Years of plundering the Aravallis forest to the north of Rajasthan, India brought short-term wealth to its owners but parched the fertile valley below. Without the trees guarding the entrance to the valley, rainwater eroded the topsoil instead of seeping into the ground. A once bountiful farmland saw poverty set in as people fled to nearby cities. The determined few that remained were left to trek miles daily, laden with heavy jugs, in search of drinking water. When they managed to find water in the dry season, it was far away, nearly dried up and always filthy, but they had no choice but to carry it back to their families. Water and the search for water dominated daily life in Bhikampura. Villagers had little time for leisure, education, or economic development when mere existence was such a struggle.
Rajasthan is blessed with a monsoon season, when water is plentiful and life is good for one season. But every year, the villagers would watch in sadness as the land dried up, since the water did not drain properly and saturate the desert soil. They hardened themselves for the coming drought.
When Rajendra Singh arrived in Bhikampura nineteen years ago, he wondered why such hardworking, intelligent people did little to improve their lot. Partially it was the promise of the government and the companies building pipelines: soon, they said, you will have enough water. Soon, we will build pipes to your village. But it never happened. Rajendra decided to help the villagers help themselves, and he mobilized them to work together to build a reservoir to collect rainwater during the monsoon season. Today, the reservoir collects water, and water seeps into the earth through the sides of the reservoir. As the water in the pond dries up, the groundwater seeps back into the pond, replenishing it. And it works. After a five-year drought in 2002, the earth around the pond was still full of water.
Through collective effort, water no longer dominates the day-to-day life of people living in Rajasthan. In 1984, women — who are responsible for providing water for their families — were obligated to spend their days in search of water. For the first time in years, girls have enough free time to attend school. Shops are springing up in villages that only a decade ago were in danger of extinction. As more than 500,000 people in Rajasthan are now practicing rainwater harvesting, the entire region has begun to flourish. "I believe," prophesizes Singh, "if this work [is] done all over, the poor of this country will rise." Today, however, private companies want to buy up the reservoirs and canals that the villagers have worked so hard to build and maintain. The Indian government maintains that private enterprise will provide water more efficiently than the government. But villagers, now self-sufficient, are wary of turning control of their water resources over to anyone.
Rainwater harvesting isn't just happening in India, take a look at this rainwater harvesting program in Austin, Texas.
Around the world there are thousands of success stories in the fight to provide clean water to the world's poor. Access 4 from Africa here.