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Is Water A Public or Private Resource? Hydro-geology, Fairness, Entitlement and the Commons - Discus

Note- Radha leads the curricular track- Planetary Web: Nature, Society and the Individual at GenWise. In this series of posts, she talks about her work with children- where teacher and students engage with real-life issues and in the process, investigate complex relationships. Their actions and responses arise from this engagement and the understanding born out of it.

Post 1 had narrated an experience on engaging with solid management. Post 2 carried on seamlessly from Post 1 to contrast the experience of students on the waste management project with the standard approach in the curriculum, and makes a case for studying a network of inter-dependencies and relationships in any situation. This post also outlines what students can expect in Radha's series of 'New Thinking for a New World' courses in Summer 2020. Post 3 (this one) outlines the engagement of a residential school with the community around it on the issue of sharing water, and introduces the idea of 'commons'- the subject of one of her courses in Summer 2020. See the links at the end of this post to navigate to Radha's upcoming courses.

Another drought year was looming and the residential school community of which I was a part, was preparing to face the water scarcity challenges. The campus is located in a rural community and our neighbours are small farmers and pastoralists. The farmers and the school community draws its water from the same groundwater pool- so in a sense we share a common source of water. Of the 15 borewells on campus, only three were operational that year. The rest had dried up! We had to now come up with immediate and long-term measures to conserve water. We started by fixing all the leakages in taps, fittings and piping across the campus; bathing by standing in a tub and using the wash water to flush the toilets thereby reducing fresh water consumption; fixing our wastewater recycling and reuse systems so the treated water could be used for toilets, agriculture, for the cattle that we maintain, to water the trees and so on. To maximise water availability and retain moisture we covered the soil around the trees with leaves, twigs etc. The next step was to increase water supply for the campus. Our options were: (i) deepen our dry bore wells to access more groundwater and (ii) make arrangements to buy water to supplement our water supply.

Some of us then actively began dialoguing around ways in which the school could support our neighbouring farmers to carry on their livelihoods to the extent possible with the limited water. So we closed the school dairy because it required too much water and instead started buying milk from the small dairy farmers in the surrounding villages. You see, dairy farming was one of the sources of livelihood for these small farmers. And as I said earlier both the farmers and the school were dependent on the same pool of groundwater. So if we reduced the amount of groundwater we used by closing the dairy there would be more water available for the farmers to practice their livelihood. By buying milk from them we also support their livelihood.

As we engaged in the water issue collectively in and outside the classroom, two questions from a 14-year old triggered the unravelling of yet another network of relationships in our planetary web: why can't we drill deeper into the ground since as a school we can afford that and that way we don't have to close the dairy etc.? When I am back home why can't I use as much water as I want to if I have the money to pay for it?

The first thing we did was to map the relationship between us drilling deeper and its impact on the community. A preliminary lesson on groundwater hydrology was followed by a study of the hydro-geological map of the watershed that the campus and the surrounding 32 hamlets shared. It became clear that as we go deeper into the aquifer and draw the deeper water, we are in effect pulling water away from the 32 hamlets. This meant that because we could afford to, we had the ability to take away water that provided livelihoods and life to not just the community but to animals and plants in the entire watershed. When the deep wells dried up, we could afford to bring water by tankers from nearby areas. These tankers were also being filled by drawing groundwater from those nearby areas: so now we were taking water away from other communities. This led to a new set of questions: who owns the water that comes from the bore wells in the school? Since it is on the school's property doesn't it belong to the school? The school should then be able to pull this water for its own use. The discussion moved on to questioning the idea of ownership: what does owning groundwater mean? Can one person or Institution 'own' water that in reality is a shared resource? Some students brought up the issue of fairness and equality saying that the school community should not deepen the borewell because it would be unfair to the rural community. Others talked about the need to conserve water because it was the right thing to do, ecologically, particularly for the plants. The discussion provided the right opportunity to introduce the idea of commons and common pool resources, particularly through the work of researchers like NS Jodha who have spent a lifetime trying to understand and highlight the critical role that commons play in semi-arid landscapes. We were able to try and understand the importance of scrubland vegetation for the dependent faunal species and the pastoralists. It also afforded an opportunity to visit the local common areas in the nearby villages to see how these spaces were used to thresh crops, store and clean tamarind (a local source of livelihood), graze animals etc.

In the following school term, the same set of students carried out a water audit of the school community to understand water needs, consumption patterns, and ways to augment the water sources through innovative rain water harvesting structures. In fact, the students who were questioning the school's decision not to deepen the borewells used their free time to do the calculations required for designing the rain water harvesting structures in their hostels. Other students started researching about drought-resistant crops and conducted interviews with older local farmers to learn more about how such crops were grown, how they were harvested and even collected recipes to include them in the school's menu! So the learning continues as we respond to situations.. each response will bring change and then we will be required to respond to that change. This journey is called sustainability: a continuous learning process, one of change and our adaptation to change.

Learning is such a dance of boundaries – analytical and normative; a push and pull of convictions and reality; persisting and tenaciously engaging freel,y but in a framework. These experiences with children where we collectively explored our reality rather than breaking down things around us as problems and solutions allowed for a rich and deep learning. (normative is a term used to describe evaluating things based on 'norms' or 'ethics')

The curricular track Planetary Web: Nature, Society and Individual attempts to bring such learning experiences through various specially curated courses that dissolve boundaries of discipline and subject.

Courses by Radha in Summer 2020-

For children entering grade 8, 9 or 10-

For children entering grade 5, 6 or 7

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