Reviving Rivers Through Community Based Action – An Exchange of Views in the Context of North East Syria

Save the Tigris together with the Water4Rojava Committee on 11 April 2022 co-organised a community-to-community dialogue between Rajasthan, India and Northeast Syria on the topic of water harvesting and river revival through community action. The aim was to introduce the concept and share successful experiences especially from India to relevant actors in NES and to discuss prospects of joint action.

Save the Tigris has been working since many years to challenge the mainstream approaches to water management in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, particularly dam construction, and the use of water as a political weapon. There are other reasons too, for water conflict: groundwater in particular has been exhausted. The solution of government sin the Mesopotamian region has been to build more dams. At the Mesopotamian Water Forum in 2019 lessons from the Indian experience were raised. The work of groups there have demonstrated that ground water and riverbasins can be managed through community waterharvesting techniques which were once common but have been undermined by dam-building policies. Such techniques are directed at restoring water sheds and free flowing rivers. The purpose of the community-to-community dialogue between Rajasthan and Northeast Syria was to share such experiences to develop community-led approaches to waterways. The call was regarded as a first step in a process of exchanging experiences and building alternatives together, serving people rather than elites. 

By reviving a traditional watershed technology known as a johad, or check dam, in the Alwar region of Rajasthan, local people have restored the ecological balance of the region. This form of decentralized water management has led to a revival of rural life, agriculture, reforestation and rejuvenating seasonal rivulets into rivers. As a result the semi-arid landscape in Rajasthan underwent a major transformation. Although rainfall averages just 620 mm in a year, using traditional methods of capturing monsoon rains to supply water throughout the year, wells in the area were recharged to capacity again. The johads provide water for drinking and irrigation and recharge groundwater wells. Community participation of the johads was ensured through  joint community mechanisms, as a result local communities feel ownership of the rainwaterharvesting, investing time and effort in their maintenance.

Environmental activist and water expert Himanshu Thakkar of the Amu Darya Basin Network has been working since a decade to include river restoration into government policies. He noted that the key to the success of the johad is to store rain where it falls and storing it in small water structures. Thakkar believes that the community initiative of the johad is more advanced than government policies or new technologies, depending on as little as 300mm rainfall. In addition, groundwater which is one of the main sources of water in India, is replenished as a result of the johad.

The Flow Partnership has been globalizing the lessons and approaches Tarun Bharat Sangh  has developed on rainwaterharvesting in Rajasthan, India, aiming to replicate the work globally. Minni Jain from the Flow Partnership claims the achievements in Rajasthan have resonated globally with communities since it builds on traditional wisdom and has a stronger impact than government policies, allowing for rejuvenation of rivers replenishment of groundwater. Jain says in Rajasthan alone 7 rivers were rejuvenated.

Waleed Choli (NES Water Forum) expressed high similarities between the situation in NES and Rajasthan. The main difference would be the monsoon rain, which allows for more rainfall then in Northeast Syria. NES in particular is in need of such waterharvesting projects, especially since there are thousands of slopes to make use of. Choli says it would help us to revive the countryside life in NES. The crisis in NES is huge. The region used to be the food basket of Syria since long time, but in recent times agriculture has been vastly reduced as a result of the decrease in water resources. In September 2021 the Water Forum of NES took place in Al-Hasakeh. The purpose of the forum was to highlight the water crisis in NES, to find strategies and solutions. In the past some wells were dug, mainly in Al-Alok, which have run dry or have become under Turkish control. Other Syrian activists expressed that waterharvesting depends on the amount of rainfall.

Activists from NES expressed their readiness to take action. It was recommended to start setting up a working group which could benefit from expertise delivered in the call. Experiments could be set up in NES in areas close to valleys or river areas. After studying the geology of such areas projects could be generated. In any case, there is a lot to learn from friends in India.

Many thanks to all who supported and contributed to this important first conversation, especially Tarun Bharat Sangh, Himanshu Thakkar, مركز الفرات للدراسات, Nick Hildyard, Water4Rojava, Re-Alliance, The Flow Partnership, and interpretation via Un Ponte Per.

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