WATER MANAGEMENT – observations from rural Gujarat
- Nanikatechi village
Nanikatechi is a small village three hours from Ahmedabad, in the Surendranagar district of Gujarat. When I arrived here, I wanted to learn about mechanisms people have developped to cope with water scarcity in this extremely dry region. I took interest especially in the micro scale rainwater harvesting systems the village has been building up in the past five years with the help of local and international NGOs and researchers.
Well, I learned another lesson instead: A lesson about water quality. Actually, today there is no water scarcity per se in this region. There are three sources of water: The oldest are the borewells, from which groundwater is extracted. Then there is the water from the distant Narmada river which is brought in through a network of concrete canals from Southern Gujarat. And finally, there is rainwater.
The reason why the rainwater harvesting was initiated in Nanikatechi was for the sake of health. I stayed with a small group of Christian nuns who are all trained as nurses, and who settled in Nanikatechi with a Father, Regi, to deliver health services to Nanikatechi and the surrounding villages – they run a small hospital, and they distribute medicines to one village in the area on each day of the week. Just a few years ago, many residents were suffering from kidney stones because they had been drinking the ground water, which in this region is saline, so Regi started collaborating with NGOs in 2007 to develop a more healthy source of drinking water. This is why rainwater started to be captured for consumption.
- tank under construction / finished rainwater tanks, used as terraces
The salty groundwater is also one of the reasons for the lack of crop diversity in this region: irrigation allows for two harvests per year, and groundwater has been used for irrigation for decades. Though Nanikatechi is now connected to the Narmada water network, that water is expensive, rationed and subject to annual fluctuation. That is why many farmers, ever since colonial times, grow exclusively cotton – a crop that is tolerant to salinity. Groundwater levels, however, are dropping at a staggering speed. Also, once soils are irrigated with saline water, it will take one full monsoon season to wash the soil so other crops, like wheat, maize, or buckwheat, can grow there again. As a result, many fields lay idle during dry season and yield very scarce harvests. The issue is that cotton is not edible, and prices are dictated by a global market. That is why many farmers in Nanikatechi cannot even assure decent nutrition to their families. In fact, until recently, 75% of the population migrated to work in the service, construction, or manufacturing industries, often under precarious conditions, during dry season, and only returned to the village for monsoon season and, sometimes, for the holidays. This is why ponds started to be built for capturing and storing rainwater on site for irrigation.
- farm pond for irrigation of 8 acres of farmland / double crop cultivation, cotton and wheat
Both the tanks and the ponds operate at a single household scale. A family of 5, for example, requires a rainwater tank of 7 x 9 x 6.5 ft to provide for water for drinking and cooking purposes year-round, while a family of 10 would use the rainwater for drinking only. The tank is usually buried in front of the house, doubling as a terrace. Filling this tank only takes 2 to 3 good monsoon rains with a roof surface of 400 to 500 sqare feet. After the first rain has cleaned the roof in the beginning of the rainy season each year, the tank is connected to the gutter by a simple 4″ PVC pipe. Since 2008, 160 tanks have been built, and 30 more are under construction. The Jeet Prakash Trust, which Father Regi is a part of, subsidizes the construction financially, covering 60% (or about Rs. 14.000) of the cost. It also assists with the maintenance, and monitors the operation.
A rainwater pond that enables two harvests and, therefore, a 100% increase in income, would be about 40.000 cubic feet or 180 x 60 x 5 ft in size (enough to irrigate 8 acres of farmland). Here, the trust pais for about 50% of the cost (or Rs. 30 per 100 cubic feet). Both ponds and tanks can be built with human labor, using very simple technology. Once operating, a set of rules needs to be applied in order to ensure for the system to work properly. Taking advantage of the subsidies for the villagers means to commit to these rules – including, for the drinking water tanks, specific annual cleaning procedures, the use of chlorine tablets once a month, and opening the tank only once in three days to keep the contamination with dirt to a minimum. For the irrigation ponds, farmers need to attend classes about crop rotation and double/triple crop farming techniques, ensure desiltation of the pond and pipes during dry season, and diversify their crop cultivation. Failure to comply with these rules results in having to pay for a professional to do it.
This is what the second lesson learned in Nanikatechi is about: a system is only worth as much as it is appreciated by its users. In theory, the benefits of both the ponds and the tanks are so obvious that one should think everyone in the village would want to install one. In theory, also, the fact that each family has their own system is an incentive for villagers to maintain this system carefully. “It took us almost two years to really kick off the project,” sais Father Regi, “we ended building the first few drinking water tanks completely free of cost, and we had a demonstration field installed on our property to prove the benefits of the double crop techniques and rainwater irrigation to the local farmers.” After that, however, it quickly became clear that drinking rainwater improved health conditions considerably, and those farmers who did invest in a farm pond were able to increase their crop yields from the very first year. The Father expects constuction of new tanks and ponds to continue even after the subsidies expire, not only in Nanikatechi itself, but also in other villages in the region. However, from what I have learned during my visits and conversations I had with tank owners, someone will still have to monitor and control maintenance on a regular basis for it to work properly.
Building a rainwater harvesting system, even at the micro scale, is a long term project.