With increasing global challenges such as climate change and urbanisation, it is essential to relook at ingenious ways that water has been managed in the past and continues to be managed. This paper looks at heritage water management systems that have existed for centuries from an exploratory research approach. The ‘mosaic model’ from the landscape ecology scholarship is applied to understand the spatial components and linkages of these systems. The paper starts with the key features of heritage water systems, then moves to establish a close link between green infrastructure and heritage water systems. Finally, we explore a few select cases by applying the mosaic model to understand the heritage water systems. One of these cases is then further demonstrated to provide an insight into the systems and enable its spatial-wise use in the present fabric.

  • Establishes a brief link between water heritage systems and green infrastructures.

  • Even though the heritage systems referred to in this paper have existed for a long time, it tries to bridge the gap in their currently available knowledge, especially regarding spatial planning.

  • The re-integration of the water heritage is envisaged to strengthen our current and future water resources management.

Water has played a central role in shaping life and civilisation. Heritage water management systems signify systems that have developed with long and shared histories of water and the people. Hein et al. (2020) state that, ‘heritage is found in spaces that are closely linked to traditions, rituals, and narratives’ (Hein et al. 2020). Heritage, culture, and people go hand in hand, and as such ‘water heritage’, a widely used term, has proven to be hard to define globally considering the differing nature of this heritage (see (Willems & Schaik 2015) and (Hein et al. 2020)). In this paper, we do not attempt to define the term ‘heritage water systems’; it is envisaged to inculcate the concepts of heritage or ancient water systems and indigenous knowledge – although both cannot be used interchangeably (as one is systems-centric and another is people-centric).

Functioning at various spatial scales and contexts, heritage water systems have manifested into different forms across the world, from the Aqueducts and Hypocausts of the Romans, Sand dams of the Ukambanis in Kenya, Barays of Cambodia, Boezems of the Netherlands to the Qanats of Iran. These systems are hence highly contextual, and their function and use in the present day may vary per different places. For instance, Boezems of the Netherlands have continued to be a vital component of water management, whereas the Qanats of Iran are posed with a serious threat to their functioning (Nasiri & Mafakheri 2015). Even though heritage water management has been traditionally an intrinsic part of human life, little remains in the present day, especially relating to an in-depth knowledge of their spatial planning. Furthermore, the dependency on these heritage infrastructures has also reduced immensely with changing times and factors such as differing values, urbanisation, and reduction in a skilled workforce. To the point of making some of these redundant and only remainders of the past. This is truer for the heritage water systems in the developing world specifically in urban areas due to the added challenges of rapid urbanisation, ever-changing societal patterns, and a variety of invested stakeholders. With climate change and its aggravating impacts, it is becoming more crucial to look at alternative solutions in the present scenario or in this case revisit the past.

There have been various efforts for the conservation of some of the historical infrastructures, however, many of them have failed to function as a system as the conservation efforts have been fragmented and failed to see it as a holistic system but instead see them as stand-alone infrastructures. As Hein et al. (2020) observe, ‘overall, academics, policymakers, designers, and the public alike largely perceive heritage and water as separate worlds, represented by different sectors and organizations’ (Hein et al. 2020). This further diminishes water heritage and its inclusion in our waterscapes. We are slowly starting to realise the importance of culture and heritage in the water sector, an example of which is the Statement of Amsterdam, a result of the international conference entitled ‘Protecting deltas: heritage helps’ held in September 2013 by ICOMOS-Netherlands. Moreover, the role of indigenous knowledge and people in mitigation and adaptation to climate change has been receiving growing recognition since the early 2000s (IPCC 2019). This paper hence looks at reusing these systems from a holistic spatial approach. There is limited research on the integration of these systems in the present fabric. The paper aims to provide a scalable and transferable method that can be applied to these infrastructures in order to understand and better facilitate their reuse.

The widely used and accepted ‘mosaic model’ from the landscape ecology scholarship has been used to understand the spatial components and linkages in systems. The model provides a handle for analysis, comparison, and possible detection of general patterns and principles of the ecology of landscapes (Forman 1995). The model has since been also applied to green infrastructures and spatial planning. For instance, the model has been used to support ecological and physical processes and to advance the contributions made by green infrastructures (Ahern 2007). Recent findings indicate that the model provides a systematic approach to prioritise competing landuses within spatial planning (Pozoukidou 2020). The model consists of the following three main components in landscapes:

  • 1.

    Patches: large patches of natural vegetation characterised by a homogenous area – terrestrial or water-based.

  • 2.

    Corridors: linear areas with differing landuse than surroundings providing connection and access in systems.

  • 3.

    Matrix: dominant landuse/landcover in the landscape. A subcomponent of the matrix is transition points, small patches of vegetation (Pozoukidou 2020).

In addition to the three main components, this paper also proposes an additional component – hidden linkages. These, as the name suggests, are unseen links between components, such as groundwater recharge, that help us understand the local water cycle holistically. The paper applies the mosaic model to identify and assess the spatial components and to determine potential interventions.

The paper starts with the key features of heritage infrastructures and then moves to establish a close link between green infrastructure and heritage infrastructures. Finally, the mosaic model is applied to selected case studies to understand the heritage systems and ultimately demonstrate a methodology to aid in conservation efforts with the help of a microwatershed from one of the chosen case studies.

The study takes an exploratory research approach and is conducted through a literature study of various commonly found water harvesting systems with illustrations from selected cases. In addition to literature, government reports and databases such as BHUVAN (platform for map-based content prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation (National Remote Sensing Centre ISRO Government of India 2021)) and SLUSI (Soil and Land Use Survey of India) are referred to for the microwatershed analysis.

Green Infrastructure is widely recognised as a successful and smart strategy that integrates natural and semi-natural areas for environmental protection and management. In 2013, the European Commission emphasised Green Infrastructure as an integral and standard part of spatial planning (European Commission 2013). The commission also gave the following working definition:

‘A strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services. It incorporates green spaces (or blue if aquatic ecosystems are concerned) and other physical features in terrestrial (including coastal) and marine areas. On land, GI is present in rural and urban settings’.

Therefore, the integration of all sources of water in planning, multiple uses, and working with natural ecosystems form the fundamental principles of green infrastructures. These principles have also commonly been found in heritage water systems that have used indigenous knowledge. For instance, both heritage water systems and green infrastructures provide multi-utility. Such as, an artificial wetland (green infrastructure) may be working as storage infrastructure while also recharging the groundwater and providing other co-benefits (aesthetical value, flood reduction, supporting habitat). The Zabo system (a heritage water system later expanded upon in this paper) provides rainwater harvesting and protection of upstream forestlands and ensures the livelihoods of the locals, among others. This multi-utility is, however, generally not found in the conventional grey infrastructures that are often designed to address only a single water management problem, such as quality (water treatment plants) or storage (reservoirs). This link of similarities between heritage water systems and green infrastructures has yet to be explicitly established in the literature. However, there are many examples of heritage water systems demonstrating the fundamental principles of green infrastructures (see (Nair 2016) and (Narain & Agrawal 1997)).

For the larger part, the heritage systems have been understood from a cultural viewpoint focusing on intangible connections like spiritual belief systems and values. Moreover, recognition of the contributions of indigenous people has been growing since the early 2000s. The recognitions, starting solely people-centric, are slowly gaining momentum towards the knowledge and systems themself. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged indigenous peoples’ knowledge and crucial role in implementing ambitious climate action through its 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

Even though there is much guidance on best practices for green infrastructure, advances to study it spatially have been sparse. It is, therefore, important to study the spatial dimension of green infrastructure. Moreover, by studying the heritage water management systems, we may also learn about the present and future considerations for green infrastructure. Table 1 shows the spatial elements of green infrastructure and components of the mosaic model. These examples help us understand the model with references to green infrastructures and aim to guide interventions for the selected case further in the study. The examples have been drawn from the vast literature on green infrastructures.

Table 1

Components of the mosaic model and elements of green infrastructure

Components of the mosaic modelGreen infrastructure (spatial elements)
Planning elementsDesign elements
Patches Protected forests Wetlands 
Corridor Road layouts Swales, open stormwater canls/drains, filtration strips 
Matrix Landuse practices, landcover design RWH cisterns, water butts, Green roofs 
Transition points Open spaces – neighbourhood parks, urban water bodies, archaeological parks Infiltration ponds, detention ponds, retention ponds, soakways, infiltration trenches 
Components of the mosaic modelGreen infrastructure (spatial elements)
Planning elementsDesign elements
Patches Protected forests Wetlands 
Corridor Road layouts Swales, open stormwater canls/drains, filtration strips 
Matrix Landuse practices, landcover design RWH cisterns, water butts, Green roofs 
Transition points Open spaces – neighbourhood parks, urban water bodies, archaeological parks Infiltration ponds, detention ponds, retention ponds, soakways, infiltration trenches 

India has a rich tradition of community-based heritage water management practices – some of them still in use. The country is spread vastly, with various biogeographic zones ranging from the trans-Himalayan region to deserts, semi-arid regions, and islands. Depending on where these are located and to tackle the challenges of the land, they have similarly taken different forms and names, Kuhals in Jammu, Kuls in Himachal Pradesh, Eris of Tamil Nadu, Keres of Karnataka among others (Narain & Agrawal 1997). The study is demonstrated with the help of three such case studies spread across India – two rural and one urban.

The two rural cases continue to be successful case studies of heritage systems in the present day, whereas the last looks at the past systems and present failures in attempting to inculcate these in the present day. Given the varied geographies and contexts of these systems, the data availability of the systems, specifically past as well as present uses, is always challenging. Therefore, the secondary data availability of the systems informed the case studies’ selection. Table 2 shows the key features of the selected case studies for the paper derived from literature refered for the different cases as specified under. It also showcases the direct uses of the water management practices by the locals apart from the co-benefits these systems provide such as supporting ecosystem services.

  • Alwar, Rajasthan: Johad is a concave-shaped earthen dam built across slopes to capture rainwater, specifically found in the arid to semi-arid areas of rural Rajasthan – one of the shortest rainfall zone in India. This technique served as a boon to the locals when they started applying these age old water management techniques resulting in a threefold increase in average annual income (Hussain 2014). This was done by the locals with their own resources to build and maintain – under the guidance of the ‘Water Man of India’, Rajendra Singh. There are currently 11,600 johads spread across 1,280 villages, this has resulted in phenomenally high water and food security for the locals (Singh 2016).

Table 2

Key features of the selected case studies

Case (urban/rural)ComponentsUses (provisional services)
PastPresent
Alwar, Rajasthan (Rural) Johads (earthern dams), wells, catchments, natural slopes, residential and agricultural areas Drinking and agricultural and cattle rearing In use; agricultural, emergency resource 
Kikruma village, Nagaland (Rural) Zabo – Ponds, protected forests, drainage channels, cattle and pig rearing spaces, paddy fields and fish farms Agricultural, fisheries and animal husbandry In use; agricultural, fisheries and animal husbandry 
New Delhi (Urban) Hauz (lakes), Baolis (step wells), johads (earthern dams), drainage channels, Delhi Ridge forest, natural slopes, drains, streams, gardens, and urban areas Drinking, bathing and other domestic uses, security Rarely in use; gardening 
Case (urban/rural)ComponentsUses (provisional services)
PastPresent
Alwar, Rajasthan (Rural) Johads (earthern dams), wells, catchments, natural slopes, residential and agricultural areas Drinking and agricultural and cattle rearing In use; agricultural, emergency resource 
Kikruma village, Nagaland (Rural) Zabo – Ponds, protected forests, drainage channels, cattle and pig rearing spaces, paddy fields and fish farms Agricultural, fisheries and animal husbandry In use; agricultural, fisheries and animal husbandry 
New Delhi (Urban) Hauz (lakes), Baolis (step wells), johads (earthern dams), drainage channels, Delhi Ridge forest, natural slopes, drains, streams, gardens, and urban areas Drinking, bathing and other domestic uses, security Rarely in use; gardening 

The Johad system hence has the forested catchment and the johads as the two patches, with natural slope that captures and diverts the rainwater as the corridor between the two patches. The wells downstream of the johad benefit from groundwater recharge from the water harvested in the Johads and hence function as smaller patches or ‘transition points’ in the system. The water from the well is then accessed in agricultural and residential areas forming the matrix of the system. Figure 1 shows a spatial representation of the system.
  • Zabo, Kikruma village, Nagaland: ‘Zabo’ literally meaning impounding water is a water management system practised by the tribes of Nagaland in the North-East of India. Located on the hilly terrains the region comes under water shadowed parts and with no rivers nearby, the locals came up with the ingenious way of capturing and relying on its rainwater. This water is impounded near the foot of protected forests using natural slopes and built channels. The water collected is then used for differing uses assigned on differing levels – medicinal plants and herbs planted atop the embankments of the pond, cattle and pig rearing on the lower level, and paddy fields on the next, these also receive organic manure in the form of cattle manure and finally, fish cultivation, that is generally done in the periods of low rainfall at subsistence level along with the paddy fields. The system has been passed down from generation to generation and is still in practice predominantly in the Phek District where the Kikruma village is located. The upkeep of the harvesting tanks, channels, and sharing of water is mutually decided among and carried out by the farmers (Amenla & Shuya 2021). It is hence a water-forest-farm management practice, which ensures harvesting and reuse of water.

Figure 1

Spatial representation using the mosaic model for Zabo and Johads (figure created by authors).

Figure 1

Spatial representation using the mosaic model for Zabo and Johads (figure created by authors).

Close modal

Figure 1 shows a conceptual spatial representation as per the mosaic model of the Zabo system wherein the protected forests and rainwater harvesting ponds function as the patches, natural slopes and built channels are the corridors, and the cattle and pig rearing, paddies, and fish farms are the matrix.

  • New Delhi: The most populated city and the capital of India, New Delhi has a long history of rulers capturing the city for the strategic advantages it provides. With different rulers, different cities of Delhi were constructed, commonly known as ‘7 cities of Delhi’. All lying within the expanse of New Delhi saw various developments of water structures over time – these are in the form of Baolis (step wells), Hauzs (lakes), and Johads (earthen dams). New Delhi has seen rapid urbanisation post-independence, which has resulted in the disappearance of many of these, especially the step wells and johads.

The source of Hauzs’, Johads’, and Baolis are a mix of rainwater and natural streams. They were all mainly constructed for domestic purposes by different rulers to meet the city's growing needs or other challenges. It also signified a power change and would be considered an act of benevolence by the ruler. In the present day, around 30 of these structures survive, of which a few of the baolis in the city provide water for gardening in the vicinity gardens (Rooprai 2019).

The current system has however undergone many changes. Overall the city has seen a reduction and bifurcation of the patches, this is synonymous with the disappearance of the intangible linkages or weakening of them at the very least. Moreover, the rivers and streams that were once active parts of the Hauz and Johads water supply have now mostly disappeared. Furthermore, it could be noted that reduction in the permeable surface has also reduced the efficiency of urban areas as the matrix in the mosaic model.

Figure 2 gives a spatial model for the city of New Delhi and demonstrates the changes between the past and the current status of the heritage water systems. It is understood that the inflow in these systems has significantly altered. The method hence aids in holistically understanding the systems and simplifies the water systems to draw on the missing links to pave the way for possible interventions.
Figure 2

Spatial representation using the mosaic model for the city of New Delhi – past and current (figure created by authors).

Figure 2

Spatial representation using the mosaic model for the city of New Delhi – past and current (figure created by authors).

Close modal
This is further demonstrated by picking up a smaller microwatershed site for one of the city's heritage lakes – Hauz Khas. The microwatershed has been adopted from the government of India's SLUSI database (SLUSI (Soil & Land Use Survey of India) 2017). The lake was built in the early 14th century to supply the inhabitants of the city. The general slope in the city of New Delhi being towards North-East, the Delhi Ridge, a forested area would act as a catchment for Hauz Khas (Figure 3 inset). However, as the area became highly urbanised, the forested landuses were compromised for other landuses and till recently the water from even those areas was drained out of the city with the drainage lines, as with most urban cities. The lake was recorded in the early 2000s as being in a ‘ruinous state and filled with earth, its area now being used for cultivation’ (Hasan 1997). It was only after various efforts to rejuvenate the lake by cleaning and desilting that the sewage treatment plant in Vasant Kunj was redirected to the lake after first diverting it to duckweed ponds (Roy 2016). There is, however, more potential that can be unlocked by seeing the site through the mosaic model method.
Figure 3

Microwatershed for Hauz Khas Lake (New Delhi in inset) (created by authors based on SLUSI and BHUVAN datasets).

Figure 3

Microwatershed for Hauz Khas Lake (New Delhi in inset) (created by authors based on SLUSI and BHUVAN datasets).

Close modal

The following recommendations have been made based on a simple analysis of the microwatershed (Figure 3):

  • Corridors to connect the matrix and patches with the Hauz Khas patch: corridors could be green infrastructure such as swales, canals to convey water from patches (parks) or the matrix (residential and commercial areas around the lake). Special attention to the water logging locations should be made to connect them to address urban flooding challenges. These could be coupled with filters to first treat the surface water runoff specifically from the matrix.

  • Transition points near waterlogging locations such as detention ponds, these could be planned in the existing green open spaces.

  • Increased network of patches to aid groundwater recharge. This could help recharge and raise the groundwater table, specially in the southern parts of Delhi (where the site is located), wherein the water levels of 20–40 m or >40 m below ground level can be observed (Central Ground Water Board 2021).

  • Optimisation of all the components, especially the matrix considering the urban nature of the case. This can be done, for example by promoting the adoption of green infrastructure strategies on community and residential level with incentives.

A key difference to be noted between the three cases considered is the role of the matrix in rural and urban settings. Due to contesting landuses, lack of patches, and the higher percentage of the urban landuses (matrix) in the urban areas, it is imperative to use these optimally. This means applying appropriate planning and design strategies such as green roofs, bioretention ponds, etc. As with the case of Zabo, reuse of water forms a core pillar in supporting the reuse of heritage water systems.

Hidden linkages or corridors played a vital role in the functioning of the heritage water systems. They continue to be an intrinsic part of life in areas like Kikruma where the locals understand their surroundings deeply. On the contrary, these linkages have become less pronounced and disconnected over the years in most other places, specifically urban areas. This may be because conventional water services have become an invisible part of society instead of a very integral part of locals’ lives.

The key principles observed in the case studies may be summarised below:

  • Identifying and acknowledging the hidden linkages or ‘corridors’.

  • Optimising the role of matrix.

  • Creation or maintenance of patches with the help of appropriate planning and strategies.

  • Following the principles of the water cycle and aiming to close the cycle if not already.

  • Highly contextual design and strategies such as reuse of water in the case of Zabo.

The mosaic model thus helps understand these linkages and the system as a whole. It can be used as a tool to facilitate decision-making in contesting landuses. This in turn is envisaged to be a step towards the re-integration of water in planning as well as to supplement the implementation of nature-based solutions. With the help of the microwatershed, a simple analysis based on crude assumptions was made, however, this needs further research.

These systems cannot exist in isolation and need more research and dialogue on the role of the public in these systems in terms of values, participation in decision-making, operation, and maintenance. The principle of holistic spatial planning that these systems had needs to be reflected in their current management in order to promote their reuse and wise use. A mix of the old and new technologies is needed to combat a range of water security challenges.

Water management has taken various forms in the past and from the cases studied, we can be cognizant of the immense services offered by heritage water systems in the past and the present. These are highly contextual and can be in different capacities.

Despite the benefits of heritage water infrastructures, their integration into society can be challenging at present, especially spatially. The paper also highlights some similarities between green infrastructures and heritage water systems. In view of the above, the method presented in this paper looks at heritage water systems through the lens of green infrastructure by applying the mosaic model with a new component of considering missing linkages. This approach could provide a clear visualisation and planning tool for understanding, restoration, and re-integration in current and future fabric. It demonstrates that the approach helps understand the processes, and linkages, particularly highlighting missing linkages.

It is clear that a holistic approach involving a mixture of strategies to suit the site is needed to facilitate the re-integration of heritage water systems. The method facilitates a holistic and simplistic visualisation of the heritage water system, which helps us compare and grasp the changes in the systems over time and their effects on the connected components. Finally, the method demonstrated using the simplistic model of the microwatershed of Hauz Khas can aid in identifying targeted action points.

All relevant data are included in the paper or its Supplementary Information.

The authors declare there is no conflict.

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