I heard Rajendra Singh speak for the first time last November at The Economist Water Summit in London. As the keynote speaker on the closing session, he was introduced as ‘The Water Gandi’ who had revived seven rivers in Rajasthan during the last 25 years.
His talk on that occasion was about the impact of taking action. He told of how he had started 35 years ago working with local people to revive their ancient dam technology to return water flowing to 1,200 villages. It was also about people resisting the money and technological solutions offered by corporations and finding ways to help themselves.
Rajendra Singh started out in Rajasthan as a medical doctor in a region where the rivers were dead. He told the story of how an old man asked him why he was giving out medicine, given that the people living in that area were no longer interested in life. They would rather die early than live the kind of life they had with no water.
They didn’t need medicine, the old man told Rajendra. They needed water.
So they began reviving rivers. Rajendra said he knew nothing about water systems or engineering; he was a medical doctor. But he and the old man set to work, locating the underground aquifers that used to feed the now dry river beds and, through a series of carefully placed mini-dams, and a major de-silting process, brought the underground river flow back to the surface.
This year at the Stockholm Water Week, it didn’t surprise me that Rajendra Singh had been chosen for the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize, widely referred to as the Nobel Prize for water.
My colleague Samantha Yates, also Secretary General of the Global Water Leaders Group and I had the opportunity to meet with him briefly for a conversation about his work and what he had coming up next.
He has his eyes on 2020. Via the UK, Europe and then the US, he will be taking his model for the community-driven, bottom up approach for managing water sources and showing how that can sit alongside hard-core engineering solutions.
I was glad to learn that he was going to America and asked him if he thought he could do something for the Colorado River.
Yes, he said. Why not?
At the heart of Rajendra Singh’s approach to community action is the River Parliament. This came up in our conversation when my colleague Samantha asked him what his plan was to make sure the rivers keep flowing now that he has them flowing again.
His eyes lit up, he sat straight forward and said, ‘You are a visionary lady!’
He then explained the River Parliament. This is a non-governmental body whose members came from the local communities served by the river and who act by agreement with the community to maintain a disciplined use of water. The River Parliament has no legal authority; rather its power is that of moral persuasion. And it seems to be working.
Before this conversation took place I had heard Rajendra Singh address the Opening Plenary Session at the beginning of the Stockholm Water Week. He ended by looking straight at the audience ahead of him and saying that the time for action was now.
That’s what India can teach the US. 2050 isn’t that far away.