A Return to the Village
In India, like many countries, the migration of people from rural villages to large cities in search of work and livelihoods is the common flow. Pushed by water scarcity, there are estimated to be nearly 100 million inter-state migrants in Indian cities, many of whom live in poverty in informal settlements. In March 2020 the Indian Covid Lockdown reversed this flow when millions of migrant workers fled cities as wages evaporated and returned home to their villages.
Indian Lockdown, March 2020: people flee the cities in reverse migration back to villages
What awaited them could be anything from an eroded desertified landscape with little opportunities to subsist, to a fertile and verdant agricultural area with a cohesive community, sustainable rural economy and opportunities of self-sufficiency and employment.
What makes the difference between these two extremes? Water. If water is not held within the landscape it washes through and away leading to erosion, depleted aquifers, failed crops and biodiversity and habitat loss. Many people who returned home from cities found that the place they had left had eroded further, that, in tandem with the exodus of young migrant workers, water too had left their villages, and with it, life.
But, as we will see, by regrouping as a community and taking collective action, eroded lands can be rejuvenated and life can be restored. By changing the flow of water, people too are held and sustained and opportunities can be found in the place they call home.
The UK-based The Flow Partnership have been working with the Rajasthani organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh and villagers in Rajasthan to do just this. Together they create traditional ‘johads’ or ponds, enabling a holistic regeneration of the surrounding land, the community and the local economy. The Flow Partnership are also taking this model of Community Driven Decentralised Water Management into other countries in the world- especially into Africa and Latin America, working closely with local NGO’s such as TBS in those locations.
Climate change and drought in Rajasthan
Increasing and more lengthy droughts, fueled by climate change, are leading to desertification and livelihood loss in Rajasthan. In the Sarsa river catchment area, at least 21 rivers and streams have disappeared leaving wells and boreholes dry. Monsoon rains bring water back to the arid landscape, but if the water is not held it washes out of the area and cannot be used to irrigate crops.
Johads, traditional rainwater filled ponds, once acted to retain water within the landscape, supplying the surrounding area with gravity-fed water. As the wells and boreholes go dry, local people are again appreciating the regenerative effects of johads to bring back life to a parched landscape and are working together to restore ancient johads and create new ones.
Building Johads - a multiple partnership
Villagers meet to agree plans for the johad and collectively work to construct it
“The average rainfall is very low here. That is why we, the people of Maharajpura came together and decided to make our johad bigger.”
Johads are earthworks of a pond sculpted out of the landscape and the formation of a dam with rocks and earth, sealed with soil compacted by a JCB. An overflow area is made from rock or concrete. Bushes and vegetable crops are planted on the slopes to stabilise the soil and a gravity powered syphon feeds and irrigates crops. Sometimes the pond is stocked with fish which can be caught and sold. Making johads is a collaborative endeavour. Villagers undertake earthworks with their tractors and trailers, with a JCB and driver hired-in. Together with the villagers Tarun Bharat Sangh has created dozens of johads throughout Eastern Rajasthan.
Johads are built through a multiple partnership of: local wisdom, labour and investment, regional expert engineering advice and facilitation, local and international funding. Stakeholders, local people are empowered and motivated to maintain and manage the johads ensuring their upkeep for years to come. As well as design knowledge and labour, local people contribute one third of the cost of building the dams, with UK-based The Flow Partnership arranging to contribute the balance two thirds. The positive change that johads create reflects this partnership with benefits which are local, regional and global in scale: small drops in the pond create global ripples.
Local Regeneration through Natural Infrastructure
“Earlier, without the johad this was all barren land. There was nothing here.”
If water is assured locally, food and nutrition security are enabled. Villagers can then focus on agricultural development and becoming economically viable self-sustaining units creating rural livelihoods. Rainwater-filled johads built on high ground can seep water through underground aquifers supplying nearby boreholes and wells and irrigating neighbouring fields. But a Johad is more than an irrigation resource. With water held naturally within the landscape, it brings life to entire ecosystems where populations of fish, birds and other wildlife proliferate. Johads create a regenerative farming model by building self-sustaining eco-systems.
Watered crops create increased yields and income for villagers - generating new employment opportunities, for example, in one such village where a johad had been built by The Flow Partnership and Tarun Bharat Sangh, better grazing land for cattle meant that 40 young villagers could be employed selling milk; migration to the cities is not needed when there are opportunities for jobs closer to home. With greater incomes, more girls are funded to go to school and health resilience is improved due to better diets.
By investing in the village, resilient cohesive communities are sustained and developed enabling a continuation of a way of life which is less extractive than urban living. Food is grown to feed the local population without the need for transporting long distances and informal economies of exchange of goods and services can continue, such as caring for children and elderly relatives, sharing of home-grown healthy food and heritage seeds and swapping of labour.
Successful small and medium food production goes beyond self-sufficiency at a local level when food is exported and sold regionally. This gives a stable income to the local area, while also supporting regional food security and feeding of urban populations without the excess food-miles and harmful practices of centralised intensive agriculture. With livelihoods sustained within the village, there is less migration to urban areas, reducing the pressures of overcrowding in cities.
The sum of multiple communities regenerated by water retention create cumulative global benefits. Global biodiversity is increased as habitats are preserved and carbon emissions are reduced by using sustainable irrigation methods. Carbon is sequestered in the increased areas of healthy soils and water in the landscape. Preserving small and medium agrarian villages maintains traditional and regional identities, adding to the rich diversity of world cultures and products and reduces homogenisation. By becoming self-sufficient, rural populations can contribute to the wider economy and are less dependent on national and international aid financing.
Beyond India - Community Wisdom Creating Global Ripples
Many cultures have their own traditional methods to retain water in the landscape at the community level using natural infrastructure. The Flow Partnership is currently working with communities in Colombia in collaboration with UK engineering firm ARUP to build their own form of johads called Jagueys.
In Slovakia NGO People and Water headed by Michal Kravcik have created a series of microbasisns and similar johad like leaky dams along with the villagers to revitalise the local flooded landscapes.
Climate change is water change, but community driven water retention measures can be applied throughout the world to respond positively to this change, to sustain life and help bring our climate back to health.
Next is an ambitious project to revive the badlands in Rajasthan see: https://waterways.world/images/dang_project.pdf