National Geographic : 2009 Nov
• of the Western Ghats, where the clouds stall out, leaving the leeward side punishingly dry. I n a n e ort to lessen their dependence on the monsoon, the village s residents had signed on to an ambitious, three-year watershed program designed to make more e cient use of what little rain does fall. e program was facilitated by a nonpro t group called the Watershed Organi- zation Trust (WOTR), but the work---a major relandscaping of much of the valley---was being done by the villagers themselves. Teams of farm- ers spent an average of ve days a week digging, moving soil, and planting seedlings along the ridgelines. WOTR, which has led similar projects in more than 200 villages in central India, paid the villagers for roughly 80 percent of the hours worked but also required every family to con- tribute free labor to the project every month---a deliberate move to get everyone invested. From the vantage point of the temple, the effort was evident: Beyond the small grids of tile-roofed mud homes and the sun-crisped patchwork of dry fields, many of the russet brown hillsides had been terraced, and a number of freshly dug trenches sat waiting to catch the rain. If only, of course, the rain would come. In Satichiwadi the anticipation was high. "Very soon," Bhaskar said, "we will know the value of this work." C , the South Asian monsoon---widely considered the most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, a ecting nearly half the world s pop- ulation---has never been easy to predict. And with global warming skewing weather patterns, it s not just the scientists who are confounded. Farmers whose families for generations have used the Panchangam, a thick almanac detail- ing the movement of the Hindu constellations, to determine when the monsoon rains are due and thus when to plant their crops, lament that their system no longer works reliably. "It is a bit of a puzzle," said B. N. Goswami, director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Me- teorology, based in Pune. After studying five decades of rain gauge data for central India, Goswami and his colleagues concluded that al- though the amount of rainfall has not changed, it is coming in shorter, more intense bursts, with fewer spells of light rain between, mirroring a larger pattern of extreme weather worldwide. Groundwater has helped some farmers cope with erratic rains. But India s water tables are dropping precipitously, as farmers who now have access to electric pumps withdraw water faster than the monsoon can replenish it. Ac- cording to the International Water Management Institute, based in Sri Lanka, half the wells once used in western India no longer function. " ir- ty years ago we could strike water by digging 30 feet," said the village chief in Khandarmal, a dusty settlement of about 3,000 people perched on a ridge about 20 miles from Satichiwadi. "Now we have to go to 400 feet." Even that is chancy. Over the years the villagers have drilled a total of 500 wells. Ninety percent of them, he estimated, have gone dry. Water shortages throw farmers into an unre- lenting cycle of debt and distress, driving many--- by one estimate up to a hundred million each year---to seek work in factories and distant, bet- ter irrigated elds. During the dry months, be- tween November and May, you see them on the roads: families creaking along in bullock carts, truck taxis jammed with entire neighborhoods of people on the move. e stakes can seem im- possibly high. According to government gures, the number of suicides among male farmers in Maharashtra tripled between 1995 and 2004. O n e a ernoon outside a sugarcane process- ing factory not far from Satichiwadi, I met a boy named Valmik. He was 16, with a sweet smile and out-turned ears, wearing a brown T-shirt and pants that were ripped across the seat. Standing in front of his bullock cart loaded with two tons of freshly cut sugarcane, he ex- plained that he had driven his two-oxen cart 110 or so miles with his older brother and wid- owed mother to spend ve months working in Sara Corbett is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Lynsey Addario photographed Bhutan for National Geographic in March 2008.