EARTH & US: India’s Water Revolution

Filming a permaculture water harvesting project

India has major problems with drought, which have only intensified with global warming. Many areas have as little as 8–12 inches of rainfall a year, all of it falling during three months of monsoon rains. Often, farmers have only been able to grow crops for a handful of months, having to work in cities during most of the year just to survive. In a remarkable series of short films by Andrew Millison, India’s recent successes with permaculture-inspired water conservation are revealed. It is beautiful to see barren lands become verdant, and smiles on the faces of the residents.

The Water Cup

The Paani Foundation held the “Water Cup,” a 45-day competition among villages in the state of Maharashtra to store the most water and recharge the most groundwater possible. The result: far from having just one “winner,” 1,000 villages have now defeated drought completely!

In a second competition by the Paani Foundation, the “Prosperous Village Competition,” the design criteria included: soil and water conservation, soil health, planting of trees and healthy grasslands, and providing a basis for income and prosperity for all residents. Just imagine how much cooperation is necessary to create a project that can provide a basis for income and prosperity for ALL residents of a village! And yet, it was accomplished. The dream was that if people united and worked as one, Maharashtra would become drought-free. In 2016, there were 116 villages working to become water-abundant. By 2019, over 4,700 villages joined the movement. People worked relentlessly and shattered barriers of gender, politics, class, religion and caste. Over the course of four years, in participating villages an estimated 550 billion gallons of water storage were built, and 51,000 people were trained in water conservation. Incomes rose as crops flourished and villagers became water- and food-secure.

In Garavada, with typically just 8–12 inches of rain a year, farmers usually run out of water and tanker trucks have to bring water to drink. This area now has food and water security. They created unlined ponds high in the landscape to replenish the aquifer, and gravity flows fed crops. As a result of “continuous contour trenches” (or swales) dug into hillsides, a spring appeared where there had been none. Water is also pumped from ponds to irrigate crops.

From Poverty to Permaculture

Ardhendru Chattergee is the much-respected founder of the Development Research Communication Service Center, or DRCSC. He and his organization have worked tirelessly for 40 years to end poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. This means working with the most marginalized people, who live on the poorest lands, such as in the indigenous tribal villages of Purulia. Using an innovative DRCSC design, a hand-dug pond features terraced banks which are planted as the water level drops; each week a lower area from which water has receded, can be planted. Even rice can be grown.

DRCSC’s “30–40 model”

An area of 30 formerly barren acres in Gholkund was divided into rectangles, 30 feet by 40 feet, by mounding up soil, with a “soakage pit” in each. This way, none of the rain leaves this slightly sloped area. Diverse, drought tolerant, useful plants are fed by seepage from the soakage pit. These include neem, tamarind, silk cotton tree, Indian rosewood, oiltree, and teak, among others.

The Deccan Plateau, hot and dry, was once considered a wasteland. Sitting on bedrock, it’s hard for water to sink in. But it is now home to the well-established and successful Aranya Permaculture Farm. Started in 1999, it has gradually become a food forest. Key elements were plentiful mulching to retain moisture at the root level, and composting to build soil depth. On slopes, crescent berms were created perpendicular to water flow, on contour. (Berms are mounded up soil below a depression dug for water to soak in.) On top of these berms, trees were planted: moringa, papaya, custard apple, and tamarind.

Andhra Pradesh receives only 300–600 mm of rain per year and is one of the driest parts of India; of the last 20 years, 16 have been drought years. The formerly landless poor received land here. Using excavators, they built 65 ponds. As a result, 165,000 households now have water security. Where once it was common practice to burn crop residues, now every bit is composted and used to build soil. Biofertilizers are made from Neem seeds and pesticide use has declined sharply.

“The Urban Mega-Drought Solution”

In Tamil Nadu, on India’s south coast, there is typically 55 inches of rain a year from the monsoons. One square meter of roof can capture 1400 liters of rain. Trees and soil can act like a sponge. One woman who harvested rainwater on her property was proud to report that her formerly dry well had been recharged.

Auroville: 50 years of permaculture

Founded in 1968, this eco-city was formerly a barren plateau. Now it’s a lush forest. The massive reforestation project involved the whole community planting diverse species to re-create a tropical dry forest. On slopes, they created swales 35 inches apart; now there is zero runoff. Percolation ponds were dug. Thirty check-dams stop runoff, collect silt, and hold water, and these are prime areas for vegetation.

Wastewater is treated using “Living Machines” (tanks containing plants, algae, snails, fish, and other organisms — first designed by John Todd in the US). The first tank, or cell, has only the most hardy, pollution tolerant organisms, the second tank has different organisms, and the third tank still different. Both greywater and blackwater are purified in this way and then run through “flowforms” to help oxygenate the water. This water is then used for irrigation.

Watch this series of youtubes for yourself, and get inspired! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8nqnOcoLqE

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Cathy Holt

Cathy Holt

Cathy is a member of the Earth Regenerators Network. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.