Providing Green Cover in a Desert
Traditional wisdom meets community involvement to replenish water
When the world is looking for solutions to save water, they often turn to learn from the experiences of various organisations that have achieved considerable success and repute in this sector.
Quite often, these organisations in turn believe in learning from the traditional wisdom of the communities they work with, and ensuring their involvement in this work.
In Rajasthan, where rain is scarce and drought is all too frequent, many villages have a rich tradition of collecting and using rainwater.
The Barefoot College, a social work and research centre, has revived, improved and adapted this traditional technology to meet the needs of this diverse region.
They have so far constructed rooftop rainwater harvesting structures in 17 states across the country, with a total capacity of around 55 million litres.
A visit to some of the villages where they have taken up this work revealed the extent of community involvement, and the efforts made to ensure transparency at all levels.
At community meetings, members are selected to form a committee for the work being taken up, and they all do much of the local work together, while the experienced staff continues to provide them with technical guidance.
In some of the villages I met elders who, though not very formally educated, had a gamut of water-related wisdom.
Over the years, the people have built a close rapport with many of the organisation’s activists, like Ram Karan. Their knowledge of water systems has been well utilised in the village waterworks, which mainly relate to water harvesting.
For the Barefoot College, rainwater harvesting and water conservation work starts right at its campus in Tilonia village of Ajmer district, Rajasthan. Carefully designed pipes carry the rooftop rainwater to underground storage tanks or tanka.
Surface water from the nearby hills is guided down by trenches and drains, stopped for some time, then flown into an open well. The overflow is guided into another well.
The rainwater collected from the rooftop is stored to serve as drinking water, while the other flow is used to recharge the groundwater.
In addition to this, they have been working to increase the green cover in many villages, even in very difficult conditions, to help conserve water.
The fruits of their labour are such that oftentimes the hand pumps in nearby areas go dry in the summer, while the hand pumps on campus continue to provide water throughout the year.
Their efforts to conserve moisture, the careful use of drip irrigation using a thin pipe, the creation of soak pits to conserve wastewater, all create a conducive environment for their campus to be cloaked in green cover, in a place known for low rainfall and frequent drought-like conditions.
The sewage water is also recycled, to irrigate trees. The storage tanks, with a capacity of about 40,000 litres also provide an ideal stage for an open theatre-cum-meeting place, where over one thousand people can gather at a time.
Both the new and old campus in Tilonia provide excellent case studies of situations where saving every last drop of rainwater, as far as possible, can help reduce water scarcity.
These efforts are being adopted in other centres and subcentres as well as in many villages where their operations run: particularly at the schools in these areas.
Rainwater is collected from the rooftops of schools and some other buildings in the village and is then channelled into leakproof underground tanks made of local, low-cost materials.
From here, the water is taken to underground storage tankas. Most of the rainwater is harvested for drinking or sanitation. Some of the water is also used to recharge the groundwater supplies, mostly through the unused open wells.
Briefly, this involves the diversion of surface runoff water into unused and abandoned open wells in villages so that more and more water percolates into the ground, revitalising dry handpumps and irrigation wells - huge assets that may be just lying waste.
Their studies have shown that several hundred thousand litres of water may percolate into the ground within a few days.
Ram Karan, coordinator of the water conservation program at the Barefoot College, says the water conservation work taken up in and around the villages whose water was brackish helped alleviate the brackishness to some extent.
As we drove through the vast stretch of sandy wastes, we were impressed by the anicuts (check dams), ponds and other structures that created to recharge the groundwater and reduce brackishness.
The rainwater that accumulates in ponds can be used by residents for at least some weeks after the rain.
An important part of the water harvesting work at the Barefoot College relates to underground water storage for schools. This not only quenches the thirst of the children, who earlier used to remain thirsty for hours, or roam around the neighbourhood in search of water.
Along with providing water, it contributes to increasing attendance in school, particularly in areas with poor water quality. It also helps reduce the incidence of waterborne disease in the area, and the availability of stored water permits the school to provide sanitation facilities.
The secondary school at Tikawara village, also in district Ajmer, has a tanka with a 40,000 litre capacity. There are steps cut into the tank so it is easier to clean.
There is an outlet so the muddy water that comes in initially can be sent out. Then, the outlet is blocked so the filtered inlet can start receiving water. The quantity of water stored here can meet the needs of this school for around four to five months after the rains.
Around February or March, however, they will have to again obtain some water tankers so their tankas can be filled up till the next rains.
As I went around the area, I could see several examples of local improvisation that enabled such work to be taken up even in very difficult and isolated conditions.
I saw it, for example, in the school created for the children of salt workers in a very remote place in Rajasthan. This was as much a great example of providing education in very difficult conditions as of arranging water for the children here.
Such solutions work out only because of the very close relationship between this voluntary organisation and the people living here. For them there is no other motivation except to very sincerely help the community, and there is intense involvement on both sides to find solutions for the most difficult conditions.
Back in his small office in Tilonia, Ram Karan and I sat down to look at the huge stack of files containing detailed records of all expenditures and accounts of their various water conservation works, which they maintain to ensure complete accountability and transparency.
Barefoot water engineers from various countries like Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Senegal were also trained here, and achieved good results after returning to their villages.
Barefoot College and its director Bunker Roy have a well deserved national and worldwide reputation for their work in rainwater harvesting and water conservation.
Although they have been busier of late in trying to offer pandemic help and relief, water conservation has always been and will remain a big priority for them.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author