Field Trip Part II: I <3 Water

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’ve become a total water and sanitation nerd ūüôā ¬†My day visiting projects was basically epic and after being inspired by the people in Panoli, learning about watersheds, as I did in the next village, was almost excitement overload for me!

As we drove toward Sherikoldara, over the bumps in the road and through the dry, brown landscape, I wondered how long the pipe would have to be to bring water to this arid place. ¬†Little did I know that the type of projects WOTR specializes in, require hardly any fancy technology to bring prosperous and lush fields to whole regions. Quite honestly, until Thomas explained it to me that day, I had no clue what ‚Äúwatershed development‚ÄĚ really meant, and if you are like me, prepare to be amazed!

First, we pulled over on the side of the road overlooking hillsides covered in long, parallel lines, that Thomas explained to me were stone bunts or rock dams. ¬†From photos I had seen in the office I knew that these trenches had something to do with watershed but then again, I didn’t even know what the word “watershed” really¬†referred¬†to or how it did anything for people needing water in this browning place. ¬†It turns out, the idea behind watershed (think: “shed” as in, to shed tears or, as the dictionary defines it “shed -verb :to emit and let fall”) development and rainwater harvesting is actually quite simple and fascinatingly¬†brilliant!

The¬†concept, as Thomas showed me, is to catch the rainwater where it falls and then control, through these trenches, how fast the water flows down the hill sides and how the soil absorbs the moisture. ¬†When it rains, water speeds down hills leaving no time for the soil to soak up that much moisture and, for it to be used to benefit communities. ¬†In fact, often over the past few years rainfall has¬†decimated¬†crops coming in one week instead of stretched over months and flooding out anything planted. ¬†Through creating rock formations, digging trenches, and ¬†planting sapplings, WOTR attempts to change this pattern by working with communities to completely redevelop their hillsides around their fields and valleys and, “make the water walk.”

These contour lines and simple landscape modifications that seriously require no high-tech or costly appliances slow the water’s run down so instead of speeding down hill with gravity, it sinks slowly into the ground. ¬†Each drop of rain is literally harvested or used like this to reduces runoff and, ultimately, increase the water table. ¬†By ending free grazing and planting¬†saplings, the development encourages natural growth to create vegetative cover and even increase the water holding capacity of the¬†aquifers.

The soil absorbs the moisture, the vegetation cuts out erosion, agriculture flourishes. ¬†Simple as that. ¬†As we wound around the hills to reach the valley, I saw how simply¬†brilliant that method really is. ¬†We emerged from the dusty brown fields to a valley covered in a patchwork quilt of crops and lush green trees similar to what I’m sure the Great Valley from the Land Before Time must have been like!

WOTR’s particular approach has also been so successful because, as Shiwaji, the head of Sherikoldara’s watershed development, explained to me, everyone in his village had to come together and work for months to create the habitat they now benefit so richly from. ¬†Shiwaji told me the whole story about the village’s progress from convincing everyone to develop the land this way, all the way through to the benefits they receive now. ¬†He said that farmers who farm the now plentiful lands will receive 1,000,000 rupees this year for their onion crop! ¬†In a country where the average person earns Rs 36,000 for the whole year (less than $1,000), and drought conditions are making it so hard for farmers to make ends meet that they are actually committing suicide, this number is absolutely¬†phenomenal!

Shiwaji also told me a fantastic story about how, since the approach that WOTR uses requires the whole village to come together uniting the poor and tribal parts of the village with the rich and higher caste members, now a member of the lowest caste, Adavasi, is going to university in Pune and, the whole village even paid for his education!  Shiwaji told me that this young man hopes to finish school and reach the highest government office working for communities to come together over caste barriers.  Amazing.

It was truly incredible to hear all of the success this village, in a flourishing valley and surrounded by thousands of acres of hillsides covered in man-made trenches, is enjoying. ¬†As the sunset over the hillside, I¬†imagined¬†what it would be like, after years of drought, to wake up in the morning after spending months and months digging around in the dirt on hillsides to see the sun pouring over the great valley that I worked with my¬†neighbours¬†to create. ¬†Of course, my imagination could never compare to the reality that the families bagging their onion crop were experiencing, but looking around, it was tangible how watershed development had transformed these people’s lives. ¬†The valley seemed to smile as the sun was setting on it and I was beaming after learning that something so technologically simple could have such vast impacts in every realm of life for a whole community.

I learned so much and was incredibly inspired both from meeting the women and families in Panoli and seeing such excellent innovation and land usage to create new opportunities in people‚Äôs lives.¬† As in my day spent with the hydrogeologists and talking to Joe Madiath, my knowledge base of water and development was expanded tenfold through this field trip and, as dorky as it may sound, I love water and sanitation ūüôā ¬†Now off to see some toilets in Mumbai!!

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