India’s water warriors transform parched lands

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Volunteers from Jal Saheli ‘Friends of the water’ participate in the construction of a retention dam. AFP

As monsoon storms hit India, a dedicated group of women hope that, after years of backbreaking work, water shortages will no longer leave their village dry.

The world’s second most populous country is struggling to meet the water needs of its 1.4 billion people, a problem that is worsening as climate change makes weather patterns more unpredictable.

Few places have it harder than Bundelkhand, a region south of the Taj Mahal, where scarce water supplies have pushed desperate farmers from the plains to abandon their land and take up precarious jobs in the cities.

indian water 1 vVolunteers from Jal Saheli ‘Friends of the water’ participate in the construction of a retention dam. AFP

“Our elders say this stream used to be full all year round, but now there is not a single drop,” Babita Rajput said as she led AFP past a bone-dry fissure in the ground near her village.

“There is a water crisis in our area,” he added. “All our wells have run dry.”

Three years ago, Rajput joined Jal Saheli (“Friends of Water”), a volunteer network of around 1,000 women working in Bundelkhand to rehabilitate and revive defunct water sources.

indian water 2 A pond is shown in the village of Agrotha, in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh. AFP

Together they haul rocks and mix concrete to build dams, ponds and embankments to reap the rewards of the June monsoon, a season that accounts for about 75 percent of India’s annual rainfall.

Agrotha, where Rajputs live, is one of more than 300 villages where women are drawing up plans for new catchment sites, reservoirs and waterway revitalizations.

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Rajputs said their work helped them retain monsoon rainwater longer and revive half a dozen bodies of water around their village.

Though not yet self-sufficient, Agrotha residents are no longer among the estimated 600 million Indians who, according to a group of government think tanks, face severe water shortages every day.

indian water 3 WAn augur collects water from a well in the village of Agrotha, in Tikamgarh. AFP

The women’s efforts provide a rare ray of hope as the national shortage worsens.

Public water services in the capital, New Delhi, fail to meet demand in the summer, with trucks regularly traveling to slums to supply residents who cannot get water from their taps.

India’s NITI Aayog public policy center forecasts that around 40 percent of the country’s population could be left without access to clean water by the end of the decade.

the government has failed

Erratic rain patterns and extreme heat have been linked to climate change in Bundelkhand, which has suffered several prolonged dry spells since a drought was declared earlier in the century.

Civil society activist Sanjay Singh helped train women at Agrotha to collect and store rainwater after the surrounding land dried up from drought.

indian water 4 CChildren play with discarded bicycle tires as they walk across a dry pond in the village of Agrotha. AFP

In doing so, he helped the village rediscover knowledge that had been lost decades earlier, when water changed from a community-managed resource to one managed by the Indian government.

“But the government has failed to guarantee water to all citizens, especially in rural areas, which has pushed villagers back to the old practice,” he told AFP.

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Before the Agrotha irrigation project began, the women had to walk miles every day in a desperate and often fruitless search for a well that wasn’t dry.

In India’s villages, fetching water is traditionally the responsibility of women, several of whom have faced violence from their husbands for not being able to find enough for their homes, Singh said.