On the surface, India’s water woes seem like a classic case of too much demand and too little supply. To feed more than 1 billion people, farmers have been pumping groundwater far faster than it can be replenished. One-third of the country’s aquifers are already dangerously depleted. With the demand for water expected to double by 2050, there simply won’t be enough to go around.

That’s a frightening prospect in a country where 90 percent of groundwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, and where a quarter of the population is hungry.

But dig a little deeper and you find that the problem isn’t so much a lack of water as a lack of management. Cheap electricity and free water give farmers little incentive to conserve. Traditional water storage systems have been abandoned. Canals, dams and pipelines are leaky and inefficient. Thirsty crops like rice and sugarcane are planted in places with chronic water shortages. Vast areas of forest have been cleared. Pollution has made more and more water unfit for use. Despite a mind-bending number of authorities and boards, there’s hardly any coordination from agency to agency or state to state.

In other words, India’s water crisis has less to do with limited resources than with human behavior. And human behavior can, in theory, change.

Today’s “Food for 9 Billion” radio feature focuses on India’s rainwater harvesting movement, which has been slowly gaining momentum over the last three decades. Charismatic local leaders like Rajendra Singh in Rajasthan have motivated millions of villagers to revive and improve traditional techniques for collecting rainwater and recharging aquifers. They’ve also preached the gospel of conservation and led the fight against water-guzzling industries and crops.

As Singh will gladly tell you, rainwater harvesting alone won’t solve India’s water problems. But its success has raised public awareness about the looming crisis and the urgent need for action. It has also led many Indians – including many in government – to believe that solutions are more likely to come from the grass roots than from big bureaucracies.

That message came through loud and clear during my visit with Singh’s distant cousin, Laxman Singh, in a dairy-farming village called Lapuria about an hour’s drive from the city of Jaipur. Since the 1970s, Laxman Singh has overseen the digging of ponds, the contouring of pastures, the planting of trees and a host of other water-conservation measures. Together they’ve transformed Lapuria from a dusty ghost town into a thriving, bird-filled oasis.

The techniques used in Lapuria are different from the ones promoted by Laxman Singh’s more famous cousin a few hours to the east. But they’re based on the same principles: local design, local labor and local control.

In fact, when I asked Laxman Singh for the single most important technical intervention in Lapuria, he looked at me as if he didn’t understand the question. “It’s not about technology,” he said. “It’s about community engagement.”

A few notes for those of you interested in learning more:

For an excellent, detailed account of Rajendra Singh’s rainwater harvesting work, check out this 2006 article by Amanda Suutari and Gerry Marten of the EcoTipping Points project. For a more technical view of India’s groundwater challenges and potential solutions, click here [PDF] to download a 2010 World Bank report, “Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India.” Finally, for a glimpse of a promising pilot project that emphasizes water conservation and community control, visit the website of the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System, which works with farmer groups in more than 600 villages in drought-prone southern India. The idea is to give small-scale farmers the tools and information they need to identify problems and implement solutions that make sense under local conditions.

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Jon Miller

Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).