The ‘Regeneration of the Banas-Bisalpur Socio-ecological Complex’ workshop (JK Lakshmipat University, Jaipur, December 2017) brought together approximately 70 participants from government, NGOs, academia, village governance institutions and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes sharing an interest in reversal of the currently degrading cycle of linked ecological and socioeconomic degradation across the Banas River catchment in Rajasthan. The workshop was run in association with the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol, UK), JK Lakshmipat University (Jaipur, India), and WaterHarvest – India Liaison Office (Udaipur, India), and was kindly sponsored by Wetlands International – South Asia Office (Delhi, India).
Like many catchments globally, the Banas has not been treated in modern times as a living resource. Rather, it has been subject to high levels of abstraction without proportional rebalancing resource renewal, putting the socio-ecological system into degrading cycle. Yet, for four-and-a-half thousand years of pre-industrial history, the people of Rajasthan had subsisted and thrived on scarce water by innovation and operation of a diversity of ‘water wise’ recharge, storage and efficient use solutions attuned to local geography and culture. A key challenge for reversal of the currently rapidly degrading cycle in the Banas catchment, with its associated vulnerabilities for all inherently interconnected urban and rural people co-dependent on its water, is to recognise the central role played by the primary resource of ecosystem processes.
Workshop participants welcomed the opportunity to work together to explore problems, emerging needs and potential solutions, and to do so as part of an ongoing strategy of ‘action learning’ towards a vision of a regenerative socio-ecological system. Future progress entails working together to co-develop solutions that work with natural processes, hybridising traditional knowledge and modern techniques to achieve a regenerative socio-ecological cycle better connected across the catchment in a modern world of significant population growth, urbanisation and climate change. Cross-catchment connections include closer integration and equitable balance between needs and appropriate solutions that work for all people, with the current fracture of perspectives between urban and rural regions highlighted as a particular priority for action.
Economic and regulatory reforms attuned to supporting environmental processes are essential, backed up by research in environmental and social systems, engineering, economics and governance mechanisms. Shared awareness and responsibility by all people across the catchment is necessary to achieve a more integrated approach to catchment sustainability, including reducing current fragmentation of institutions and knowledge. NGOs, village governance institutions and faith leaders have significant roles to play in integrating effort and knowledge, along with government, CSR and academic programmes.
All technologies, both ecosystem-based and ‘hard’ engineering techniques, have roles to play, but the ramifications of their deployment need to be understood. An agreed foundational goal within the Banas vision is sustainable hybridisation of water management technologies –natural infrastructure, traditional management, ‘green’ technologies and ‘hard’ engineering – in ways that are beneficial to local people and catchment processes. This is vital to reverse current and cumulative cumulate pressures arising from proliferation of unlicenced tube wells and large dam-and-transfer schemes that are not today balanced with recharge, constituting primary drivers of catchment decline. Water efficiency in urban area, responsible for a high density of demand, is substantially underinvested today. Novel urban self-sufficiency, benefit sharing and investment mechanisms to regenerate the resource are required, overcoming former narrow exploitation-based approaches founded on limited knowledge and power asymmetries. Novel ideas include limiting water diversions from the Bisalpur to the city of Jaipur, quantitatively or on a time-limited basis, as a means to force greater awareness and self-reliance on local urban sources (such as investment in infiltration pits and local storage) and ‘green infrastructure’ solutions (rooftop water harvesting, greywater reuse, etc.) to redress power asymmetries and assumptions, and to promote urban self-sufficiency.
Some knowledge gaps and incorrect assumptions need to be addressed. This includes in particular divergent opinions about the impact of small anicuts in upper sub-catchments, seen by some a stopping water reaching the Bisapur Dam but by others as sustaining local livelihoods whilst also regenerating groundwater systems that store and buffer flows downstream. There is also a need to better understand underground and surface flows of water in the catchment as a robust basis for more sustainable management, and to improve the protection of this vital natural capital to combat poverty and better support human needs.
Novel livelihood practices could be innovated to make better beneficial use of water within the catchment, rather than depending on abstraction from the ecosystem to drive short-term consumptive economic uses. The economics of water include thinking in a cyclic way consistent with the water cycle, for example directing investment in upstream practices that recharge the catchment system rather than simply using it to increase the technical efficiency of extractive technologies that the current declines in water quantity and quality will render unsustainable. Reformed economic instruments are part of a wider transition to cyclic thinking and behaviour, also addressing equity issues, creating a regulatory environment across the catchment that works in synergy with its natural supportive and regenerative processes.
Reaching for a regenerative vision necessarily includes innovating effective, nested governance systems. A ‘top down’ catchment-scale vision and enabling policy environment is necessary to inform and facilitate progress towards the catchment-wide vision, also helping enforce practices such as driving roof water harvesting, water efficiency and reuse, and other necessary efficiency measures in urban areas. However, practical delivery requires a high level of delegation to identify and deploy solutions closely tuned to specific geographical and cultural situations, that are best innovated and governed on a highly localised basis. Enabling, nested and co-creative governance arrangement are required. This includes far closer integration of the disparate CSR, NGO, local, faith leader and government programmes (MGNREGA, Smart Cities, Rajasthan’s MJSA programme, and many more departmental initiatives and associated budgets that are currently narrowly deployed). This can be implemented with far greater synergy and cross-departmental co-benefits leading towards the ultimate vision of a regenerative socio-ecological system.
'Business as usual’ – today’s overemphasis on technically efficient extraction, overlooking ecosystem processes underpinning resource recharge and availability – is not a sustainable option, and can only perpetuate ecological depletion and associated human vulnerabilities. There is now no viable, equitable or sustainable alternative than acting upon what we now know about the systemic nature of catchments, and refocusing energies, investment and innovation on an ecosystem- and community-based regeneration programme for the Banas socio-ecological system. There is a pressing need to change paradigm from narrowly short-term exploitation, leading to the depletion of water and associated ecological and human wellbeing, towards more informed and strategic stewardship with efficient uses balanced with resource protection and regeneration.
Workshop participants saw substantial value in bringing people together from a diversity of societal sectors associated with the catchment, welcoming future opportunities to share perspectives and make strides towards co-created sustainable solutions. Ecosystems and their processes were acknowledged as the fundamental resource underpinning continuing human security and opportunity, and need to be valued on that basis in all management and use decisions within a bold vision of a regenerative socio-ecological Banas system. Though the challenges of attaining it are daunting, confronting many assumed norms and vested interests, this vision can be focal for progressive innovation, evolution and integration of initiatives, to get as close as possible to a baseline of natural catchment functioning and sustainable human interactions with it.
Above all, the tight interlinkage between all people co-dependent on the catchment system needs to be recognised within a collaborative approach to balance water use with recharge, regenerating the entire socio-ecological system. This is “a journey, not a destination” that all participants are happy to progress.