In the United States, common medical advice urges Americans to drink six to eight glasses of water of day. Many of us find it a chore to consume that amount, but high profile lead poisoning cases aside, clean, safe and accessible drinking water is usually at our disposal.
Travel more than 8,000 miles east and you’ll discover drastically different circumstances in Northwest India’s Thar Desert.
Here, what’s known as Great Indian Desert is the most densely populated arid region in the world. Some estimates report 20 million people call the 77 thousand square mile area home.
To put the numbers in context, an area roughly the size of Nebraska houses more than 11 times the corn husker state’s 1.8 million people. However, in contrast to every state in the union, people in the Thar Desert often do not have access to a constant source of water. In fact, the state of Rajasthan where the desert is located, contains five percent of India’s 1.3 billion residents, but only holds one percent of the country’s water.
This leaves rural Indians dependent on the meager 4-12 inches of rainfall the region receives annually to meet all their needs ranging from human and animal drinking water to crop irrigation to hygiene. The marginal precipitation lasts just a few days during the summer monsoon season.
As a result, many villagers, usually women, are forced to spend most of the day walking back and forth for water. The treks limit opportunities to earn an income and all but eliminate educational opportunities for anyone assigned to the task.
In addition, the lack of rain often makes cultivating crops impossible. Unable to make a living off their land, desert inhabitants often must travel miles from home on foot for sometimes grueling work and paltry wages that can’t sustain a family.
But a little collaboration can change everything.
Non-governmental organizations such as GRAVIS and many of its partner agencies work alongside rural Indian communities to help them harness and own the power of their resources. One such measure is water harvesting. GRAVIS combines villagers’ traditional methods with modern technologies to make the most of rainfall all year round.
Take khadins, for instance. These soil embankments or bunds, serve as fortresses surrounding farmland by helping to trap rainwater and reduce soil erosion. The result is thriving farms that sustain families and provide jobs to community members.
The farm belonging to Suwa Devi and Peera Ram Bawari who live in the village of Bhakria Sadavadon of Phalodi Tehsil is one success story.
When Suwa and Peera Ram got married, their land was totally barren, they said. The couple often left their small children alone while they searched for work. Sometimes they crushed stones in the salt mines, earning one to two rupees a day, now the equivalent of less than one United States penny. The family grew accustomed to hunger pangs and going to bed with empty stomachs, they said.
Now, due to the water manipulation of the khadins, the couple earns a prosperous living farming crops such as millet and wheat. Their farm even employs 40 area villagers, Suwa said.
From barely surviving to a successful business owner, no one in Suwa and Peera Ram’s family goes to bed hungry anymore.
Another GRAVIS water harvesting implementation is the beri, or percolation well, which extracts and stores groundwater. Beries can accumulate enough water to meet the needs of several families for up to two years.
In honor of their once arduous journey for water, GRAVIS engraves the name of the woman in the household on each family’s beri.
Before her family’s beri, Samda Devi used to balance a pot on her head with one hand while pulling along one of her small children with the other. She made the close to 10 kilometer round trip trek three times daily, costing her at least six hours. Since her well was constructed in 2005, Samda uses her newfound time to care for dairy cows, and to sell butter and cucumbers on the market.
These days, when Samda retrieves water her imprinted name is a reminder of her once exhausting daily voyage chiseled on the structure that gave her back her days.
To date, GRAVIS has constructed more than 5,000 khadins and close to 600 beries in rural India, vastly improving the lives of a total of close to 3,500 families.
Other water harvesting efforts include taankas, or underground water storage systems and naadis, or village ponds.
To date, GRAVIS has impacted approximately 1.3 million people through water harvesting, healthcare and education outreach. Lives transformed through securing the vital resource other areas of the world often take for granted.
*by Laura Michels, Volunteer