Photograph courtesy Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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Popat Rao Pawar, sarpanch, or assemblyman, of Hiware Bazaar village in India, examines corn. His village has successfully used rainwater harvesting to secure water supplies.

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Photograph courtesy Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi


Lessons From the Field—Rainwater Harvesting in India

How will vast regions of India, where highly unreliable rainfall makes the difference between famine and sustenance, cope with climate change? One remote village is setting an example for the rest of the country, and world.

How will vast regions of India, where highly unreliable rainfall makes the difference between famine and sustenance, cope with climate change? Over 85 percent of the cultivated area in this country is either directly dependent on rain or depends on rain to recharge its groundwater. Seasonal rain provides water for irrigation, drinking, and household needs. It provides water to livestock and is necessary to grow fodder for animals. The question of how these areas will adapt as rainfall becomes even more variable with climate change is especially important now, as groundwater is being pumped from deeper and deeper wells to grow water-guzzling crops like sugarcane, rice, wheat and even flowers.

I ask these questions once again, because for once I have some answers. I traveled to Hiware Bazaar village in Ahmednagar district to find an amazing example of environmental regeneration. This village of a thousand-odd families in the rain shadow, drought-prone region of Maharashtra was reportedly destitute and lawless some 15 years ago. Today, it is an incredible example of how rainwater harvesting can create prosperity.

In 1972, when water scarcity had hit the state, a dam to encourage water to sink into the ground was built under a new employment guarantee scheme. But like most dams this structure leaked. Water scarcity increased. The next water harvesting structure led to a murder in the village, as people fought over the water it provided. Villagers took to making, drinking, and selling country liquor (country liquor is made from a potent mix of chemicals and plants in different regions), instead of water. The surrounding forests were hacked down. Villagers recall how a forest guard was beaten and tied up as he tried to stop people from felling trees. By the early 1990s, migration was the only alternative to poverty in this village.

As I heard all of this, I realized I was standing on the same hill where trees had once been cut. All I could see now was thick forest, vast expanses of grass, and lush green fields in the village below. Last year, the village’s own rain gauge showed rainfall had been good—some 21 inches (541 millimeters). But this year it was below average—some 12 inches (300 millimeters). This rain had come after three years of crippling scarcity and drought. So, small rainfall gains had given huge returns. How?

The turnaround began in the early 1990s, after Popat Rao Pawar took over as village sarpanch, or elected leader of the village assembly. This postgraduate was persuaded to return to the village, but his initial water harvesting bore little fruit. The first tree plantation built under his leadership was eaten up by village cattle after the fencing had been taken away for firewood. People saw no value in conserving forests or water.

Pawar recalls that the dire situation began to turn around when the state government started the Adarsh Gaon Yojana or model village plan. This program was based on five principles: bans on cutting trees, free grazing, and liquor; family planning; and contributions of village labor for development works. Hiware Bazaar opted to be part of this scheme. The first work it took up was to plant trees on forestland, where people were persuaded to stop their cattle from grazing.

Between 1995 and 1998, the state’s employment guarantee scheme was used to provide money to village workers to dig trenches and embankments along the contours in the forestland to hold water. Then it built small earthen dams in the drains and dug village tanks. People invested in leveling their fields to hold water. It is estimated that this contribution alone cost them over 70 lakh (U.S. $ 1.50) in labor and equipment, but he gains were big. For a start, grass productivity increased, and this in turn boosted milk yields from cows that were better fed. By 2007, the village sold 790 gallons (3,000 liters) of milk daily.

As water became available, new wells were dug: There was one well for each household. Pawar says he soon realized that when water is not at a premium, people lose sight of community concerns. The attitude is "This is my water and I will use it for growing high-value crops, even if it depletes the water table." What could persuade Hiware Bazaar residents to do things differently?

The village started keeping records of its wells: Each month’s data from six observation wells was matched with data from four rain gauges and related to its watersheds. This started a system for water audits: The village worked with local groundwater agencies to assess water availability and to match it with crop-planting patterns. Each year the area under each crop was calculated in terms of its water need. This year, for instance, the gram sabha, or village council, decided that there was not enough rainfall to support wheat. When I asked villagers tending their fields why they agreed to not grow wheat, their reply was simple: They could see their well had less water. Science and practice had built bridges.

Today the village has a simple rule: if there are 4 inches (100 millimeters) of rainfall, then there is drinking water for all and enough for one crop; 8 inches (200 millimeters) of rainfall gets the village drinking water, one full crop, and two half crops (crops planted on half a field); and if the rainfall is 12 inches (300 millimeters) or more then the village is assured drinking water and irrigation for three full crops.

In other words, little rain but assured gains. The question is whether this model can be replicated. Can this laboratory of development teach others? Let’s continue to discuss this.

For more than two decades, Sunita Narain has been a powerful advocate for changing water management in India. She has been with the Centre for Science and Environment since 1982 and is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change, as well as a member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, chaired by the Prime Minister and set up to implement strategies for cleaning the river. Under the directorship of Sunita, the Centre for Science and Environment was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2005.

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