Connecting Waterpeople

You are here

India’s stepwells could help with water crisis

  • India’s stepwells could help with water crisis

Ancient stepwells, wells or ponds for water storage carved in the earth, where people can reach the water going down a set of steps – sometimes multiple storeys – were built to cope with seasonal variations in water availability in western and northern India. An article in BBC Future looks at how restoring these centuries-old structures can provide relief from water shortages.

Stepwells – baoli in Hindi, vav in Gujarati – date back more than 1000 years. They consist of a deep trench, with the walls lined with stone, and stairs leading down to the water. Besides being a source of water, they had a leisure purpose. They provided relief from heat at the base, and were used for social gatherings, particularly for women, who were the ones in charge of collecting the water, and for religious ceremonies. As a result, some of them have significant ornamental and architectural features. Their construction peaked from the 11th to 15th centuries.

Neglected for centuries, remains of stepwells can be found in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi, while some disappeared completely. But they recently have drawn attention as a tool to help address India’s water problems. Stepwells were typically built on natural slopes to collect run off, as rainwater catchment areas. Furthermore, those used for farming had drainage systems that channelled water into the fields. During the rainy season, they would fill to capacity, and their close-packed design helped reduce evaporation.

India is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater and aquifers are becoming depleted, threatening both water and food security, as food crops rely largely on irrigation from groundwater sources. The government supports the use of India’s traditional water management systems, which can be modified for local requirements. In 2018, the state of Rajasthan, as part of its heritage programme, developed a framework that includes the restoration of stepwells, with assistance from the World Bank.

Chand Baori, in the village of Abhaneri near Bandikui, Rajasthan, one of the deepest and largest stepwells in India. Credit: Doron via Wikimedia Commons 

"India has a comprehensive water eco-system, but most of the traditional water bodies have become defunct. Reviving the stepwells will enable people to reclaim their traditional resources and spaces of community life. With the holding capacity that stepwells like Chand Bawri have, a great burden of water scarcity can be mitigated," said Mohit Dhingra, from the Jindal School of Art and Architecture in Sonepat, India.

Undertaking restoration is a complex endeavour, according to Ratish Nanda, a conservation architect with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an organisation leading restoration efforts, since a stepwell needs a catchment area through which water can reach underground aquifers. Restoration work is often carried out through partnerships between government and non-governmental organisations, local volunteers and donors. Stepwells are a water source, and also part India's architectural heritage. They can have a role as social centres and attract tourists.

Victoria Lautman, author of The vanishing stepwells of India, said: "Awareness of India's stepwells has grown exponentially recently. It's ironic that they've been ignored, considering how wonderfully efficient stepwells were at providing water for nearly 1,500 years. Now, thanks to the restoration efforts, stepwells will come full circle."

Subscribe to our newsletter

The data provided will be treated by iAgua Conocimiento, SL for the purpose of sending emails with updated information and occasionally on products and / or services of interest. For this we need you to check the following box to grant your consent. Remember that at any time you can exercise your rights of access, rectification and elimination of this data. You can consult all the additional and detailed information about Data Protection.

Featured news