How desert tribes secure clean water for their flocks and families

By Avijit Ghosh

RAMGARH : In the searing afternoon of early May, the expanse ahead is a simmering yellow and parched brown. Only a handful of the wondrous khejdi and ruida trees and a cluster of vilayati babool add a tinge of green. In this rather weather-beaten side of Ramgarh, a kasbah about 65 kms from Jaisalmer, hundreds of sheep and goats crowd around livestock farmer Bhim Singh in a midday ritual that lasts almost half an hour.

Bhim lowers an improvised plastic bucket tied to a rope into a beri – a shallow sweet-water community well – draws out the life-giving liquid and pours them into a small stone tub. In an adjacent beri, another livestock farmer does the same. As the animals gratefully quench their thirst, another couple of farmers with their flocks wait at a distance to avoid overlapping of the herds. “These two beris are the only water source here during summer. Without them, the animals would have probably died,” says Bhim.

Born out of a traditional system of harvesting rainwater, beris are lifesavers for both humans and animals in parts of western Rajasthan for centuries. Shaped like matkas (pitcher), these shallow wells are dug up in areas with gypsum or bentonite beds which prevent the rainwater from percolating downwards but guide them towards the wells through capillary action.

“Last year, Ramgarh and its surrounding villages hardly received any rain. But even then, these beris are fully charged. You can draw at least 10,000 litres of drinking water every day. It gets replenished overnight,” says Chatar Singh, a 56-year-old local eco warrior with a masterly knowledge of desert water conservation. His initiatives, in tandem with Sambhaav, an NGO aiding the restoration of aquifers, has led to the digging of dozens of new beris and the revival of others that had fallen fell into disuse. The long trek for drinking water is not so long anymore.

The importance of beris is further underlined by what one notices a few kilometres away. Water from the humongous Indira Gandhi canal gathers in a pond-like structure on its way to the filtering unit. Near the canal’s Sagarmal Gopa branch, one also notices a cow’s rotting carcass. The unclean water, full of green algae, looks unfit for consumption yet tractors line up to carry it away in huge cans. “Hum yahi pani peete hain (Everyone drinks this water),” says class X student Suraj Singh Bhati, who’s ferrying the water home for consumption.

On the outskirts of Netsi village, 23 beris are in use. The village has a huge cement tank that stores water released from the IG canal. But many women trek a kilometer away to the village outskirts, where the beris are located. “Most of us drink the beri’s water,” says Mala Devi. Undeniably, water from the IG canal has eased their woes but most villagers that TOI spoke also said that the taps are often run dry. “We got water after a gap of five days,” said Guddi of Ekalpar village.

The traditional beris were made of wood. “They would rot after a year. The new beris are built with long-lasting blocks of yellow stones that Jaisalmer is known for,” says retired armyman Jitu Singh.

The success in these water-harvesting projects has come by forging a partnership with locals. Netsi villagers provided free-of-charge labour required to make the beris functional again. Chatar spells out that the villagers were motivated to join the project while Sambhaav chipped in with materials.

Nearly three decades ago, Chatar started teaching children of the bhil tribes in Ekalpar and Dobalpar, once regarded among the two poorest village in the area. But over the last 10 years, he was worked primarily in the field of water conservation in association with Farhad Contractor of Sambhaav, who routinely visits these villages.

Part of their vast work is helping the bhil tribe learn the traditional art of khadeen, a form of cultivation in arid, scanty-rainfall region where the land’s moistness is harnessed to produce wheat, mustard and black gram, among other things. “We help them help themselves,” says Farhad.

Before Chatar’s engagement, the bhils were largely a hunting community. Often they were asked to shift from one place to another by the local administration. “They did not know how to harness water. Sometimes they would even lie down on the field to stop rainwater from escaping,” recalls Chatar Singh, who is hugely influenced by environmentalist Anupam Mishra’s seminal book, Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (The radiant raindrops of Rajasthan).

Over the years the bhils learnt to use water-saving techniques such as toba, which allows rainwater to be stored for drinking, and dhora, a technique that ensures rainwater storage for irrigation.

“We did not know how to grow crops. We learnt everything from him,” says Padma Ram, a 60-year-old bhil who owns 75 bighas of land. In 2015, he earned Rs 3 lakh cultivating black gram. Such examples abound. The two bhil villages now have 30 motorcycles and 15 tractors; unthinkable some years ago.

At a distance from his village, Padma is constructing a mound three feet high and over 500 feet long. “When the rains come, the dhora will trap the water,” he says. The monsoon generally arrives late in Jaisalmer. Sometimes it even plays hookey in Ramgarh. But the bhil is an optimist. “It will rain one day,” he says, “and whenever it does, I want to trap every drop of water.”

Source: Times of India

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