New Internationalist

HARVESTING THE RAINDROP

Issue 354

Where water strife once drove village communities apart, co-operative effort has brought sustenance. Sunita Narain outlines an Indian phenomenon that offers hope to the world.

FOUR days of rain only. Just four days. And that too after three years of bad drought. But we have drinking water in our wells. This is because we have built check dams to harvest our rain. Our neighbours are fleeing the village, but we have reserved the well for drinking water only.’ This is what Surtabhai, a resident of Mahudi village in Gujarat, told visiting journalists from Down To Earth, the fortnightly magazine I edit.

The magazine was doing a follow-up story. Something unusual, as journalism is not about following stories of specific villages and how they fare year after year. In January 2000 we had presented a story of hope: the tale of five villages which harvested the raindrop to survive, indeed to fight drought. The story reported that these villages had water for drinking, even for irrigation, while neighbours had already fled looking for distress work. Again in June 2001, we followed these villages as that year had brought little rain and more misery. Journalists reported that even with another terrible year of drought – the third in a row – all the villages had enough water to drink. Irrigation was beginning to be a problem – but only in those villages which had recently begun water harvesting. It was clear that water harvesting is like a bank account: if you keep withdrawing money without investing back, the account will be overdrawn, much like our groundwater aquifers. But if you make regular deposits in the bank account, the balance will help withstand protracted periods of scarcity. In June 2002 our reporters retraced their steps once again to find out how these five villages located in the worst droughtaffected regions of India had coped with yet another year of belowaverage rainfall.

Can droughts be called natural disasters? Not in India. They are "government-made" disasters.

They found Surtabhai and his family struggling to deal with another year of drought. But the little rain that they had been able to harvest by holding it in small check dams – allowing it to seep underground and recharge the groundwater – gave them some relief. This was the story in the other villages as well. In the village of Raj Samadhiyala, in Gujarat, villages have voluntarily built check dams and village ponds since back in 1985 – over 45 check dams in an area of over 1,000 hectares. There has been little or no rain for the past four years. Yet there has been ample water to drink and irrigate crops. Now the village plans to use remote sensing technologies to locate natural underground dykes for storing rainwater. Overall it was clear that even after four years of poor rainfall and certainly after three years of consecutive backbreaking drought, rainwater harvesting was helping villages withstand the worst. Sceptics maintain that rainwater harvesting is not a viable strategy because rainfall in these parts is too variable. But these stories reveal that it works. It is possible to build livelihoods, indeed economic wellbeing by investing in capturing the rainwater endowment of the area.

Bearing this experience in mind, the question we need to ask is can droughts be called natural disasters? Not any more. Not in India. They are ‘government-made’ disasters. Over the past hundred years or so, the country has seen two paradigmatic shifts in water management. First, individuals and communities have steadily given over their role almost completely to the state. And second, the simple technology involved in using rainwater has declined. Instead exploitation of rivers and groundwater through dams and tubewells has become the key source of supply. Water in rivers and aquifers is only a small portion of total rainwater availability. Dependence on them alone can lead to an unbearable stress on such sources. Cost recovery in such schemes is poor, thus dependence on the state has meant the financial sustainability of water provision is in peril. Repairs and maintenance are abysmal. When people have no personal stake in careful water use, the sustainability of water resources becomes a question mark. As a result, there are serious problems with government drinking-water supply schemes. Despite all the government efforts, the number of ‘problem villages’ – official parlance for villages that do not have water sources – does not seem to go down. ‘In our mathematics, 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages is still 200,000 problem villages,’ say officials.

What makes rainwater harvesting such a powerful technology? In most parts of the developing world, rainfall is variable and rainy days are few. In India, for instance, 50 per cent of the rain falls on about 15 days and in less than 100 hours out of a total of 8,760 hours in a year. The total number of rainy days can range from a low of 5 days in a year in the desert regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan – though on some of these days there can be high-intensity rainstorms – to 150 days in the Northeast. It is therefore very important to capture this rainwater, which just comes and goes in a few hours.

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