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Jaisalmer villager's letter: lessons on how to survive water scarcity

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

"Before the drought, caused by the shortage of rainfall, comes a drought of ideas."

These wise words were written by Chatarsingh Jaam, a villager from Ramgarh in Jaisalmer, the desert heart of Rajasthan.

At the National Consultation on Drought held by Swaraj Abhiyan in the Capital on Sunday, people came from drought-hit Latur, Bundelkhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Telangana to share their anguish and experiences of suffering the third consecutive drought to hit India.

Read- #DroughtDiary: Chhattisgarh forgets to repair canals, drought relief in Ahmednagar

Jaam's letter was read out at the consultation to a spellbound audience. He wrote about how a 500-year-old technique of community farming is helping him and his village to cope in an area which has always seen low rainfall. Jaisalmer saw 4 mm of rainfall in July 2014 and 33 mm of rainfall last July. To understand how low that is, here are two figures to compare:

Latur received a low rainfall of 28 mm last July. And the national average rainfall in July 2015 was 192.7 mm.

In both years Jaisalmer survived with dignity, not needing a single water tanker from the state.

Jaam's letter is a lesson in how to survive arid climes year after year. And why this year's drought is a purely man made crisis.

The letter

We have been watching the horrific news of the drought situation in several states on TV.

My native district of Jaisalmer is among the most arid zones of the country. It receives scanty rainfall, sometimes none whatsoever.

The region may be sparsely populated, and people may be more dependent on animal husbandry than farming, but we still need our share of water. Livestock, consisting of lakhs of sheep, goats, cows and camels, also require a constant water supply.

How we do it

Our region received a rainfall of only 4 mm in July 2014. The figure for the month of August was just 7 mm. It amounted to a total rainfall of 11 mm in those months.

Also read- #DroughtDiary: Farm loans rise in Maharashtra; water supply schemes fail in Gujarat

Yet, Ramgarh, where I live, did not hit the headlines for a famine-like situation. Our efforts prevented the situation from deteriorating to such a level.

The rain gods were as cruel the next year. On 23 July 2015, a rainfall of 35 mm was recorded. The month of August that year saw a total of merely 7 mm of rain, coming down further to 6 mm in September. However, we still managed to fill the 500-year-old Viprasar pond.

In July and August 2014, our region received a total rainfall of just 11 mm. But we still coped

The Viprasar pond holds special significance for this region. The layers of Khadia soil and Gypsum accumulated on the bed of this pond over millions of years prevents fresh water from mixing with the brackish water flowing beneath. These layers precipitate the moisture of the sand.

The surface water of the pond is available only for a few months. The trapped water lying below is preserved through beautiful structures called beri.

The result is that the Viprasar pond is filled to the brim even in the third week of April, enabling us to remain self-sufficient in water supplies till the next rainy season.

This special technique is also applied to many fields across Jaisalmer.

Cooperation is the key

We have never allowed the monopoly of one single person or clan on these special fields. These are traditionally considered as the collective assets of the entire society.

The ideals, often restricted only to slogans elsewhere, have been implemented on the ground by our sagacious forefathers. These special pieces of land are used for community farming, even in this era of cutthroat competition and mutual jealousy. Such tillages never lose their greenery, even in severe droughts.

Check out: These photos show us what it's like to live without water in Latur

We have plenty of water, foodgrains, and fodder for our cattle, even in the heart of the desert. We are not only self-dependent in foodgrain production, but also provide employment to people from other regions. Labourers from Bihar, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have come to Ramgarh to harvest crops for the first time during this season. These people belong to areas that receive much more rains than our native place. Yet, they have found a source of livelihood here.

Appalled at Marathwada situation

We are pained to see the news of farmer distress in regions like Marathwada and Latur. There are riots over water, and the administration has even imposed Section-144 in some of these areas. In contrast, the water scarcity has not affected the amiable relations in our society.

The mindless focus on sugarcane farming has plundered Marathwada's low existing ground water resources. It has now come to a situation where hundreds of buckets are seen in an already dried-up well. There is complete mayhem there.

The mindless focus on sugarcane farming has plundered Marathwada's already low ground water

The new methods of cultivation, rapid industrialisation and overgrowing cities have ended the age-old tolerance for others' right to water. This is why we are facing extreme conditions like the Chennai floods and famine-like situation in Latur.

The distribution of rainwater has always been decided by nature. Regions like Konkan and Cherrapunji get excessive rainfall, whereas our villages receive almost none.

Only those societies which have adapted to the availability of natural resources without greed have managed to survive. They have remained immune to the water crisis.

Spreading the message

Conditions had worsened in some of our villages, but the trend has been reversed during the last 10-15 years. It was made possible by the construction of hundreds of various traditional reservoirs for water harvesting through collective efforts. You will not find any boards or inauguration stones of government or NGOs near these water sources. We have made them for ourselves. This is why they have never dried up.

Nobody can understand the pain of water scarcity better than us. Our anguish will not end until we spread the message of water conservation to other parts of the country as well.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 3 May 2016, 9:43 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.