National Geographic : 2009 Nov
• the elds with a sickle. His arms and hands were heavily scarred from the work. Speaking so ly,Valmikdetailedoneofthe crueler paradoxes of rain dependence. A year earlier his family had borrowed 40,000 rupees (about $800) from a moneylender to cover ex- penses such as seeds and fertilizer for their elds at home and hadn t been able to pay it back. Why? Because there hadn t been enough rain, and the seeds had broiled in the ground. What would they do when the debt was paid o ? e same thing they d done for the past three years a er a season of cutting sugarcane: ey would borrow again, plant more seeds, and revive their hopes for a decent monsoon. G of India s water issues, encouraging single villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can seem a feeble response to a national crisis. But compared with controversial top-down, government-led e orts to build big dams and regulate the wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroots e ort to manage water locally can look both sensible and sustainable. When I visited Khandarmal with Ashok Sangle, one of the civil engineers who works for WOTR, the people there described a failed $500,000 devel- opment project to pump water several miles uphill from the nearest river. Sangle shook his head. "What is the logic of pulling water up a slope," he asked, "when you can more easily catch the rain as it ows down?" e idea behind watershed development is simple: If people cut fewer trees, increase plant cover on the land, and build a well-planned se- ries of dams and earthen terraces to divert and slow the downhill ow of rainwater, the soil has more time to absorb moisture. e terracing and new vegetation also control erosion, which keeps nutrient-rich topsoil from washing or blowing away, and this in turn boosts the pro- ductivity of agricultural land. "Where the rain runs, we make it walk; where it walks, we make it crawl," explained Crispino Lobo, one of WOTR s founders, using an analogy the organization o en employs when introduc- ing the concepts behind watershed work to farm- ers. "Where it crawls, we make it sink into the ground." Runo is reduced. e water table for the whole area rises, wells are less apt to go dry, and especially with some simultaneous e orts to use water more e ciently, everybody needs to worry less about when it will rain again. e bene ts---at least hypothetically---spool outward from here. More productive farmland means more food and better health for the vil- lagers, and it opens the possibility of growing cash crops. "The first thing people do when their watershed regenerates and their income goes up," Lobo said, "is to take their kids out of the elds and put them in school." Lobo began working on water issues in the early 1980s through a development program funded by the German government. WOTR is now directed by Marcella D Souza, a medical doctor and Lobo s wife, whose e orts to involve women in watershed redevelopment have earned international recognition. ey believe there is an important emotional dimension to water- shed work as well. "If people are able to improve the land and restore the soil, you start seeing a change in how they see themselves," Lobo said. " e land re ects some hope back at them." To be clear, this is not always easy. Since the late 1990s, both the Indian government and a variety of nongovernmental organizations have funneled some $500 million annually into redeveloping watersheds in drought-prone rural areas. But ex- perts say many such endeavors have fallen short of their goals or proved unsustainable, in large part because they have focused too much on the technical aspects of improving a watershed and too little on navigating the complex social dynamics of farming villages. In other words, no e ort gets very far without a lot of hands-on "Where the rain runs, we make it walk; where it walks, we make it crawl," said Crispino Lobo of the Watershed Organization Trust.