Banking the Monsoon

Dispatches / by Gaia Vince /

In a small village in the center of Gujarat, India, a society grows from clean water and satellite maps.

We drive west through Gujarat from the city of Ahmedabad across parched flat lands fenced by prickly-pear cacti. Tankers at the side of the road are delivering water. The women waiting in line will later hoist their steel pitchers to their heads, some in double-, even triple-height stacks, for the 5-kilometer trek back to their homes. Piped water has yet to reach many villages here in this, one of the best-developed states in India, and their wells have dried and won’t be replenished until the scanty monsoon rains arrive in another seven months’ time. Water availability has become such an intractable problem in Gujarat that the chief minister has started a program of converting farmers to industries such as salt working.

The village of Raj-Samadhiyala is bang in the center of the state, about 15 kilometers outside the dirty industrial town of Rajkot. The village is quite unlike any other I have seen in India, with tree-lined streets free of litter and sewage and a glistening lake shining like an oasis in the dust. Pink, violet, yellow, and red flowers crowd the verges, where strategically placed hoses water them. The usual gaggles of children who line village lanes are strangely absent here — we discover them later in the school, sitting diligently in neat rows beneath a colorful depiction of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning.

We are greeted by the village chief, Hardevsingh Jadeja, a sprightly man in his sixties. He shows us around the supremely managed village with justifiable pride and explains the intricacies of what he terms “non-Gandhian guided 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 who need it, whether it be labor or financial assistance. But idleness is not tolerated.

This social structure, which has produced such a clean village, owes its success to the unique way in which Raj-Samadhiyala manages and shares its most valuable resource: water. And that 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 to development, and that his village should have both.

Monsoon rains come to northwestern India in bursts from June to September. Credit: mckaysavage

After each monsoon, the village wells would fill up, indicating that the underlying aquifer here was rain-fed. The problem was that most of the monsoon rains were streaming off and disappearing before reaching the aquifer. With the monsoons in the region becoming briefer and the deluges stronger, due to climate change, the problem of vanishing water became more severe. Jadeja approached scientists at the India Space Research Centre in Ahmedabad, who used satellite mapping to reveal the geology of the village, located in a region that saw volcanic activity millennia ago.

The maps revealed lineaments through the subterranean rocks, allowing him to chart the probable flow of rainwater to the aquifer beneath. Jadeja mobilized his villagers: Where a lineament appeared on the satellite maps, they dug down until the route to the aquifer was exposed. At the highest ground, relying on gravity, and where the lineaments ran, he created a catchment lake for the scanty monsoon rains. No one is permitted to draw from this precious reservoir.

And it works. The rainwater trickles down and fills the aquifer so that village wells are full throughout the year. Since he devised the scheme, 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-story house, with bougainvillea blossoming in his garden and over his sun terrace. Givi, a member of India’s ‘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 of beans — the third planting of the year — Jadeja shows me how he is reducing the catchment lake in area, to cut losses due to evaporation, and deepening it. “We need to improve drainage for the fields — I am experimenting with different types of soil — because over the past five years the rains have been coming too heavy, too early and rotting the crops before harvest,” he explains. It’s a challenge to which I’m sure Jadeja is equal.

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. Something else he told me is more striking: Since the project’s success, not a single national government minister has visited.

Originally published April 13, 2009

Tags geography innovation scarcity technology water

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