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ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Fighting Drought With Water Harvesting

Ranjit Devraj

NIMBI, Rajasthan, India, Apr 24 2001 (IPS) - Dire predictions that arid Rajasthan in western India faces this year one of the worst droughts in living memory hold no terror for the people of this surprisingly green and prosperous village.

Their secret? Nothing more than the folk wisdom to harvest and store what the heavens have showered on them as abundant seasonal rainfall.

Radhu Gujjar proudly shows off the simple earthen checkdam that is the source of his confidence and the relative prosperity of his large 35-member extended family.

“Before we built the check dam a few years ago, my large family used to survive on an income of 1,000 dollars that each harvest season would bring in,” says Gujjar.

Last year, the Gujjar family reaped more than 4,000 dollars from a harvest of not only wheat and pulses but also various vegetables that need more water like cucumber, watermelon, pumpkin, peas and potatoes.

In fact Nimbi village is a veritable oasis ablaze with fruits, vegetables and commercially grown flowers amidst the desertified landscape of Rajasthan and even draws agricultural workers from states as far away as West Bengal and central Madhya Pradesh.

It all began in 1994, when the Tarun Bhagat Sangh (TBS), a non-government organisation (NGO) that has been promoting water- harvesting in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, stepped in with plans to repair an ancient water-harvesting system based on check dams.

Somewhere in the early part of the last century the main dam built by local rulers developed cracks and before long the whole system had collapsed and fallen into complete disuse.

With funds for repair growing scarcer with each passing year, farming became unviable and the able-bodied were forced to migrate to the cities of Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan and to the national capital of New Delhi looking for work as construction labourers.

It cost TBS just 125,000 dollars to reverse that trend. The amount was used for the construction of two check dams, while labour and soil for the earthwork, both of which were readily available, were provided by the villagefolk, who agreed to bear 25 percent of the other costs.

The results were dramatic even if it took a few years to become truly apparent. The water table began to rise, the wells in the village got recharged and no longer was irrigation needed to keep the vegetables growing.

As fertility returned to the soil it no longer became necessary for the villagers to resort to backbreaking construction labour in the cities and farming rapidly revived.

In fact, such is the fame of Nimbi these days that some of the villagers can actually afford to sit back and lease out farming land to contractors who bring in their own labour from other states and still make a profit.

Farmers like Radhu Gujjar now lease out a third or more of the land they own to contractors who grow vegetables and get in return hard cash which goes into building proper brick and mortar house that mark out Nimbi.

But Nimbi unfortunately is an exception. A central government team has assessed that more than eight million people have been affected by the drought in Rajasthan. Other states affected are western Gujarat, central Madhya Pradesh and eastern Orissa and eastern Jharkhand.

According to Anil Agarwal, chairman of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) a leading NGO which has been promoting the revival of traditional water-harvesting methods against expensive, centralised, government, there is no reason why India should ever suffer from drought.

“Unfortunately, the whole developing world is madly in love with the highly destructive practices of the West. Getting rid of colonial mindsets is easier than getting rid of colonisers themselves,” says Aggarwal.

According to Agarwal, over the last century India and also much of the world have seen individuals and communities handing over the water management to the state which was bent on building dams and tubewells and drawing water from the rivers.

“This has meant that costs of water supply are high, cost recovery poor and maintenance and repair abysmal as can be seen in places like Nimbi before it went back to water-harvesting.

India, from being one of the most well-endowed nations in the world in terms of average rainfall, has through poor water management become the victim of pernennial droughts, says Agarwal.

“The most important lesson that our decision makers should learn from the current crisis is how to drought-proof the nation in the years to come – a task that can be easily accomplished in less than a decade if the country puts its mind to it.”

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