[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
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
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
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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