Wednesday, May 25, 2016

View from a volunteer team leader

ednesday, 25 May 2016

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Water Harvesting Project, Rajasthan

When Developing World Connections offered me the opportunity to lead
a team to Bhindar, Rajasthan, I leapt at the chance of returning to India.
I had been there many times before helping home owners build a new
life with a solid roof over their heads. But this project was different.

It was not house building for one or two families but building a sub-surface
dam for a whole village. A what?! I hear you ask, and quite rightly as that
was my initial reaction. Thanks to the wonders of Google it didn't take
long for me to find out exactly what I had let myself and my team in for.
My next step was to check out the information provided by the DWC
in-country partner Sahyog Sansthan.

The task seemed daunting compared to my previous experiences, but I
love a challenge. I have to admit that the thought of digging and mixing
concrete for two weeks did not sound appealing and I thought it would be
a hard sell to the team. But I think the challenge and the benefits this
project would have for the village, outweighed any doubts we as a team
may have had.

Then the day arrived for us to be driven to the village from our hotel, A
bonus I must admit as the hotel was an old palace run by a 21st generation
family member of the original owner. We are not used to such luxury on
these projects.


As the two 4x4 jeeps made their way out of Bhindar toward the village of 
Bargatua Kella, it became apparent that water was a substance these lands 
had not seen for a long time. Dry fields spread out from the dirt track in 
all directions. The occasional block built home dotted along the roadside. 
water buffalo, cows and the occasional dog all looking thin and 
malnourished, the bones of a dead water buffalo lay at the side of the 
track having been picked clean by anything that could gain nourishment 
from its remains.


We moved on towards the village and passed a dam that had been built by 
previous team. It looked impressive sitting there in the dry gully formed 
by previous monsoons. Last year the monsoon was very poor and there was 
not enough water to refill the wells let alone irrigate the land. The people 
in this area rely on their crop to survive. There is rarely any surplus to take 
to market. Without the crop they have nothing to eat. After a good 
monsoon season they may, if lucky, get two crops in a year. For the past 
two years they have only managed one.  


The team were silent as we approached the village, both from the effects 
of seeing first hand the conditions in which the villagers live and also with 
the prospect of starting the first days work. On arrival at the work site, a 
dry river bed running past the village of 187 occupants, we were greeted 
by many of them and welcomed to a ceremony under a brightly coloured 
awning set beneath a tree offering shade in the 40C heat.


Following introductions and having marigold garlands placed around our
necks, friendship ribbons tied to our wrists, drums beaten and much shaking
of hands, we made our way to the work site for our first view of the task

To our amazement, the foundation trench had already been dug by a JCB
(backhoe) and I could see why. If we had to dig it by hand we may just
have finished it in the two weeks we had to complete our build. It was 2
metres deep and about one and a half metres wide. There were piles of
rocks of various sizes and sand dug by the women of the village piled ready
for the making of concrete mortar.


So the project begins, the team divided up into groups, some moving sand 
to the mortar mixing area, some moving rocks and others passing the 
mortar in pans through the line and out to the masons who were placing 
and rocks and filling in the gaps.


Mixing the mortar was a hot and energy consuming task, and it was 
continuous. As one pile was finished another was being started. The water 
supply for this purpose was extracted from the bottom of the foundation 
which had hit the water table. It was extracted by tin cans and water 
carrying pots and then tipped into two 45-gallon plastic drums. 


This process continued throughout the time we were there. The dam grew 
in height and width each day as more mortar and more rocks where placed 
in position. The accuracy checked by the mason, a village elder. In fact 
everybody on site (except the team of course) were a member of the village. 

The women worked tirelessly digging and carrying sand. The men were 
moving and breaking rocks.


The young girls Lila and Kusum passing pans full of heavy mortar down the
line and all the time smiling and laughing.

Temperatures were rising throughout the week, hitting 45C by the weekend. 
The team worked throughout and without complaint. In fact nobody 
complained about repetitive work or the conditions, we all took it in our 
stride. There was a job to do, we needed to get it done.


During the morning break, one of the villagers (Suresh) made chai over an
open fire under the shade of the tree. 

The team loved it so much that we regularly got hijacked by villagers and 
had to visit their homes for chai. I believe it became a competition between 
them as to who could get us into their home before and after work. As we 
drove along the dirt track in the mornings we would find a villager waiting 
to direct us into their home. And when we finished for the day there would 
be an invitation waiting for us at another house.


The weekend came and the team took off for Udaipur on a little R and R
visiting the largest fresh-water lake in Asia and sight seeing in the old town.

We also took in a Bollywood movie - well you just have to when in India, 
returning Sunday evening to our wonderful hotel. I happened to mention to 
Parthvi (the 21st generation manager) that the building reminded me of the 
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (those who have seen the films will understand). 
She in turn explained that the hotel used in the film was not too far away. 
So on an evening during our second week myself and another team member 
accompanied by Parthvi visited the hotel and received a guided tour and 
detailed explanation of the making of the films.


Monday came and we continued mixing, moving, lifting and laughing. More 
chai and more heat. By midweek the temperatures were hitting 50C. Did 
this slow down the project? Not at all. In hindsight, I am not sure how we 
all coped with that, but as each day went by the dam grew in stature and 
without complaint from anyone

On the Wednesday we ran out of water for mixing the mortar. We had dug 
two additional holes to try and obtain water as the foundation was by now 
complete and what water there was, was no longer accessible.

Whilst the two extra holes produced a small amount, they eventually ran 
dry. By the next morning there was enough to keep us going for a few hours.


A tanker had been ordered to provide enough to complete the project but
this had not arrived by the time we left site for the last time.

One evening during the second week we were invited to revisit the village
for a cultural evening. The whole village turned out and enthralled us with 
with music, songs and dancing. 

On another occasion we stopped at a nearby village to be invited to the 
Marriage celebrations of a young couple. Following congratulations and of 
course chai, we continued with our journey home.


We also visited another water harvesting project funded by a UK
organization, Wells for India. Dry wall irrigation and another sub-surface
dam. This land is so reliant on the monsoons for its water that the
ingenious methods they have developed to harvest and retain the rainfall 
are incredible. They need to replenish their wells as well as irrigate their 
land. Without these structures, the water would would sweep down the 
valley, washing away topsoil and not actually penetrating the earth deep 
enough to be of use for crop growing.

With these dams in place, the water is held back long enough to penetrate
the ground and raise the water level without reducing the effect further
down the line. It helps refill the wells which are currently dry, hopefully 
with enough water to last until the monsoons come again. It will also help 
the farmers with a second crop per year.

By the time we were due to leave, the dam was up to height but still had
the wing wall and the top sides to be built. This will take 15 days of hard
labour by the villagers and we know they will complete because it means
so much to them.


On our last day the whole village turned out to celebrate with us. They 
danced, sang songs and made speeches, prepared food and fed everyone 
including ourselves. 


We in turn thanked them for their hospitality and wished them well for the 
future and hopes of a good monsoon. 


When we started out with this project we had no idea what we were getting 
into. But now we are much more aware of the plight of the farmers in 
Rajasthan. We understand more about their needs and their suffering 
because of the lack of water. 

When we ran out of water to mix mortar, it was a hammer blow that made 
us realize how much we take water for granted here in the west. Driving 
across the dry landscape watching a dust devil twist across the work site 
lifting a column of dry dust high into the air, seeing animals made of just 
skin and bone, all reinforced to us the need for more help in this area.


Without this Developing World Connections team, this project would not 
have happened. The donation content paid by each team member funded 
this project. Unlike some organizations that pool the funds to support its 
projects, DWC actually funds the whole project through direct donation to 
cover the costs. These village farmers would not have had their sub-surface 
dam if it was not for DWC and the team of volunteers who made it happen. 
I, as their team leader, applaud them for their generosity and hard work 
in giving their time and money to make this project a success.

Our thoughts are with the people of Bargatua Kella and all those effected 
by the lack of water in Rajasthan and hope this years monsoon is a monster.


This is only a brief synopsis of the project and to tell the story in full would 
require a book and a good author. That person is not me. But I will always 
be happy to bore you with tales from the trip should we meet in person.

Ray Fowell
Team leader
India, May 2016