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Drought-proofing India one village at a time

COMMUNITY/ENVIRONMENT



Banda is one of the most drought-prone districts in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and up until a few years ago the soil there would dry and crack into fissures deep enough for unwary cows to fall in! Today, there are rice paddies usually found only in much wetter climes. It’s all thanks to a revival of old farming practices and growing community involvement in all things water. One village in particular, Jakhni, is now known in India as a model jalgram, or water village.


A settlement of some 1,600 people, mostly farmers, Jakhni’s stony, hilly terrain is typical of Bundelkhand, an arid region spread across parts of the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The region gets between 800–1,300 millimetres of rainfall annually, but the rainwater just runs way instead of being absorbed. The rocks that lie beneath the region are not very porous, and there are relatively few aquifers (layers of underground water). 


“Growing up, the water scarcity we experienced in Jakhni was scary,” 52-year-old local resident, Uma Shankar Pandey, recounts. “Underground water would dwindle in the summer, and the few wells we depended on for drinking water would dry up too. Water would be distributed like charity, and it was no wonder all the young people in the village had migrated to cities for better opportunities.”


Farmers routinely saw their rain-fed crops fail. As the summer heat mounted, women — on whom the task of fetching household water fell — would trek long distances to find water. Pandey, a social activist, happened to attend a water conservation seminar in New Delhi back in 2005, where he heard the late President APJ Abdul Kalam speak eloquently about rainwater harvesting and the impact the simple task of conserving rainwater could have. 


“In his talk, Dr Kalam floated the idea of ‘jalgrams’, or villages that practice water conservation and harvesting,” Pandey says, “and I thought — if there’s a village that needs to adopt such practices, it is Jakhni!”  


Pandey didn’t have to look far for water conservation solutions. Traditionally, farmers in Bundelkhand trapped rainwater in their fields by building bunds, or raised embankments, around them. He suspected returning to this age-old practice of capturing rainwater where it fell could ease modern water woes. But he had to convince his fellow villagers first.


“People in my village are not rich, but they’re canny,” Pandey says. “Most responded to my suggestion saying they’d wait one season and see how our bunds performed.”


Only 10 farmers agreed to put in the extra hours to make bunds on 25 hectares of farmland. The good news is it worked, and those farmers had a good harvest of rice without having to depend on rainfall. 


The following year, more farmers began making bunds, and they were able to cover more than 300 hectares. But the bunds needed a lot of repair and maintenance as they kept getting eroded. That was when Pandey came up with the idea of planting trees, even an extra crop of lentils, on them to reduce erosion. The idea worked and he began thinking of other ways to ease water shortage: desilting and deepening village ponds, building new ponds near fields, reviving dry wells and planting trees.


When the more than 200 families who had left Jakhni saw farm incomes increasing, they returned.


Together, and without any government funding, the residents built ridges and bunds in all their fields, planted trees and crops on them, and used the conserved rainwater for irrigation. 

Over the next decade, the news spread. In 2016 and 2017, the Indian government developed 1,050 water villages across the country based on the Jakhni model. 




But back in Banda district, there was still more work to be done. When Heera Lal took over as district magistrate in 2018, he saw the effects of the water crisis right away. On his very first day, local residents blocked an arterial road to protest the lack of drinking water in their village. “I thought to myself, how can Banda’s residents be expected to survive, let alone thrive, without water?” says Lal, who is credited with improving Banda’s water availability today.


Lal had seen Jakhni’s success story firsthand, and decided to use his position in the district administration to spread funding to build more bunds, desilt wells, construct new ponds and more, all across Banda district. By the end of 2018, according to the district magistrate’s office, the Jakhni model was up and running in 470 villages across the district. 


Then Lal went a step further, exhorting Banda farmers to also build contour trenches to stop and contain water flowing downhill. And vitally, people began to meet regularly to discuss their water supply problems: “In 2019, along with WaterAid India, I organised water budgeting meetings in all these villages to convince locals that if they were extracting groundwater, they also needed to recharge it,” he explains. 


The idea of water budgeting — evaluating the availability and sustainability of a water supply by tracking the movement of water into and out of it — is not new. In Banda, however, rather than experts, it is the local community that gathers in the village central square. 


In the summer of 2019, Mahuee, a village not far from Jakhni, began using water budgeting to chart all their existing water sources. Then, they estimated how much water they consumed in their daily activities and what, if anything, they had done to replenish their water sources.

 

Mahuee local, Munni Devi, says the exercise gave much food for thought. “We know we can’t keep withdrawing money from our bank accounts without depositing and saving some,” she mused. “Then why have we never thought the same way about water and other natural resources?”


Lal remembers how such meetings not only sensitised people to water use, they also spurred them to get involved in dozens of micro-projects to recharge water in their neighbourhoods. These included digging soak pits around hand pumps and other community water sources to channel waste water back to the underground aquifer; harvesting rainwater from individual rooftops; desilting old ponds; and digging contour trenches. In just a year, they built 2,605 contour trenches, around 260 wells and 2,183 hand pumps, creating a water conservation capacity of 3,930 kilolitres. The district administration of Banda also received the Smart Cities award for this achievement in 2019.


But most importantly, these efforts made a measurable difference in the water supply: according to Lal, by 2020, groundwater levels rose in Banda by nearly 1.4 metres.


Today, Jakhni has 33 wells, 25 hand pumps and six ponds that remain full of water throughout the year, attesting to its recharged aquifers. Banda district has the highest number of wells in the state. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, almost 800 wells were dug, with 2,552 others in progress. During this same period, the district administration made 4,200 bunds, 200 new ponds and 4,500 soak pits. 


Moreover, the practice of bund-making has been adopted by Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other Indian states. Pandey says it’s easy to replicate the model. “The fact that bund-making needs only individual effort and minimal public funds — and yet is capable of having a profound impact on groundwater levels — has made it easy to convince civilians and governments to adopt it,” he says. For his efforts, Pandey was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 2023.


However, bunds, soak pits, ponds and other rainwater harvesting techniques alone do not guarantee resilience against drought. Over the last few years, rainfall in Bundelkhand has become more erratic, with spells of unseasonal rain wreaking havoc on standing crops. Yet these conservation practices represent a crucial step toward water security at a time when estimates suggest that by 2030, global freshwater demand could outstrip supply by as much as 40 percent, and approximately 1.6 billion people across the globe may not have access to clean drinking water. 


Meanwhile, Pandey plans to start the country’s first water university within the coming year and says his work is far from done. “The university will synthesise insights about water conservation and water security from across India. Rather than just academics and experts, I’d like to see ordinary people with practical experience teaching there,” he says. “We have to keep at it, build bunds in other regions, and convince more people about the importance of every drop of rain. For water can’t be made — it can only be conserved for the generations to come.”


TOP Jakhni village residents dig bunds

ABOVE TOP Planting trees around ponds to increase their water-holding capacity and to protects their banks from erosion. Uma Shankar Pandey, standing with young tree, at right

ABOVE BOTTOM Rice paddies separated by a bund

PHOTOS Uma Shankar Pandey



We have to keep at it, build bunds in other regions, and convince more people about the importance of every drop of rain. For water can’t be made — it can only be conserved for the generations to come.

Uma Shankar Pandey


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