[Sdpg] A Harvest of Water /India /National Geographic Nov 2009

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Sat Nov 14 02:03:40 PST 2009

A Harvest of Water

Long at the mercy of the monsoons, some Indian farmers are sculpting 
hillsides to capture runoff, enriching their land and lives.

By Sara Corbett
Photograph by Lynsey Addario
Farmers in India do a lot of talking about the weather-especially, it 
seems, when there is no weather in sight. During the month of May, 
when the land heats up like a furnace and most fields lie fallow, 
when wells have run dry and the sun taunts from its broiling perch in 
a cloudless sky, there is no topic more consuming-or less 
certain-than when and how the summer monsoon will arrive. The monsoon 
season, which normally starts in early June and delivers more than 
three-quarters of the country's annual rainfall in less than four 
months, will begin gently, like a deer, the farmers say, and later it 
will turn into a thundering elephant. Or it will start as an elephant 
and then turn into a deer. Or it will be erratic and annoying right 
through, like a chicken. In other words, nobody really knows. But 
still, everybody talks.

This was the case one day in 2008 when an extended family of farmers 
from a village called Satichiwadi climbed up to the hilltop temple of 
their village goddess, planning to ask her for rain. It was mid-May 
and 106 degrees, and Satichiwadi, a village of 83 families that sits 
in a parched rural valley in the state of Maharashtra, about a 
hundred miles northeast of Mumbai, hadn't had any significant 
rainfall for seven months. Most of India at this point was caught in 
an inescapable annual wait. In New Delhi, the heat had triggered 
power cuts. Dust storms raced, unmitigated by moisture, across the 
northern states. Tanker trucks clogged the rural highways, delivering 
government-sponsored loads of drinking water to villages whose wells 
had run dry. Meanwhile, radio newscasters were just beginning to 
track a promising swirl of rain clouds moving over the Andaman 
Islands, off the southeast coast.

All day, villagers had been speculating about those distant clouds. 
It was gambling time for rain-dependent farmers across India. In the 
weeks leading up to the monsoon, many would invest a significant 
amount of money, often borrowed, to buy fertilizer and millet seeds, 
which needed to be planted ahead of the rains. There were many ways 
to lose this wager. A delayed monsoon likely would cause the seeds to 
bake and die in the ground. Or if the rain fell too hard before the 
seedlings took root, it might wash them all away.
"Our lives are wrapped up in the rain," explained a woman named 
Anusayabai Pawar, using a countrywoman's version of Marathi, the 
regional language. "When it comes, we have everything. When it 
doesn't, we have nothing."
In the meantime, everyone kept scanning the empty sky. "Like fools," 
said an older farmer named Yamaji Pawar, sweating beneath his white 
Nehru cap, "we just sit here waiting."

If the people of Satichiwadi once believed the gods controlled the 
rain, they were starting to move beyond that. Even as they carried 
betel nuts and cones of incense up to the goddess's temple, even as 
one by one the village women knelt down in front of the stone idol 
that represented her, they seemed merely to be hedgingtheir bets. 
Bhaskar Pawar, a sober-minded, mustachioed farmer in his 30s, sat on 
one of the low walls of the temple, watching impassively as his 
female relatives prayed. "Especially the younger people here 
understand now that it's environmental," he said.

Satichiwadi lies in India's rain shadow, an especially water-deprived 
swath of land that includes much of central Maharashtra. Each year 
after the summer monsoon pounds the west coast of India, it moves 
inward across the plains and bumps against the 5,000-foot peaks of 
the Western Ghats, where the clouds stall out, leaving the leeward 
side punishingly dry.

In an effort to lessen their dependence on the monsoon, the village's 
residents had signed on to an ambitious, three-year watershed program 
designed to make more efficient use of what little rain does fall. 
The program was facilitated by a nonprofit group called the Watershed 
Organization Trust (WOTR), but the work-a major relandscaping of much 
of the valley-was being done by the villagers themselves. Teams of 
farmers spent an average of five days a week digging, moving soil, 
and planting seedlings along the ridgelines. WOTR, which has led 
similar projects in more than 200 villages in central India, paid the 
villagers for roughly 80 percent of the hours worked but also 
required every family to contribute free labor to the project every 
month-a deliberate move to get everyone invested.

 From the vantage point of the temple, the effort was evident: Beyond 
the small grids of tile-roofed mud homes and the sun-crisped 
patchwork of dry fields, many of the russet brown hillsides had been 
terraced, and a number of freshly dug trenches sat waiting to catch 
the rain. If only, of course, the rain would come.
In Satichiwadi the anticipation was high. "Very soon," Bhaskar said, 
"we will know the value of this work."

Complex and capricious, the South Asian monsoon-widely considered the 
most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, affecting nearly half 
the world's population-has never been easy to predict. And with 
global warming skewing weather patterns, it's not just the scientists 
who are confounded. Farmers whose families for generations have used 
the Panchangam, a thick almanac detailing the movement of the Hindu 
constellations, to determine when the monsoon rains are due and thus 
when to plant their crops, lament that their system no longer works 

"It is a bit of a puzzle," said B. N. Goswami, director of the Indian 
Institute of Tropical Meteorology, based in Pune. After studying five 
decades of rain gauge data for central India, Goswami and his 
colleagues concluded that although the amount of rainfall has not 
changed, it is coming in shorter, more intense bursts, with fewer 
spells of light rain between, mirroring a larger pattern of extreme 
weather worldwide.

Groundwater has helped some farmers cope with erratic rains. But 
India's water tables are dropping precipitously, as farmers who now 
have access to electric pumps withdraw water faster than the monsoon 
can replenish it. According to the International Water Management 
Institute, based in Sri Lanka, half the wells once used in western 
India no longer function. "Thirty years ago we could strike water by 
digging 30 feet," said the village chief in Khandarmal, a dusty 
settlement of about 3,000 people perched on a ridge about 20 miles 
from Satichiwadi. "Now we have to go to 400 feet." Even that is 
chancy. Over the years the villagers have drilled a total of 500 
wells. Ninety percent of them, he estimated, have gone dry.

Water shortages throw farmers into an unrelenting cycle of debt and 
distress, driving many-by one estimate up to a hundred million each 
year-to seek work in factories and distant, better irrigated fields. 
During the dry months, between November and May, you see them on the 
roads: families creaking along in bullock carts, truck taxis jammed 
with entire neighborhoods of people on the move. The stakes can seem 
impossibly high. According to government figures, the number of 
suicides among male farmers in Maharashtra tripled between 1995 and 

One afternoon outside a sugarcane processing factory not far from 
Satichiwadi, I met a boy named Valmik. He was 16, with a sweet smile 
and out-turned ears, wearing a brown T-shirt and pants that were 
ripped across the seat. Standing in front of his bullock cart loaded 
with two tons of freshly cut sugarcane, he explained that he had 
driven his two-oxen cart 110 or so miles with his older brother and 
widowed mother to spend five months working in the fields with a 
sickle. His arms and hands were heavily scarred from the work.
Speaking softly, Valmik detailed one of the crueler paradoxes of rain 
dependence. A year earlier his family had borrowed 40,000 rupees 
(about $800) from a moneylender to cover expenses such as seeds and 
fertilizer for their fields at home and hadn't been able to pay it 
back. Why? Because there hadn't been enough rain, and the seeds had 
broiled in the ground. What would they do when the debt was paid off? 
The same thing they'd done for the past three years after a season of 
cutting sugarcane: They would borrow again, plant more seeds, and 
revive their hopes for a decent monsoon.

Given the enormity of India's water issues, encouraging single 
villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can seem a feeble 
response to a national crisis. But compared with controversial 
top-down, government-led efforts to build big dams and regulate the 
wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroots effort to manage 
water locally can look both sensible and sustainable. When I visited 
Khandarmal with Ashok Sangle, one of the civil engineers who works 
for WOTR, the people there described a failed $500,000 development 
project to pump water several miles uphill from the nearest river. 
Sangle shook his head. "What is the logic of pulling water up a 
slope," he asked, "when you can more easily catch the rain as it 
flows down?"

The idea behind watershed development is simple: If people cut fewer 
trees, increase plant cover on the land, and build a well-planned 
series of dams and earthen terraces to divert and slow the downhill 
flow of rainwater, the soil has more time to absorb moisture. The 
terracingand new vegetation also control erosion, which keeps 
nutrient-rich topsoil from washing or blowing away, and this in turn 
boosts the productivity of agricultural land.
"Where the rain runs, we make it walk; where it walks, we make it 
crawl," explained Crispino Lobo, one of WOTR's founders, using an 
analogy the organization often employs when introducing the concepts 
behind watershed work to farmers. "Where it crawls, we make it sink 
into the ground." Runoff is reduced. The water table for the whole 
area rises, wells are less apt to go dry, and especially with some 
simultaneous efforts to use water more efficiently, everybody needs 
to worry less about when it will rain again.

The benefits-at least hypothetically-spool outward from here. More 
productive farmland means more food and better health for the 
villagers, and it opens the possibility of growing cash crops. "The 
first thing people do when their watershed regenerates and their 
income goes up," Lobo said, "is to take their kids out of the fields 
and put them in school."

Lobo began working on water issues in the early 1980s through a 
development program funded by the German government. WOTR is now 
directed by Marcella D'Souza, a medical doctor and Lobo's wife, whose 
efforts to involve women in watershed redevelopment have earned 
international recognition. They believe there is an important 
emotional dimension to watershed work as well. "If people are able to 
improve the land and restore the soil, you start seeing a change in 
how they see themselves," Lobo said. "The land reflects some hope 
back at them."

To be clear, this is not always easy. Since the late 1990s, both the 
Indian government and a variety of nongovernmental organizations have 
funneled some $500 million annually into redeveloping watersheds in 
drought-prone rural areas. But experts say many such endeavors have 
fallen short of their goals or proved unsustainable, in large part 
because they have focused too much on the technical aspects of 
improving a watershed and too little on navigating the complex social 
dynamics of farming villages. In other words, no effort gets very far 
without a lot of hands-on cooperation. And if you're wondering what 
could possibly be so complex about a smallish group of marginal 
farmers living in the middle of nowhere, you should go to Satichiwadi 
and spend some time with the Kales and the Pawars.

Satichiwadi lies several miles off a two-lane road that crosses a 
high, semiarid plain dotted with meager-looking farms and 
drought-resistant neem trees. The road to the village, completed last 
year, remains little more than an axle-smashing series of dirt 
switchbacks descending some 600 vertical feet from the high bluffs to 
the flat valley floor. Many of the villagers still come and go the 
old-fashioned way, making a 45-minute, sweaty hike up a vertiginous 

Members of the Pawar family like to say they got here first, about a 
hundred years ago, when this was a mostly uninhabited, forested 
place, and great-grandfather Soma Pawar, a nomadic shepherd belonging 
to the Thakar tribe, made his way down from the high buttes and liked 
what he saw. Sometime after that-precisely how long is in 
dispute-great-grandfather Goma Genu Kale, also a Thakar, is said to 
have ambled in and taken up residence as well.

For a time the Kale and Pawar families got along just fine, living 
close together in a small group of thatched-roof, mud-brick homes 
built near the temple. Working together, they cleared trees and 
tilled the land to grow rice and other grains. Then, about 40 or 50 
years ago, the Kales abruptly moved to the other side of the valley. 
The reason is also in dispute: The Kales say they simply got tired of 
tromping the half mile or so back and forth to their millet fields. 
The Pawars say, somewhat huffily, that the Kales got sick of the 
Whatever the case, the two families-despite being separated by no 
more than 500 yards of fields-stopped talking. They held their own 
independent holy weeks to celebrate the goddess Sati and pointedly 
stopped attending one another's weddings. The Pawars stopped calling 
the Kales by name, referring to them instead as the "Fed Up People." 
The hamlet where the Kales now live is known simply as Vaitagwadi, 
Fed Up Town.

  Satichiwadi's harmony deteriorated, another kind of diminishment 
began. Sheep and cows trampled the grassland; the last of the trees 
disappeared. Crops too began to falter. Farmers gave up growing rice, 
which required so much water. By March each year, most of the wells 
across the valley had dried up.

With both food and income scarce, villagers started migrating to work 
on sugarcane plantations, on road crews, and in brick factories. "If 
you had come even three years ago during the dry season," Sitaram 
Kale, a farmer who also owns a small shop in Satichiwadi, told me, 
"you would have found only very old people and very small children 
living here."
The villagers did not easily come around to the idea that they could 
work together and revive the valley. Getting them to set aside their 
differences took months of meetings, several exploratory "exposure 
visits" to other villages where WOTR's watershed programs had been 
successful, and the diligent attention of a high-energy young social 
worker named Rohini Raosaheb Hande, who hiked the path into 
Sati-chiwadi every other day for six months. Hande was the second 
social worker WOTR had sent to Satichiwadi; the first had quit after 
a few weeks. "She told me it was a place without hope," Hande 
recalled. "Nobody would even talk to her."

Such resistance is common. In the village of Darewadi, where the 
watershed work was completed in 2001, one villager had chased WOTR 
employees away with an ax. Because the organization encourages 
simultaneous social reconfiguration and environmental change, its 
efforts often initially rub farmers the wrong way. WOTR mandates, for 
example, that village-level water decisions include women, landless 
people, and members of lower castes, all of whom might ordinarily be 
excluded. To give the local greenery a chance to recover, villagers 
must also agree to a multiyear ban on free-grazing their animals and 
cutting trees for firewood. Finally, they must trust the potential 
benefits of watershed work enough to sign on to the sheer tedium it 
entails-three to five years spent using pickaxes and shovels to move 
dirt from one spot to another to redirect the flow of rainwater.

In Darewadi an elderly farmer named Chimaji Avahad, who lives with 
his extended family in a brightly painted two-room home hemmed in by 
sorghum fields, recalled the early difficulties of adjusting to the 
new rules. He was taken aback, he told me, by the talkative women who 
filled his life. "Each one of them-my wife, daughters, 
daughters-in-law, and even granddaughters-has an opinion," he said, 
amused. His wife, Nakabai, a tiny woman with a face wizened by years 
working in the fields, immediately chimed in, "It was a very good 

A walk around Darewadi confirms this. By all accounts a grim and 
waterless place before the project began more than a decade ago, it 
now boasts bushes and trees and fields of wild grass. The village's 
wells now remain full, even at the height of the dry season. With 
more water, Darewadi's farmers are getting their first taste of 
prosperity, moving from producing only enough millet to feed 
themselves to growing onions, tomatoes, pomegranates, and lentils and 
selling the surplus in nearby market towns. Avahad now puts about 
5,000 rupees (about a hundred dollars) a year in the bank. Darewadi's 
women have used their new influence to ban the sale of alcohol and 
also have formed women's savings groups-a common feature of WOTR 
projects-that collect a small monthly fee and in turn loan money to 
members who need it to pay for weddings or veterinary care or the 
solar lights that now dot the village at night.

When I returned to Satichiwadi in January, the villagers were finding 
some hope in their own land. The young trees on the ridgetops were 
green and thriving. The hills and fields had been contoured with 
small dams and trenches, looking like tidy ripples arcing across a 
brownish pond. Bhaskar Pawar-the farmer who had sat in the temple 
with me eight months earlier, waiting to see whether the watershed 
work would pay off-excitedly reported that the water level in the 
village wells was about ten feet higher than normal. And this was a 
good thing, because the monsoon had once again confounded the 
villagers. Not a drop had fallen over the valley during the month of 
June or in the first three weeks of July. Their millet seeds had 
withered and died. "It was a miserable time," Bhaskar recalled.
And yet when the rain did come-in torrents in late July-they were 
ready to catch the water and put it to use. They'd spent the fall 
months harvesting tomatoes. Now they were working on onions and 
sorghum. And they were also harvesting something less tangible: a 
newfound, tenuous harmony.

One morning I watched as Sitaram Kale, the shopkeeper and one of nine 
members of the Village Watershed Development Committee, rode his bike 
over to the Pawars' settlement to spread the word about a 
watershed-related meeting to be held later in the dusty schoolyard on 
his side of town. He passed the news to a voluble, grandmotherly 
woman named Chandrakhanta Pawar, who disseminated it by ducking her 
head into several of her neighbors' homes, assuring that each would 
come and participate. "There's a meeting later this morning over in 
Fed Up Town," she announced. "One of the Fed Up People just came over 
to say so."?
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