By Priya Ranganathan

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In Alwar, one of the driest parts of Rajasthan, villagers struggled to get enough water for their daily needs. This district is one of the poorest in the state and many villagers left the area in search of better livelihoods in larger towns and cities. But in the 1700s, one of the rivers of this region, the Arvari River, was a powerful waterbody providing ample water to over 70 villages along its banks. But in the 1940s, widespread cutting of forests dried up this powerful river. During the rainy season, loose soil and silt were washed down from the newly treeless mountains and clogged the riverbed. Soon, the Arvari ceased to exist, flowing occasionally during a heavy monsoon season but otherwise a dry shell of its previous self.

As the river dried up and left behind a virtual desert, the people living along its banks began to migrate away from the region. When Rajendra Singh arrived at one of the villages in 1985, he noticed only a few residents remained.

But who is Rajendra Singh? Well, some call him the Waterman of India. Best know for reviving the dying Arvari River, Rajendra Singh arrived in Alwar district and immediately realized that the reason for the poverty of the people was the river that flowed no more. He had arrived to serve as an Ayurvedic doctor and build a small clinic to help the local people. However, he realized he could be of more immediate help by helping to bring water back to the villages in the district.

Reviving the river (Illustration by Asmita Sapre Ranganathan)

Using his knowledge of geology, ecology, and hydrology, he began to build tiny dams, called johads, on each of the small streams that flowed to the Arvari River. Some of these streams were underground, while others still flowed on the surface of the earth. The people of the region used to build johads in the past to keep the river flowing, but the practice was long forgotten, just like the river itself. Rajendra Singh simply tapped into this ancient practice by asking the village elders for their advice.

Rajendra Singh and his small band of assistants from the Tarun Bhagat Sangh began building their first johad at the village of Gopalpura. When the monsoon arrived, the small pond behind the dam began to fill with water. Soon, there was enough water collected to seep into the parched soil and renew the groundwater. This filled a well that was dug right by the riverbed, and the villagers rejoiced. The men continued to build more johads along the Arvari River, slowly recharging the underground wells and forcing the river to flow on the surface once more.

Today, the Arvari flows like any other monsoonal river in India. During the rains, it brims over its banks, spilling onto the fields surrounding it. During the dry season, the johad system keeps the wells filled, even though the surface water levels decrease. But the river lives on, its heart beating firmly as it weaves a blue trail across the browns and golds of Alwar’s parched soil.

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam.

About the Artist:

Asmita Sapre Ranganathan is a pathologist, poet, writer, Sanskrit teacher, and artist from Mumbai.