The “waterman of India” will walk across five continents to raise awareness for his campaign to have the human rights to river water and access to nature recognised by the UN.
“Nature cannot fulfil greed,” Rajendra Singh said on Monday at World Water Week, where he will accept the Stockholm Water Prize on Wednesday. Singh argued that communities facing water crises should resist the money and technological solutions offered by corporations. Instead, he told the Guardian, they must find ways to help themselves.
“The companies always bother about the profit, they are not bothered about our common future,” he said. “They use the name of social corporate responsibility – but this is not sufficient for life. This is not sufficient for a better common future. They are using very good jargon. But they are only meeting, eating and cheating.”
Thirty-five years ago, Singh revived an ancient dam technology in his hot, dry home state of Rajasthan in north-west India. Working with local people he has returned water to more than 1,200 villages. The landscape and climate have been transformed; seven long-dead rivers have begun to flow, wells are full and once-parched fields are now fertile.
Singh said he would now embark on a five-year odyssey across five continents. In the tradition of his hero, Mahatma Gandhi, Singh has long advocated the technique of walking through landscapes.
“Walking connects you to the heart of the earth and the heart of the human,” he said. Each of his World Water Peace Walks will visit grassroots solutions to water challenges.
In 2017, Singh will visit the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in Geneva to push for the recognition of the right to river water and access to nature. The recently recognised human right to water and sanitation is dependent on a clean environment and flowing river, Singh said.
“On paper, you have declared water is a human right. But water as a human right is only possible after river rights and nature rights. Without the clean flow of the river you can’t ensure the human right,” he said.
A draft text of the rights Singh is campaigning for will be written in the coming months. But in practice, Singh said it would require industry to declare the resources they used and replace them. Key to Singh’s success in India has been a reinvigoration of local democracy, centred on the collective ownership and management of river water. He said the government of Uttar Pradesh had called him on Sunday to tell him the state would recognise river rights by law.
UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, said the right to water implied controls on pollution but human rights law does not prefer public or private ownership of a resource.
“Technically speaking human rights apply to people. There are discussions at the UN about the recognition of the right to a clean environment. But I’m not sure that this position is right,” said Albuquerque.
Singh quietly began the walks in the UK earlier in August. The first took place on the island of Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert is said to have raised a spring to save the islanders from a seventh-century drought. He then met locals in Belford, Northumberland who have developed a cheap, effective system of “bunds” to protect themselves from flooding and in the Dearne Valley, Yorkshire where similar work is proposed.
“The problem is climate change. Our problem is global, but the solution is local. The solution is traditional,” he said.
Minni Jain, director of the Flow Partnership, which has helped Singh plan the walks, said the project did not discriminate between the struggles of communities in poor or rich countries.
“How can we make this movement – the bringing back of resource ownership into the hands of the common man – global? In India it’s possible. Is it possible in the west? That’s a tricky question, because it’s a different kind of system altogether. You have privatisation of companies, lots of vested interests, lots of big corporations. It’s a really stuck system,” she said.
The director of the $150,000 Stockholm Water Prize, Jens Berggren, said he agreed that local people must play a bigger role. However “the private sector can contribute with a lot of resources, with a lot of know how. At the same time they must be [subject to] regulation and enforcement”.
Singh will now return to India, to the memorial site of Gandhi in Delhi, and journey to the Kumbh, a hugely important Hindu religious festival where people bathe in the Ganges river.
“I will start my journey from my idol Mahatma Gandhi’s samādhi [the ultimate stage of meditation],” he said.
In September Singh goes to the US, followed by Germany and Morocco. He said the need for the project was urgent, because water was already driving conflict across the globe towards a “third-world water war”. In May, US president Barack Obama said climate-driven drought had aggravated conflict and terror in Nigeria and Syria.
Since first picking up a shovel alongside a village elder 35 years ago, Singh has been a passionate advocate for community driven, low-tech solutions to the global water crisis. A system of johads, earthen dams that hold water and allow it to percolate down replenishing the aquifer, had once allowed the region to stay green despite minimal rainfall. But the johads fell into disrepair a century ago during the consolidation of British rule and land management in India.
To repair them had been his life’s work, he said: “You can change history very quickly, but changing the geography takes time.”
Now, with Rajasthan green, it was his ambition to spread his techniques across the world. “I’m spending the rest of life on this. It’s my motivation to change war to peace. I don’t know if it is possible in my life or not. But we will try.”
Read more here