“Catch the rain, where it falls, when it falls.”~ Narendra Modi (Prime Minister, India)
As a resource, water is a gift of nature that is most invaluable to humans. Water is also one of the most exploited, mismanaged, and taken-for-granted resources. Given this, and as populations increase on the planet, this precious resource is becoming stretched, and is thus requiring attention to make sure it is available to those who are in the greatest need. Population growth, rapid commercialization, and exploitation have led to a dire situation. Getting access to water entails a huge investment in human labor in many parts of rural India that do not have access to potable water. The government and individuals have begun to realize that harnessing this resource requires a public partnership approach, a change in mindset across communities. One area that has drawn immediate attention and focus is rainwater harvesting. After the prime minister recently exhorted the people to adopt rainwater harvesting, this effort has gained immediate focus.
Water harvesting is not new to India. This is ample evidence that water was seen as a precious resource in earlier times as well. Ancient India had a rich and diverse history of water harvesting where demographic and technological factors synergized and gave way to innovations that are still relevant today. Water harvesting structures were designed and built taking into consideration the ecology and diversity of the region. Our forefathers had insight on this subject as these examples illustrate.
- Farmers in the western Himalayas built extensive water harvesting systems called kuhls that drew water from streams, springs, and snowmelt from the sloping mountains. In Uttar Pradesh, small wells/ponds called naulas were built that collected water by constructing a stone wall across a stream. Khatris were 6-feet-deep structures carved out into the mountains. One kind was built for animals and washing purposes that collected rainwater through roof pipes, and the other, meant for human consumption, had rainwater collected using a rock seepage technique.
- In the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, drinking water was recognized as a precious commodity. A water harvesting structure called household taanka collected and stored rainwater in the houses in dry areas. Rain water was collected and accessed through a small metallic door with a bucket tied to a rope. This enabled families to access drinking water all year. Nomadic Maladharis who traveled around the grasslands of the Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, built water-harvesting systems called virdas that are shallow wells (also called jheels) that can be found all over the Banni grasslands. The Maladharis identified these depressions by studying the flow of water during the monsoon season and constructed a yirdas there. This structure was useful as it helped the Maladharis separate the usable water from the saline unsuitable water.
- Stone structures in Karnataka called sisandras were constructed at intersections of rural roads. These structures contained safe drinking water for travelers.
Present Issues and Inspirational Stories from the Water Deficit Regions of Haryana
Making Groundwater Potable in district Nuh
In some parts of rural India, due to the paucity of the public water supply, groundwater is a major source of supply. This is expensive, sometimes contaminated, and has led to a rapid depletion of the water table, thereby exacerbating the problem. As a result, collecting, storing, and accessing clean drinking water has become a priority and continues to be a challenge.
The rural Nuh district of Haryana is a semiarid region with very few water resources. For domestic and agricultural requirements, groundwater is the prime source of supply, however it is saline and thus unfit for human consumption. As a result, the villagers suffer a great deal due to the unavailability of potable water, and hence are compelled to buy water from tankers. Those who cannot afford to buy water are forced to travel long distances to fetch water for their daily needs.
Tackling Water Salinity
Due to the lack of perennial surface water, 78 percent of Nuh has saline groundwater. A few ponds exist that are used for domestic purposes and cattle; however being seasonal, they dry up as the demand peaks. This has adverse effects on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the inhabitants of Nuh who have to either purchase water or walk miles to fetch water to meet their daily needs. The lack of potable water leads to lack of hygiene and sanitation, leading to fatal diseases, especially in females. Due to water scarcity, informal water markets thrive and even with the high cost, the water quality is not guaranteed.
Due to a lack of irrigation resources, the region is highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Even with the harsh climatic conditions, most families depend solely on agriculture to earn a living. Because of salinity, the trees in this district are not very dense. This accompanied by the rocky terrain increases the temperature during the summer.
To tackle the groundwater salinity issue, Sehgal Foundation constructed rainwater harvesting models to create freshwater pockets within a saline aquifer. The recharge well structure stores and recharges the sweet rainwater below the groundwater table, as a freshwater pocket within a saline aquifer.
High-pressure recharge wells were installed in four schools by Sehgal Foundation and the Millennium Alliance together in the water-scarce villages of the Nagina block in Nuh. The team, alongside villagers were made aware of the project goals, and the usage of the well so that they could adapt to it. Rooftop rainwater harvesting with a modified design for recharge wells was used to tackle the salinity problem.
With no water in schools, children used to leave school during the day and not return, thus affecting retention and education outcomes of children. With rooftop rainwater harvesting in the school, students gained access to clean drinking water that helped them stay hydrated during school hours. Students and local residents accepted that the water was safe for consumption and also tasted as sweet as the packaged mineral water available in the market.
The direct outcome of this collaboration has been better sanitation and hygiene, regular cooking of midday meals, and a reduced dropout rate, especially with girls.
Using a rainwater harvesting approach, Sehgal Foundation’s innovation creates a freshwater pocket within a saline aquifer. These are above-ground open cylindrical tanks made of cement. Through PVC pipes, rainwater from the rooftop is channeled into the recharge wells. Since the tank is built above the ground, pressure is created, enabling the harvested water to push aside the saline water, thereby creating a freshwater pocket.
Recharge Ponds in district Mahendragarh
Another example of how rainwater harvesting is having a positive effect on lives in rural India is in Narnaul in Mahendragarh, Haryana. Haryana is well known for its farming and developed agriculture. The inhabitants of this region are highly dependent on its farm produce. The groundwater level in Narnaul, Mahendragarh, was rapidly depleting and threatening the livelihood of the residents. The region’s distance and disconnect from the town also played a major role in its adverse condition. Sehgal Foundation joined hands with HDFC Bank to construct johads, redundant ponds in the Sarelli and Panchnota villages. This project aimed at bringing about positive change by increasing the water table in the region with Parivartan Prayojana.
The locals said that they used to have to wait long hours for water tankers. The cattle also went thirsty, causing a reduction in milk output. After the johad was constructed, two to three hours of heavy rainfall was sufficient to have the pond overflowing and last the villagers an entire year. More water in the pond resulted in ground seepage, recharging the water table and leading to the increased level of groundwater. The depth and diameter had been increased to collect as much water as possible so it could last for a longer duration after the evaporation process. Even the wells in the adjacent villages appeared fuller and could feed more people than they did earlier. The spinoff effect was undeniable. After the construction of the pond, the locals felt more aware and confident regarding water management and its uses.
World Water Day, March 22, is an important reminder of the significance of this vital resource. A grim scenario awaits us if we do not act to correct this dire situation with water shortages around the world. Today, almost 2.2 billion people live without access to safe water. Communities must come forward and contribute to water-saving efforts. Water harvesting is a key to the sustenance of life, and a collaborative effort is required from all stakeholders.
Let us pledge to revive our ancient traditions of water harvesting on this World Water Day.