Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Silent crusaders for water harvesting

Annu Anand
DROUGHT in some parts of the country, notably Rajasthan and Gujarat, made big news in the months preceding the monsoon. The media was busy in reporting the gruesome picture of the first drought of the new century. Some even dubbed it the worst-ever in the past hundred years. The print and visual media were competing with each others in bringing pictures and stories of this drought. But grassroot and community-level efforts, which were made to fight the drought without any government help, were not highlighted in their proper perspective.
A story bigger than the drought itself was efforts made by communities and individuals to meet the challenge posed by the drought. Several innovative, traditional methods of water harvesting saved the day for a number of villages in the two worst-affected states. Deepening village ponds, recharging dried wells and construction of simple watershed successfully, enabled villagers to face the acute water shortage. Unfortunately, the media largely ignored these efforts in its eagerness to project the horrors of the “worst-ever drought”. An attempt has been made to record such success stories in a study commissioned by Charkha and the National Foundation for India. The study called “paani ghano amol” (water is too priceless) is a compilation of some of the extraordinary stories of rural communities devising their own ways and methods of conserving water in villages of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Villagers are adopting different methods for water harvesting and conservation. They have demonstrated that rainwater can be collected in dried-up ponds, old village wells can be recharged and ponds with plastic lining can effectively hold water. The lining also helps water from becoming saline. In some villages it was found that there was no water scarcity at all, when other villages in the same area were passing through a crisis. “This is the last year when we are using drinking water from government tanks. From next year we will not need this help at all”, says Jaidev, a proud and confident deputy sarpanch of Adloi village in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. The reason for his confidence is a tank that villagers are constructing near the village — it will have the capacity to hold 8,000 cubic metres of water.
Kharkali village of Kochar Ki Daang in Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan has a similar story to tell. Houses in this as well as several other drought-prone villages used to be found locked during the summer season. People from these villages waned migrate to other villages from March to June every year, since they had no water to drink during these months. These villages are located in a hilly terrain. But there is no more migration now. With the help of the active NGO, Tarun Bharat Sangh, villages from this area have learnt to store water by constructing small tanks around their dwellings and fields. Stored water in these tanks is now sufficient for villagers as well as their animals in the summer months, in some cases up to June.
The worst-hit Saurashtra region of Gujarat too has its share of success stories. There are crusaders like Premji Bhappa who are spreading the message of “plant a tree and get rain”. Bhappa is also engaged in making people of the region realise the importance of preserving groundwater. “I realised this four decades back. I have been telling people that at the speed at which the water levels are falling, there will be no groundwater left very soon. We can stop this depletion only when we put back into the ground the quantity of water which we draw from it”, says Bhappa. He has been educating villagers how to recharge open wells. The first time he recharged a well was 31 years ago. In 1992, when there was a severe drought, people took to the idea of recharging wells. Since then the message has spread far and wide in the region.
In Bhenkra village of Sabarkundala taluk of Amreli district, local resident Chaganbhai has an interesting tale to narrate. He says his father, Bhagwanabhai, was the first in the village to try out watershed development in his own novel way. He had blocked the village water drain by putting mud and stones to prevent water from flowing out to open areas. Using this experience of conserving water, villagers have benefited through the years. Now, with the help of local NGOs a proper watershed development programme has been started in the village. The watershed is being used to collect rainwater effectively. Chaganbhai is also engaged in teaching various water conservation techniques. Villagers recall that thanks to him, six-seven wells in the village were flowing with water even at the peak of summer this year.
Asakro village in Dhundka taluka has a population of about 2,500 people. But it has never faced water scarcity even during the worst drought years. Village elder Mistry Shyamjibhai recalls that for the past 40 years he has not seen the bottom of the village pond. Thanks to water conservation and constant recharging, even in the month of June the pond has sufficient water for the entire village. Due to groundwater recharging, wells in the village also don’t get dried — some of them have water levels up to 30 feet in summer. In Tatu village in Gadra taluka of Bhavnagar district, villagers have constructed three check dams to hold rainwater.
In Saurashtra, yet another silent crusader is Shyamjibhai Antala who has taken upon himself the task of reviving dried wells in all the drought-prone villages. Through the Saurashtra Lok Manch, Shyamji has taught the technique of recharging wells to some 1200 villages. He has held gram sabhas to train villagers in this technique. Even the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has sought his expertise in bringing about awareness in his own state. Now the Rajasthan Government is also keen to utilise the services of Shyamji.

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