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Rajasthan is the largest state in India and the one facing the greatest water resource constraint. During my thesis fieldwork in the area, I researched how urban-oriented water policies generate water inequality between cities and villages, and how rainwater harvesting can be used to guarantee access to water even in the heart of the desert.
The campus of the National Law University of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, is a green oasis on the outskirts of the city. Robot lawnmowers maintain the grass cut at a height of two fingers and automatic sprinklers keep it green under the desert sun.
A twenty-minute bus ride away from the campus lies the village of Surpura. Here, each house has a colourful plastic tank on the roof. When the government tanker comes, villagers store the water on the roof to keep it for the driest months. In this barren land, farmers do not have access to irrigation, which is why they cultivate only rain-fed crops such as the moong, a hard green kind of bean capable of resisting drought.
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The National Law University and the village of Surpura lie in the same watershed. They receive the same amount of yearly rainfall, 320 mm in the Jodhpur district. Why, then, do law students jog on irrigated green grass and villagers rely on scanty rainfall for their crops?
During my fieldwork in Rajasthan, I encountered such stark contrasts in water access daily. In the span of a short tuktuk ride, I would see an abundance of water in city centres and thirst in peripheries and villages. I witnessed what Indian economist Amartya Sen called “the dichotomy between ’availability’ and ’access’ to natural resources”. Water scarcity is not simply a lack of water. It is the condition in which some groups are prevented from accessing it.
Children drinking water in the slum of Maderana, Jodhpur. Photo courtesy of the author, 2023.
If people in the same watershed can have such different access to water, it means that water scarcity is an issue of management more than one of hydrology. Rajasthan’s water inequality is a clear example of how decades of disinvestment in rural areas coupled with a prioritisation of urban water supply can push rural communities to the brink of collapse.
YOUNG RURAL PEOPLE HIT HARDEST
More than half of the villages in Marwar, the driest region of Rajasthan, do not have a source of clean water within 1.6 km from their premises. This distance is usually covered by young women. Fetching water can take up to 6 hours a day for girls in Marwar villages. Having to walk an average of 4 km a day traps them in a vicious cycle of time poverty in which catering for water prevents them from accessing education. Female literacy rate in rural Rajasthan is indeed one of the lowest in the country, with 40% of girls not being able to read a full sentence.
A young woman carries water in the Thar desert. Photo courtesy of the author, 2023.
When urban water supply is prioritised over rural, this means less water for irrigation for farmers. Whenever droughts hit, those farmers who cannot access irrigation are forced to engage in seasonal migration to overcrowded cities in search of labour. Disproportionately, young men have to temporarily migrate to slums to work in factories. However, for what concerns access to water, the situation in slums is no better than in villages, says a member Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO working on water scarcity. Even in cities, poorer communities face barriers to access to water, given that water infrastructure is mainly developed in affluent neighbourhoods.
GLIMMERS OF HOPE WITH RAINWATER HARVESTING
A woman pumps water out of an underground rainwater collection tank in the Thar desert. Photo courtesy of the author, 2023.
It should be clear enough by now that water scarcity is a man-made issue. This means that it can be solved. Glimmers of hope are lighting up in the desert of Rajasthan with the introduction of rainwater harvesting systems.
Since the first conference on Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) took place in Tokyo, Japan in 1994, the topic has grown in popularity among media and practitioners alike. A 2009 UNEP report played up the role of these techniques in guaranteeing water supply to the rural poor. The Government of India has initiated projects to renovate ancient catchment structures across the country.
I visited villages where underground water tanks to collect rainwater have changed people’s lives, emancipating them from the burden of fetching water
RWH structures have the purpose of collecting rainwater and storing it so that it is available in drier periods. In Rajasthan, I met members of Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, an NGO working on establishing RWH systems in the Thar Desert. I visited villages where underground water tanks to collect rainwater have changed people’s lives, emancipating them from the burden of fetching water.
By looking at water scarcity in Rajasthan through a political ecology lens, it is possible to shed light on the human side of the water crisis in North-Western India. It is a crisis exacerbated by drought-prone hydrological conditions, but that originates from a deeper structure of inequality in access to water. However, the fact that water scarcity is a management issue, means that it is, by definition, manageable. This should give us hope that with investments in rainwater harvesting and fair water distribution policies, access to water can be granted to everyone, even in the harshest climates.
To learn more, read the OECD report: The G20 initiative for rural youth employment
Between 2017 and 2022, G20 members invested over USD 20 billion in 671 projects related to rural youth employment in Africa. The G20 Initiative for Rural Youth Employment (RYE), launched in 2017, overachieved the targets set to provide employment-related skills to 5 million youth and create 1.1 million jobs by 2022. The most common types of interventions were those focused on agriculture value chain development, skills training, and the promotion of entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized businesses. The paper assesses the achievements of the G20 Initiative for RYE, analyses different RYE programmes and provides recommendations for future G20 initiatives and RYE programming. Despite great progress, much remains to be done to tackle rural youth employment challenges.