11. Natural Water Managers

The Saguaro Cactus in Arizona is a leafless plant which is one of the best water managers in the world. Only 10 meters tall, its roots spread far and wide in a radius of 20 meters which absorb and store water from the smallest shower. Weighing 10 tones, it stores 8 tones of water. The plant has sharp prickles to protect its treasure of water. The mesquites of Texas which grow along dry river beds have wide spreading roots, hungry for water. Sometimes the roots grow to 80 meters. The plant hardly grows above the ground till it strikes water.
It is fascinating how plants provide clues about the presence of water in the vicinity. A famous Indian astronomer, astrologer and mathematician, Varahamihira in the 54th chapter of Brihat Samhita, writes about finding water sources. He has written about various types of plants and termite mounds that show where water can be found. The Jamun tree with its delicious purple fruit, indicates water at 16ft depth, 5ft north of the tree. Fig trees have water sources close by. A herb called Vallarai which is said to enhance memory, also indicates the presence of water. Termite mounds which need moist soil also indicate the presence of water. Nature provides a hundred clues to sensitive water detectives. For instance, if a coconut or Palmyra palm tree has its trunk branched in two, water will be found at 24 ft west of the tree.
In a desert, if you see hills, you are likely to find water at the base. Damp sand in a dry riverbed indicates water. Follow the foot prints of animals and game trails. Follow then downhill to find water. Reed grass and palms spell the presence of moisture. Be careful while drinking water from a cactus especially with a milky sap. Throwing up will only increase dehydration. Dew could save you. Collect it before sun rise, when it will swiftly evaporate. Thirsty Bedouins dig up cool stones just before sunrise. When dew settles on them, they lick it up.
The way animals deal with water, is another fascinating subject. Beavers are the best builders of dams for their own convenience. With sharp teeth and flat tails, they use mud and sticks to flood an area, where they can navigate below or near the surface. This dam creates an eco system where they can remain hidden from predators. The flooded areas also provide access to food during the lean winter months.
All of nature has such acute intelligence about water. Mankind’s sensitivity increases when water is scarce, as we find in deserts. It reduces drastically as water becomes plentiful. In the desert, water in life itself and it is treated as sacred. In Cherrapunji which has the highest rainfall in the world, there is water shortage. In the Rajasthan Thar desert area, receiving scanty rain for just 3-4 months, there is enough water for cultivation in many areas as also for the needs of households.
The surprising conclusion is that water security or Jal Swaraj (water independence) may not be nature’s gift. It is a combination of a tradition of water conservation, culture and religion. In Rajasthan, water is worshipped as sacred. This creates a pyramidal structure, with each household storing rain water and villages nurturing ponds, tanks and retention pools and huge tanks like the one in Gharsiscar. Khadeems are oases in the desert, stored through the retention of water, in the beds of seasonal rivers, which provide enough for both the kharif and Rabi crops.
So let us treat water like Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and well being. Even when water flows like a waterfall in our plush glamour rooms at home, let us remember how hard people, animals and plants work for a drop of water.

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