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.

This story appears in the November 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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 reliably.

"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 2004.

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 footpath.

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 Pawars.

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.

As 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 change."

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."