From pipe dream to reality

MITHI: Many welcome the downpours every year, which signal the end of another dry summer season. But here, in the Dedh Sarh village of District Tharparkar, the rains are even more welcome as they mean less time spent walking to and from water wells.

After suffering a drought for almost two years, people of this water-stressed village will finally be able to breathe easy as they have stored enough water for 10 months, if not a whole year, during the rainy season. This has been made possible by a pilot rainwater harvesting project set up by the Sukaar Foundation, a local non-governmental organisation.

‘We were able to store up to 150,000 litres of water in the smaller Chonra-shaped ground water tanks and another 75,000 litres in the bigger tanks, which is sufficient for the five neighbourhoods in our village,’ explains Mohammad Saifal, a teacher at a government school and resident of Ali Mohammad neighbourhood in the Dedh Sarh village.

Saifal lives in a joint family comprising 40 members, mostly women, who have to walk two to three kilometres to fetch water from wells, which is often saline. ‘Groundwater is the only source of water for people and livestock in this region. But with the depletion of water tables, the only other option they have is to conserve water when it rains,’ said Ashok Suthar, director of the Sukaar Foundation, who added that the annual rainfall pattern has not been uniform for the past few years, ranging from 50mm to 300mm only.

For that reason, Sukaar picked Saifal’s household to demonstrate its low-cost and effective rainwater harvesting model. Months before the monsoon season started, roofs of a few selected rooms in Saifal’s house were reconstructed using cement.

‘Traditional huts are made with a mixture of clay and cow dung that often make rainwater unhygienic, so we wanted to use cement that is easier to clean,’ explained Suthar.

Although the villagers were earlier reluctant to allow them to rebuild their roofs, they changed their mind after the recent rains. ‘All these years we never thought how rainwater was being wasted due to our cone-shaped roofs. With a flat roof, which is connected to an underground tank through a pipe, storing water became much more convenient,’ says Saifal.

Earlier, his family would simply use utensils to store water that was manually poured into underground tanks. After revamping his water storage system, Saifal also noticed that water harvested this year is relatively clean.

A few metres away from Saifal’s home, five larger cone-shaped (Chonra) ponds have been constructed where sufficient water is stored to meet the needs of all five neighbourhoods of Dedh Sarh. Each tank is connected to a hand pump.

Over 200,000 litres has also been stored in the seven-foot deep Sindh Arid Zone Development Authority (SAZDA) pond and several tarais (natural ponds) of this arid zone, regarded as the most food insecure region of Pakistan by the United Nations. But due to extensive evaporation, the water does not last more than a few months.

Keeping this in mind, the Sukaar Foundation has covered open ponds with geomembranes to prevent water loss due to evaporation.

Apart from these ponds, all the wells in the district have been recharged as well.

It is too early to predict whether all this water will be sufficient for a year, but the villagers appear quite confident, saying that they are happy they will now have time to attend to other chores in the day.

So how do the villagers think their lives will change if the water stores prove sufficient? Forty-five-year-old Aamnat Bibi laughed before uttering in Sindhi, ‘I will be able to work on some pieces of embroidery and sew more clothes like the one I’m wearing. I will be able to eat and sleep in peace without having to worry about saving my family and livestock from dehydration. I will be able to spend more time in the farm.’

‘Water is everything,’ adds Moonat Lado, fervently explaining its relation to everything from tea and livestock to bathing, farming, and sanitation.

Earlier, Aamnat, who is expecting her tenth child, was preoccupied with fetching water. She, like most other women in the village, spent more than six hours every day walking to the sweet water well in the neighbouring village.

‘The more women there were at the well, the more time it took while our children cried for water back home,’ says Moonat, who adds that she has decided to admit her youngest daughter to school now that she will no longer need her help fetching water.

There are other villagers who fear that since they will no longer have to spend most of their waking hours around wells, the crime rate may increase. ‘But there are more advantages than disadvantages and that is what we should focus on,’ believes Saifal.

Suthar, Sukaar’s director, adds that more water in the village would also mean access to sanitation. ‘Since water is usually insufficient for cooking and drinking, most people use little or no water for sanitation. These unhygienic conditions lead to the outbreak of several diseases.’

The government has acknowledged the Sukaar Foundation’s work so far, as made evident by the presence of a former MPA Faqir Sher Mohammad at the inauguration ceremony of the project last week. Fifteen union councils of Tharparkar have also approved the idea of piped roof-water harvesting.

‘In the past six years, Rs1 billion has been spent by the government on water supply schemes, but we need something cost-effective,’ says Suthar. ‘There is only so much an NGO can do. The government has to step forward to provide these basic services at a mass level and learn to harvest rainwater using more practical methods.’

Water works

Dawn.com reporter Aroosa Masroor discovered that fetching water is far less picturesque than it looks.

‘This should be fun,’ I thought to myself, when a local of Dedh Sarh village asked me to try fetching water from a well. By then, I had taken too many pictures of women, dressed in their bright lehengas, making routine trips to the well to fetch water. I was eager to try it too.

My guide, Dost Mohammad, first handed me an empty leather bucket (that initially weighed seven kilos), tied it to a thick rope and gave me a go ahead to throw the bucket to the bottom of the well and scoop out water. He stood on one side and watched as several children gathered around the well, snickering.

‘This is heavy duty, madam. You won’t be able to pull the rope,’ warned one. Turns out, he was right. It normally takes the strength of three to four women to pull the bucket up. In my case, we needed the assistance of two men as well.

Pulling the rope, we walked away from the well – a traditional method to draw water – and I could feel the sweat collecting at my hairline, waiting to roll down my face, as we struggled. It took a few minutes till the bucket finally came up. The children began applauding, which made drawing water feel like quite the grand accomplishment (despite the fact that Thari women complete the same feat every day, often several times a day).

Seeing me in a slightly distressed state, Dost Mohammad offered me some of the water I had fetched. Although I knew the water was saline, I drank some because I thought it would be impolite to refuse. A bitter taste invaded my mouth, and I quickly grabbed my bottle of mineral water and gargled. I was later reminded by Dost Mohammad that hundreds of villagers and livestock use this well as their primary source of water every day.

After finishing my interviews, on my way back to Karachi, I thought a lot about water. And women. And the distances they covered every day only to fetch four litres of water, which is by no means safe or drinkable. I thought of how people in Sindh’s arid zone spend hours of their day valuing a resource that we, in urban areas, often take for granted.

I also thought of Aamnat Bibi, an elderly woman residing in Dedh Sarh, who pointed out that water scarcity in Tharparkar was a potential ‘story idea’ for me because I had my water bottle. ‘It is one thing to spend a day and listen to people’s stories and another thing to step in our shoes and live our lives,’ she said, as interpreted by the social worker, Hajiani, who assisted me during the trip.

It was around 9:00 a.m. when we were headed back from the well and throughout the villages around Mithi, I saw women walking with matkas (earthern pots). How much do each of those pots weigh, I found myself wondering? And how do these women manage to balance it on their heads?

For an urbanite such as myself, a trip to the village always seemed quite ‘fascinating.’ But just this one experience of fetching water taught me that we need to be more sensitive towards problems of our rural areas. We need to live their lives – or at least try fetching some water – to begin to understand how tough their living conditions are.

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