Christian Long

Anupam Mishra: The Ancient Ingenuity of Water Harvesting

In TED Talks on April 9, 2010 at 11:27 am

Reflection by GABRIELLA B.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Anupam Mishra: The Ancient Ingenuity of Water Harvesting

If you will, imagine for a moment the golden desert.

Also known as the Great Indian Desert or the Thar Desert, this vast arid zone covers over 77,000 square miles of the sub-continent of India. It is situated in the north-west of the country, and despite the harsh environment and an annual rainfall below 9 inches it is populated not only by nomads but also numerous small communities and the some 60 thousand that inhabit Jaisalmer, “The Golden City”.

So how then do these people survive in such a harsh land?

Does the government, spend billions on expensive canals and wells? Is water transported in at high cost and labor? Do humanitarian agencies spend time and money supplying these people with safe water, as we so often hear about in the drought stricken areas of Africa?

What then is the simple answer to all of these logical guesses?


But of course, we must never forget that it is not for lack of trying that the Indian government’s ventures to provide water have failed and been out performed by the existing methods and structures. The government felt that this very backward area could be improved through multi-million dollar canals to bring water from the Himalayas.

While not a complete failure, as it did supply some areas with water, it was soon clogged with water hyacinth and by the time it reached the canals reached the driest areas they were flowing with sand. The many tanks built to store the water are dry abandoned structures, proved ineffective in the face of the environmental extremes found in the Golden Desert.

A fact I personally don’t find all that astonishing. Our society has become far too dependent on the modern luxuries we consider necessary for civilized life. How then could our ‘soft technologies’ possibly function in an area that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries?

As Mishra so cleverly explains, it is not through modern marvels or outside intervention that these communities thrive but through their meticulous preservation of the ancient methods of water harvesting.

Unlike many a modern viewer might assume they do not rely on wells drawing water from deep below the surface of the sand, but ingenious methods of rain water collection. In fact even if a well were created, the water drawn up from such a contraption would not be drinkable. Instead they have specialized wells known as kund which literally squeeze water from the sand. Many vast and varied systems to catch what little rain they do receive have been implemented in any available space.

The roofs of houses are flat and designed to drain any collected rain water into the home beneath. Vast ancient pools and water reservoirs have been built and collect pure water throughout the monsoon season storing it for summer.

One must appreciate the aesthetic beauty of even the most practical structures. It is intriguing that so much time and energy was expended to create things that are not only of great necessity and efficiency but great beauty. But in a way it is like all things when people respect or revere a object we like to make it pleasing to the eye. You need only think of any religion or belief system in the world, vast soaring gothic cathedrals, the striking totem poles of some Native American cultures, or the more modern atheist meetings. (Yes there is such a thing. In New York they sport a deep purple banner.)

Many of these ancient water storing structures have stood for centuries and will continue to stand for many more as long as the people of that land maintain them. Generation after generation of has done so, without any government oversight committee nor funding but out of respect and duty.

So it is unsurprising that water is highly revered in the Indian culture. It is the center of life and as such is treated with a reverence that shows in their meticulous planning and preservation of the ancient structures.

The people of the Golden Desert know how to survive. They have been for centuries. They have learned better than any how to make the most of the water they receive. They are “the best civil engineers, the best planners and architects” not because they are the most formally educated but instead because it was a necessity. In fact it was in India that the first engineering college opened.

The vast Golden Desert of India has fostered a unique people that understand better than any how to live in harmony with their environment. They have melded the technologies of past and present to create a diverse culture that remembers and respects the old ways but is flexible enough to accommodate the new.

  1. Gabriella,

    Not only do you do a nice job of summarizing this TED talk, but you also bring up a critical point when it comes to addressing big problems in the world. Paying attention to local wisdom is critical, and it’s something that we Westerners do not always do so well in our rush to offer solutions. Good for you for recognizing the expertise of the Gobi engineers.

    You might also be interested in work of the Barefoot College:

    They harvest rainwater during monsoon season (instead of piping it back uphill during droughts), and on top of giant water tanks, they build village schools. Kids are more likely to come to school when there’s “sweet water” to drink. Smart!


    • Thank you so much for the recommendation. What Barefoot College is doing is truly inspiring; I really enjoyed their philosophy that technology should be in the hands of the people. The fact that they are keeping the water harvesting in the hands of the communities is remarkable. I especially like that they are not bringing in expensive resources from the outside but working with the materials available. I think really think more people should learn about what organizations, such as this one are doing to help communities in need. It’s interesting to know that there are some places in the progressive and fast paced world of today that still remember the values and ingenuities of history. Why reject a technology that works because it’s outdated.
      Gabriella B.

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