. In 1992, the UN General Assembly designated March 22 as ‘World Water Day’ to draw international attention to the critical need of safe drinking water worldwide. Today, the international inter-governmental agency such UN, UNEP, UNESCO, WMO, several funding institutions, multilateral development banks (MDBs) like World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) and millions of NGOs are celebrating yet another year to demonstrate the solidarity of the need of the hour. The irony is still more than 1 billion people around the world lack clean, safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation services. On the other hand, source of freshwater has been privatised before the poor could access to it. Do we really need a single day awareness program on elixir of life?

It’s neither a big event nor an important venue for the media attention. It is as well not in the UN radar. But, the state in India has been facing real danger of drought. The number of districts affected by drought has been increasing in Orissa- a coastal state in India. Near the famous Gandhamardan Hill, a village Marjayadapali of Paikmal area in Bargarh district of Orissa was reeling under misery. The resource bounty village was under the shadow of abject poverty due to successive chronic drought. In the intense battle of survival, hopes are like distant mirage. While drought is not considered under disaster mitigation in India, people themselves took the initiative to face the challenge.

Bhagwati Majhi, a resident of Marjadapali village in the region, has spent more than 45 years of his 66 years of existence fighting drought. Each year of drought has pushed his family further into an abyss of poverty. And along with that hopes to survive have also faded. And the same fate is shared by most of the region’s population. It seemed nature had a design of destruction for them since ages. Every year people used to migrate to different places for work. An unholy nexus of ecological degradation of region and collapse of traditional systems of land and water management pushed the region out of regular agriculture. The region has an average annual rainfall of 1400 millimeters!

For the first time Manav Adhikar Sewa Samiti (MASS), a non governmental organisation in Sambalpur, Orissa recognize drought as a disaster. It is in this context MASS started a community based disaster management project in 2004 in the region. The project is in implementation in 16 villages. Taking a different path from the usual short-term drought relief, it aims at giving villages relief from drought in long term. And the instrument is to do water conservation with the communities to solve the age old problem fighting against drought.

The project is community driven both in principle and practice. The local communities identify disasters and evolve ways to fight it using available local wisdom. And in the process have created strong village institutions that have emerged as key natural resource management units. Chita Ranjan Hota, the project coordinator of the MASS says, “In 2004 we had made as assessment of the situation and found that drought is the major disaster here. Then we have taken an approach called 3 (I) means information, education and communication which includes institution building and intervention, especially natural resources management and security system in an integrated manner.” Most interesting part in this initiative is the people planned and then implemented, MASS has just played a facilitator.

The impacts are showing off. As dried streams are being filled up, the local economy is making a comeback. Agriculture has picked up. Local residents say there is increased availability of water. Bhagwati Majhi happily says, “Earlier the availability of water used to be just for four months. Now we even take up winter crops.” Parmanand of Marjyadapali village aged about 60 whose land is under the Pathari stream, now successfully preserve the stream water.

It is said that women are the first victims of environmental degradation. So they are also the first ones to measure the success of an environmental regeneration programme. Grain and seed banks have sprouted in villages as emergency institutions under the able women managers. Using the project’s capacity building programmes, they have formed self-help groups to take charge of local ecology.

Has the specter of drought receded in the area? Local communities feel that the impacts are too good to be wasted. MASS workers believe that the small change that has come to the villages is going to swell. This small change can be an illustration on this World Water Day.

Author Note
Snehasis Das is New Delhi based documentary film maker