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With rainfall patterns changing almost every year, the Indian government has started looking at means to revive the traditional systems of water harvesting in the country. Wikimedia Commons

A key element in any strategy which has the objective of alleviating the water scarcity crisis in India is water conservation. With rainfall patterns changing almost every year, the Indian government has started looking at means to revive the traditional systems of water harvesting in the country. Given that these methods are simple and eco-friendly for the most part, they are not just highly effective for the people who rely on them but they are also good for the environment.

Archaeological evidence shows that the practice of water conservation is deep-rooted in the science of ancient India. Excavations show that the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation had excellent systems of water harvesting and drainage. The settlement of Dholavira, laid out on a slope between two stormwater channels, is a great example of water engineering. Chanakya’s Arthashashtra mentions irrigation using water harvesting systems.


Drawing upon centuries of experience, Indians continued to build structures to catch, hold and store monsoon rainwater for the dry seasons to come. Here is a brief account of the unique water conservation systems prevalent in India and the communities who have practiced them for decades before the debate on climate change even existed.

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1. Jhalara

Jhalaras are typically rectangular-shaped stepwells that have tiered steps on three or four sides. These stepwells collect the subterranean seepage of an upstream reservoir or a lake. The city of Jodhpur has eight jhalaras, the oldest being the Mahamandir Jhalara that dates back to 1660 AD.


To minimize water loss through evaporation, a series of layered steps were built around the reservoirs to narrow and deepen the wells. Wikimedia Commons

2. Bawari

These are unique stepwells that were once a part of the ancient networks of water storage in the cities of Rajasthan. Water is diverted to man-made tanks through canals. The water would then percolate into the ground, raising the water table and recharging a deep and intricate network of aquifers. To minimize water loss through evaporation, a series of layered steps were built around the reservoirs to narrow and deepen the wells.

3. Johads

Johads, one of the oldest systems used to conserve and recharge groundwater, are small earthen check dams that capture and store rainwater. Constructed in an area with naturally high elevation on three sides, a storage pit is made by excavating the area, and excavated soil is used to create a wall on the fourth side.

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4. Panam Keni

The Kuruma tribe (a native tribe of Wayanad) uses a special type of well, called the Panam Keni, to store water. Wooden cylinders are made by soaking the stems of toddy palms in water for a long time so that the core rots away until only the hard outer layer remains. These cylinders, four feet in diameter as well as depth, are then immersed in groundwater springs located in fields and forests. This is the secret behind how these wells have abundant water even in the hottest summer months.


Baolis on trade routes were often frequented as resting places. Wikimedia Commons

5. Baoli

Built by the nobility for civic, strategic or philanthropic reasons, baolis were secular structures from which everyone could draw water. These beautiful stepwells typically have beautiful arches, carved motifs and sometimes, rooms on their sides. The locations of baolis often suggest the way in which they were used. Baolis within villages were mainly used for utilitarian purposes and social gatherings. Baolis on trade routes were often frequented as resting places.


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