Two years ago, the farmers of Gondavle village in Satara district were unable to grow crops because their fields were submerged in water. Fate has been just as cruel to them this year. With no rainfall over the last two years, the villagers are now left with no water to farm.
“The lake in the village has dried up,” says Sandeep Adhyapak, founder of water management firm Water Field Technologies, who visited the spot after he read about the water crisis in the region. The Mumbai-based civil engineer has been a keen proponent of rainwater harvesting for the past 12 years and takes every opportunity he gets to work in rural areas and advocate this method.
Adhyapak was in the village for two days and helped the locals take the first step — a survey that led them to a spot where a well could be dug. “They have agreed to take up the project of rainwater harvesting, which will help keep the bore well replenished,” explains the engineer. “If the region doesn’t get rain this monsoon, it will be an extremely difficult year for them. But if it does rain, they will have a chance to conserve the water and fight to live another day,” he says.
Managing water resources
Gondavle is not the only village suffering from a water crisis. Marathwada division’s Jalna and Beed districts and Ahmednagar district in the Nashik division are badly hit too. But not very far from these parched zones, two villages stand out as oases of hope. For, the villagers of Hiware Bazar and Randullabad, led by their respective panchayats, have achieved the seemingly impossible: made their villages relatively immune to bad monsoons.
Their story of success needs to be told and retold — a story of grit and determination and of common sense backed by strong self belief. Yet, the main weapon the residents of these two villages used to fight drought was the simple method of rainwater harvesting.
So, can harvesting rainwater be the solution to Maharashtra’s never-ending water woes? According to Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, who founded the Pune-based Advance Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), the main issue to be examined is how the aquifers (an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock) have got depleted. The hydrogeologist blames an indiscriminate digging of bore wells and unrestricted use of groundwater since the 1972 drought, for the present crisis.
“It is important for villages to regulate the usage of water,” says Kulkarni, who partnered with BAIF Development Research Foundation to help Satara’s Randullabad village streamline their water management. “When ACWADAM first went there in 2010, the village was already monitoring their use of water with thanks to a KFW-NABARD initiative,” explains Kulkarni, who was asked to map the village’s aquifers, study their groundwater resources and analyse water quality.
While it took the intervention of an apex government body to push Randullabad to focus on water conservation, the transformation of Hiware Bazar, in the neighbouring Ahmednagar district, was completely Panchayat-driven. Two decades after they initiated a systematic watershed programme, neither of these villages faces a water crisis today.
The transformation of Hiware Bazar was led by Popatrao Pawar who was first elected as sarpanch of the village in 1989. Water conservation, top on his agenda, began in full swing in 1995, when the villagers began to harvest rainwater and create surface storage systems in the form of open dug wells.
Today, with about 294 man-made wells in the village, almost every family has access to a well of its own. And even after three years of continuously facing low rainfall, the 1000-hectare village is self-sufficient. “We’re saving three lakh litres of Mumbai’s water because 23 families that had migrated to the city for employment before 1995 have returned to the village,” claims Pawar, an MCom graduate from Pune University.
Pawar, who encourages farmers to practice horticulture and floriculture too, is chairman of the Samrudh Goan Sakalpa va Prakalp Samiti, a state level water management committee. “Two years ago, 100 villages were taken under the committee’s wings to help them overcome the water crisis. As of now 50 of them, including Bhoyare Pathar, Pimpalgaon Kauda and Nivadunge wadi have introduced rainwater harvesting. As many as 12 villages now no longer depend on water tankers. By this June, 70 per cent of these villages will be conducting rainwater harvesting,” he says, the pride evident in his voice.
Ban the bore well
Randullabad and Hiware Bazar have the distinction of being oases in the midst of drought-ridden areas. But there’s one other thing they have in common — both villages have banned bore wells. Other leading water conservation experts say this is the key to saving water. Bangalore-based S Vishwanath, founder of Rainwater Club, believes replacing bore wells with open (or dug) wells is critical.
“Metaphorically, an open well talks to us. It tells us summer is coming. If the water level is going down, we can alter our habits. But with a bore well, we have no idea until it is completely empty,” says Vishwanath, adding: “We must identify open wells that already exist, start a dialogue, map them, clean them, and revive them,” he says.
As millions of villagers across a parched state struggle to find the next drop of water this summer, the success stories of Hiware Bazar and Randullabad and the fact that 50 other villages have already started rainwater harvesting comes as a ray of hope, a source of inspiration. The question is, will the state government step in to help or keep looking at populist, piece-meal solutions.
Is Mumbai in trouble?
“No, we’re not. Mumbai is not going to be affected by the drought this year,” a senior BMC official assures us. Ask him to comment on the CM’s proposition of transporting truckloads of water to drought-affected villages of the state, and he says, “Mumbai will not be sharing its lake water. Transporting water to the villages is a very expensive proposition.” What say Mr Chief Minister?
Return of the doctors
When Sandeep Adhyapak first took up rainwater harvesting projects in 50 villages in the Raigad district, he discovered that no doctor was willing to take up a job at the primary healthcare centres in the region. Bad water supply, he found was the problem. “Doctors were unwilling to live in areas with such poor water supply. It was near-impossible to run a healthcare centre without proper sanitation and running water,” says Adhyapak. After his team conducted geophysical surveys, they were able to identify fractures below the ground level. “The villagers were surprised to see that wells, which had been dug only to about 120 feet, were able to provide water,” says the civil engineer, who applied this model to villages in Alibag, Karjat, Panvel, Roha, and Murud in 2010. Today, there is a resident doctor at each of the primary centres at these villages. And running water is not a problem.
The International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance,an NGO based in Geneva, works to promote the practice of rainwater harvesting to improve access to drinking water across the globe. This year the organisation is celebrating World Water Day at 14 schools for underprivileged children near Mumbai
and Delhi. Moeena Halim spoke to Vessela Monta, executive director IRHA on rainwater harvesting and reusing water.
What’s the main agenda for your trip to India this time?
We want to introduce the children and the schools to the concept of rainwater harvesting. We also hope from our work with these schools, that we can – with the help of sponsors — start the process of turning them into Blue Schools (a programme which consists of building onsite rainwater harvesting systems and toilets).
What are the challenges of setting up a RWH system and maintaining it?
The biggest challenge is to make the user feel they are their own water provider and manager, and that they no longer have to rely on water companies or other providers. They should monitor the water level in the tank and practise water saving measures when the level begins to decline. They also need to calculate the length of time between rains in order to measure out their use of the water. They must decide whether to save water for the dry period, and in the meantime rely on a nearby source, or use the rainwater immediately. Finally, they need to clean the system and purify the drinking water.
Is it expensive to train people to set up RWH systems?
No. The principles of good maintenance of rainwater harvesting systems are simple, easily understood and practised. The obligation of the system provider is to provide an operation and maintenance manual and to explain it well to the future users.
How do you ensure the water remains usable all year round?
First, the collection surface (usually the roof) should be made of materials that are suitable for rainwater harvesting, such as corrugated galvanised iron sheets, concrete, fibreglass shingles, tiles and slates. The roof should also be checked regularly to make sure it is clear of any debris and look reasonably clean. Similarly, the pipes should also be checked for debris. Before entering the tank, the rainwater should pass through a filter to ensure nothing else enters the tank — such as debris from the roof or insects and pests. The tank itself must be covered and not let any light in, as sunlight encourages algae and bacterial growth in the water. Tanks can be made of many different materials, such as aluminium, brick, concrete and plastic. Before use, the water can be treated, for example by boiling it or other treatments such as chlorination. If these simple steps are followed the rainwater should not be contaminated and will remain usable all year round.
Could rainwater harvesting be a long-term solution for villages to be self-sustainable?
Rainwater harvesting practised at the level of watershed management has done — and is still doing — a lot to improve the water situation in several districts in Maharashtra. The watershed is divided in many micro watersheds and rainwater is stopped and infiltrated into the soil of each one of them, starting from the top and going down into the valley. The groundwater reserves are recharged, which provides water for both, people and nature at the watershed level. This simple technology should be accompanied by training, along with work to reinforce the population’s capacity to think and act for the common benefit.