How India’s women ‘water warriors’ turned arid villages into plentiful oases

On World Water Day 2022, Indian women are pulling together

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As the mercury soars to 37°C, Neelam Jha is back to holding meetings with a group of women to review water availability in their parched village in Bundelkhand – India’s most arid region.

Ms Jha, 30, is a Jal Saheli, or “Friend of Water”. She forms part of a network of about a thousand women, mostly illiterate, who are on a mission to conserve water in the region.

“Summer is here and soon ponds and wells will dry up. We have to make sure that every house gets sufficient water,” Ms Jha told The National. She said women face the brunt of the water crisis.

In the coming weeks and months, the group will embark on the annual task of reviving water sources by digging wells and ponds, and constructing small reservoirs, to harvest rainwater in the drought-prone region.

India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, has only four per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, leaving tens of millions without reliable access to potable water.

More than 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress, according to a 2019 report by government think tank Niti Aayog.

The report said about 200,000 people die due to the water crisis every year and that if no action is taken, 40 per cent of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030.

Bundelkhand, home to nearly 16 million people, falls in the country’s rain shadow region and stretches across northern Uttar Pradesh and central Madhya Pradesh state.

The water crisis here is perennial, but over the decades it has been aggravated by climate change, which has depleted aquifers and made rain increasingly scant.

Every year, as winter gives way to eight months of blistering heat, water in ponds and wells evaporates, setting off an recurring ordeal for the region’s women and children.

India is a largely conservative society, with gender roles strictly adhered to in rural areas, where women are primarily responsible for managing the household.

Ms Jha had only one purpose: fetching water for her family of six from the only handpump in the village.

Simravari, where she is from, has only one handpump for its population of 1,200.

Whether or not she was sick, tired, or pregnant, she walked two kilometres every morning and evening carrying three vessels on her head to the handpump to fetch water for cooking, cleaning and bathroom use.

“I had to make at least 10 rounds to the handpump a day but my husband never helped because men were supposed to work on fields … we faced discrimination and mental torture,” said Ms Jha, who has three children.

The water crisis has caused a cascade of consequences, forcing men to migrate to other places in the face of failing crops and overall economic distress.

At least 3,500 farmers have taken their lives in the past three decades over failed crops and farm debts in a country where about 55 per cent of the arable land depends on the annual monsoon.

After failing to receive any assistance from the government to mitigate the water stress, dozens of women from 200 villages joined hands in 2005 to form Jal Sahelis.

Their aim was to revive traditional water sources and conserve water to ease the burden. Ms Jha joined them in 2019 to learn the ropes.

The saree-clad “water warriors”, aged between 18 and 70, conduct meetings with Pani Panchayat, or the council for water, to address the regional issues of drought and overall water management.

They have dug wells, revived ponds by converting them into check dams and built small reservoirs across the region to harvest the rain.

These dams retain excess water flow during the monsoon and helps to fill the aquifers.

Video: Power cuts and water shortages in blistering India heatwave

Video: Power cuts and water shortages in blistering India heatwave

The women have also helped repair and install handpumps and created soak pits, reducing water wastage to mitigate the lack of drinking water in water-scarce communities.

Ms Jha’s village is now flush with water.

“I have installed eight to 10 handpumps with the help of a village councillor. We also have installed a submersible pump that is connected to 50 families, giving direct water supply,” Ms Jha said.

“We do not face shortage of water any more and, in fact, we can now save water for rough days.”

Experts say India’s water crisis is due to a lack of focus and efforts on groundwater conservation.

About 85 per cent of rural and half of the urban population in India depends on groundwater, which declined by 61 per cent between 2007 and 2017.

Dr Suresh Kumar Rohilla, programme lead with the International Water Association, said the government’s policies were misplaced.

He said its focus was on providing tap water to households and that groundwater conservation was overlooked.

In recent years, the government has aggressively improved access to tap water and has even formed a dedicated ministry, Jal Shakti, to address the water shortage in the country.

Since its formation in 2019, the ministry has added 31 per cent of Indian households to the tap water network, increasing the number of total reach to nearly 48 per cent of them nationwide.

“The focus of the government is on providing pipe and tap to every household, everybody should target that, but simultaneously there should be an aggressive push for co-management of use of groundwater,” Dr Rohilla told The National.

“We have encroached on water bodies due to rapid urbanisation. There should be integrated groundwater as well as surface water management.”

Dr Rohilla says that water conservation and efficiency are the driving forces and that education and community participation can help to mitigate the crisis.

“Our designs are not based on local requirements, but such community programmes, where locals are involved, will certainly benefit in water harvesting structures as well as create water assets,” he said.

Updated: March 22, 2022, 10:47 AM