Technology and blind faith help bring water to smallhold farmers in a desert province in India.
By Katie Hewitt
Photographs by Sara Cornthwaite
The sky is almost cartoonishly blue, an innocent disguise hiding the power it holds over the man underneath. Kharta Ram is perched on the lip of a well, a circle of stones that rise from the belly of the earth to just above the grass. At 85, his hands are etched with the deep, rough lines of tree bark, and he has the stoic countenance of a man resigned to his fate living off the land.
Kharta is the fifth generation to farm here, in the rural Rajasthani village of Verdara, where he helped his father dig the well by hand as a boy. After decades flooding fields for irrigation, the well ran dry. Kharta and the plots of a dozen other farmers who share the water source were in distress. Crops failed. Food was scarce.
When WE Charity got word, two local team members arrived with a rather intimidating solution. It involved exploding dynamite and heavy machinery to haul out the well’s insides. A kind of controlled destruction would break new water veins in the rock, WE’s development experts promised, increase depth and the water’s recharge rate.
“Kisan darap riya ha,” Kharta remembers, speaking in Mewari. “The farmers were afraid.”
Kharta and the others faced a choice: watch the well deplete, or call in the machines and blow up their very means of survival, in the hopes of coaxing out more water.
This is the story of an old man versus nature.
As far as benefactors go, Mother Nature can seem largely indifferent. Rajasthan has 10 per cent of India’s land mass, but only 1.1 per cent of the country’s surface water. It’s a desert state of extremes, where monsoon rains abruptly flood fields after summer’s dry heat. Residents are almost completely dependent on wells and boreholes that draw water from the earth when it doesn’t fall from the sky. Just two years ago, the province suffered a drinking water crisis. Groundwater couldn’t replenish fast enough to meet the demand for drinking and bathing, washing dishes and watering the animals.
This was a big problem in small tribal communities like Kharta’s. The men on these plots are subsistence farmers, meaning they sow just enough to eat, without a surplus to sell. They need water to drink, and they need water to grow their primary food supply.
Seventy years ago, when Kharta was 15, his father, grandfather, and farmers from the dozen other nearby plots set out in search of a spot to dig. Without a bedrock assessment or a geological map, they looked to the ridges in the nearby hills, where the rains slide down like a slalom course. At the bottom, they found a low-lying patch where groundwater often pooled. This would be the place.
As part of a ceremony to bring good luck, the group broke a coconut before they broke ground. Then a dozen men hacked at soil and rock with crowbars, shovels, chisels and hammers, breaking stone by hand for six hours every day, hauling it out with oxen. A teenaged Kharta joined them. Through a translator, he adds that there was no school in the village at the time, so he was free to work. The group only stopped during monsoon season when their hole filled up with rain. And they went to temple, and they prayed that the water would last through the dry season.
The men dug for one year, enough for a continual supply of groundwater that would irrigate their surrounding land. They planted corn in the summer (the kharif crop), and wheat in the winter (the rabi crop). Their prayers had been answered—sort of. Summer after summer came, and the water level dropped.
Wheat is a thirsty crop, Kharta explains. From planting to harvest, in this climate and with this crop variety, fields must be irrigated six or seven times over the season. Every time, the soil sucks up 150,000 litres of water—on one farmer’s plot. Kharta’s crop alone would drink about one million litres per season. Their hand-dug well was only regenerating 30,000 litres per day, not enough for everyone. So, it became a math problem.
The farmers had to ration: whose land would be watered first, and how many times? Who planted first? Whose fields are farthest from the source? How can we crunch the numbers so that we can all feed our families? Water levels kept shrinking, and they reached a point when they couldn’t.
Not every well can be rehabilitated. Only the right kind of rock and sediment will support a narrow tunnel and the pressure of holding tens of thousands of litres of water. Before approaching farmers, WE Charity conducts hydrological surveys to determine viability, ensuring that the well won’t collapse in on itself when it’s deepened and that it will, in fact, release more water. Only about one in every 15 wells assessed in this region are selected.
Kharta’s well was chosen in 2014, and he reluctantly agreed. WE Charity would bring in equipment, hire machine operators, and fund the project, but all 15 farmers had to consent, and they had to help with manual labour, under the reasoning that community buy-in ensures long-term sustainability. It meant that Kharta had to convince 14 other famers that dynamite was a viable option. Most of the men have never been to school, and so couldn’t read an assessment report. What proof did they have that this would work?
“We’re not able to do any farming,” Kharta told the non-believers, “so let’s try and see.”
The crane had to be shipped in piece-by-piece, over narrow footpaths, and assembled on site. Dynamite loosened the large rocks so that smaller pieces could be broken up by hand, this time easily lifted out by the crane. Explosions were set off at night, when the surrounding hills went quiet and there was less chance of foot traffic. Experts coached the locals to dig this way and that after an initial drilling, angling to hit deeper and deeper water veins in the rocks.
Kharta watched as the well was temporarily destroyed, its guts stacked up into neat piles.
“Even when the work was half completed, I didn’t have faith,” he admits. “But I was not sharing my worry with anyone.” This is the first time he’s ever spoken about it.
Kharta and his ancestors spent a year digging 30 metres into the ground. This time, the same task took two months, increasing the depth to 60 metres. Rehabilitation also included masonry lining to keep the water contained, and a parapet was added—the stone lip around the well—so the water wouldn’t spill over, and to keep run-off waste from neighbouring animals from spilling in.
The well complete, the farmers’ faith was restored.
Water capacity and recharge rate increased almost immediately after finishing rehab. Crop yields grew—for both corn and wheat— and a whole new planting season was added. Soy can now be planted alongside corn. And green gram, a kind of bean, now grows in the peak of summer, an additional crop thriving at a time without rain, when no planting had been possible.
The refurbished well has a water recharge rate of 80,000 litres a day, widening the farmers’ scope of arable land to 21,090 square metres from 4,840. Kharta’s plot alone is now 2,522 square metres, up from from 648—and the effect on his family is incalculable.
“My family has enough food, and we are healthy. Whatever we want to grow, we can grow.”
Since rehab, the well has never run dry, even in the summer.
It is winter now, and Kharta walks slowly through his wheat fields with his hands clasped behind his back like a sergeant inspecting his platoon. At the moment, the stalks are the height and colour of tall grass, but by spring harvest they will reach Kharta’s waist, and his acreage will turn from green to gold.
His two sons are grown, and have been helping him in the fields for some time. Soon they will take over the land. Kharta’s four grandsons will inherit it after that, and his great grandchildren after that.
“I rest more than I used to,” Kharta says.