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Water harvesting

January 30, 2009

We set off from Ahmedabad at 6am driving from the choking city through parched flat lands fenced by prickly-pear cacti. We pass tankers at the side of the road delivering water to women who wait in line with steel pitchers that they will then hoist to their heads, some in double-height stacks, for the 3km trek back to their homes. In the occasional green wheat fields scarecrows in dirty shirts stand in silent crucifixion. Signs at the side of the road urge drivers to slow down: ‘You’re on a highway, not a runway’ or my favourite: ‘No hurry, no worry’. But will pass several crashes, plenty of roadkill and witness (in separate frames seared into my mind) a white car just in front of us crash head on into a buffalo.

The lorries and trucks are undoubtedly the burly pearly queens of the highway. Lovingly painted with brightly coloured flowers and hearts, and adorned with tassels and other fancy ornaments, with pretty instructions to other drivers: ‘Blow horn’ or the politer: ‘Horn please’.

We arrived at Rajasamadhia village near Rajkot, Gujarat, after 4 hours and under full sun.It was a revelation: clean, litter-free, sewage-free streets; tree-lined avenues; and a glistening lake of water. Remarkable. The village chief, Hardevsingh Jadeja, showed us around the supremely managed village and explained the intricacies of “guided democracy”, as he describes his “non-Gandhian, non-liberal” form of democracy, whereby the village is divided into units of 25 householders who vote for a representative. The representatives then decide the rules by which all the villagers must live “or face strict punishment and even be kicked out from the village – this is extremely important”. The system works on a basis of social equality, in which all castes get equal vote, and the village community helps those that need it in every way from physical labour to financial assistance. But idleness is not tolerated.

The success of the social structure, which has produced such a clean village, is due in no small part to Jadeja’s ingenuity and foresight – he decided some 30 years ago that clean water and sanitation were essential and that his village should have them. Through a process of satellite mapping of the geological structure of this ancient-volcanic region (by scientists at the India Space Research Centre in Ahmedabad), he was able to plot the lineaments through the subterranean rocks and so chart the probable flow of rainwater through to the aquifer beneath. Where they lay on the satellite maps, he dug down until the route to the aquifer was exposed. There, on an uncultivatable field, he made a catchment for the scanty monsoon rains. And it worked. The rainwater trickles down and fills the aquifer so that village wells are fiull throughout the year. Since he devised the scheme, and it is more complex and detailed than what I describe, not a single water tanker has needed to stop at the village. Every house has piped water and a toilet “that must be used”.

The resultant bountiful harvests have produced social and material wealth. We visited Gulab Givi’s beautiful two-storey house, with bougainvillea blossoming in his garden and over his sun terrace. Givi, of the beggar caste, used to spend his days as his caste dictated until the village council intervened. He now owns a shop and land (with loans that he proudly tells me through an interpreter “have been repaid in full”). Still more impressive was the newly improved situation enjoyed by the poorest villager, the ‘untouchable’, previously the village’s toilet cleaner, who now has a good house and earns an acceptable wage as a sweeper.

Wandering around some of the drip-fed fields (the third planting of the year), I was told about how the region has been getting much more heavy rains for the past 5 years, but they come too early and rot crops, and are followed by lengthier drought. Naturally Jadeja is devising a solution to the problem.

It was an eyeopening visit, but on the drive back to the city, past brown and empty fields, I wonder why other villages are not reaping similar aqua-managed rewards. “They are not intelligent enough,” Jadeja had told me. But I am struck more by his comment that since the project’s success, not a single national government minister has visited.

Unrelated, but there’s an interesting paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, looking at geoengineering, nicely summarised here.

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