The need for survival edge technology
Decentralised communitarian technology can mitigate the water crises facing us today.
2 Jul 2019
Digging an open well that had some water at lesser depths ranging from 5-10 m using local technology in which a motor run winch draws up the dug up mud from the well bottom. (Image: Rahul Banerjee)

Decentralised and communitarian efforts in soil and water conservation, sustainable agriculture, afforestation and renewable energy need extensive investment, if the human race is to survive the deepening water, food, energy and climate crises.

Moreover, since these crises most affect the poor who live on the edge of survival in rural areas, the decentralised communitarian technology required to mitigate these crises can appropriately be called Survival Edge Technology. However, implementing such technologiesis easier said than done, primarily because of the dominant narrative that only technology requiring highly centralised systems and huge investments can address these problems. The mainstream narrative does not account for community participation in the implementation of time tested and simple decentralised technologies, some of which are as old as human civilisation.

The Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (MAJLIS) is a collective formed by Dalit and Adivasi women in western Madhya Pradesh, to advance the causes of women’s empowerment and environmental conservation. MAJLIS’ Climate Change Mitigation Centre in Pandutalav village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh has worked extensively over the past 6 months.

The major problem at this centre and the surrounding areas is the lack of water. The underlying rock structure is such that the aquifer does not have much water. A bore well sunk to a depth of 130 meters yielded very little water, just about enough to provide drinking and washing water, but not enough for agriculture. Open wells nearby had some more water at lesser depths ranging from 5 to 10 meters, so a decision was taken to dig one using a local technology for digging open wells in which a motor run winch draws up the dug up mud from the well bottom.

After some digging the soil became hard, and it became time consuming to continue digging with a pick axe and shovel. So dynamite had to be used to blast the hard soil. Here too, a local technology was used in which a compressor mounted on a tractor drove an air drill to make the holes in which the dynamite was inserted.

Top middle image: Local technology in which a compressor mounted on a tractor is used to drive an air drill to make the holes in which the dynamite is inserted; Left image: There is a fear of sides of the well collapsing every time blasting was done; Right image: Flexible steel shuttering was used to construct reinforced concrete circular rings in situ and a funnel and pipe assembly was used to pour the concrete into the shuttering; Bottom middle image: The well is finally ready (Images: Rahul Banerjee)

There was no sign of water though, and so the well had to be dug to a depth of 23 meters before some water was struck. At this great depth it became dangerous to dig any further as the sides of the well were collapsing every time blasting was done. Indeed the diameter of the well had to be reduced from about 19 meters depth onwards due to this danger of the sides collapsing. Eventually the digging was stopped at 23 meters depth where hard rock was struck. The important thing to note here was the variability of the water bearing aquifer in the area.

Whereas within a radius of about 300 meters there were other wells which had water at about 10 meters, the well at the Climate Change Mitigation Centre in Pandutalav struck water at 23 meters - a whopping 7 stories deep. 

Then the work of building the circular reinforced concrete side wall of the well began. Once again, local technology was used. Flexible steel shuttering was used to construct reinforced concrete circular rings in situ and a funnel and pipe assembly was used to pour the concrete into the shuttering. 

Eventually after a long effort spanning six months and much labour, the well was ready but with only a little water at the bottom. However, it held the promise that there would be more water during the agricultural season. 

A gabion retaining wall, involving the tight packing of stones in a wire mesh (Image: Rahul Banerjee)Given the low availability of water, soil conservation work was also done on the farm. The farm sits astride a drainage line that slopes away from the well. So an earthen bund and tank was built above the well to harness the water from the water shed above it and recharge it into the ground. A pond was built below the bund and next to the well to catch the overflow and seepage from the bund. The slope of the farm was reversed towards the pond and the well by building a gabion retaining wall, involving the tight packing of stones in a wire mesh, at the boundary and filling it up with gravel and topping it with clayey soil from a nearby tank as shown below. In this way, water availability on the farm was increased through soil and water conservation measures.

All this of course,cost a lot of money. And there lay the rub.

In dry land and hard rock areas which are naturally water scarce and which cover 70 percent of the country, soil and water conservation work requires considerable financial investment - which the poor living at the survival edge cannot afford even if they know the technology required for it.

Unfortunately, the government is more interested in grandiose plans like linking rivers to harness flows, which are decreasing by the year due to massive deforestation in their catchments.Instead, they should be investing in communitarian soil and water conservation and afforestation measures to increase groundwaterrecharge and water availability.

The fatal fascination for centralised cutting edge technology has been the bane of development globally, resulting in the most marginalized communities continuing to face the increasing threats of climate change without adequate mitigation and adaptation measures.  

The farm also runs on solar energy. The technology for this is not local, and also required considerable investment - which once again is beyond the reach of the average farmer. Yet again, the government has not shown much interest in promoting decentralised renewable energy, despite the fact that it is running up huge losses in supplying thermal power through centralised grids in rural areas due to high transmission and distribution losses.

Sustainable agriculture with indigenous varieties and organic farming is also practiced on this farm, which relies on mulch from the nearby forests being protected through communitarian fencing and regeneration efforts. Efforts are being made to scale this form of farming but have not made much headway because government support mainly goes to unsustainable chemical agriculture. Dalit Activist Subhadra Khaperde of MAJLIS tried to sell the indigenous seeds conserved on the farm in the weekly markets but with little success.

Selling indigenous seeds in weekly markets (Image: Rahul Banerjee)

The problem of water scarcity has also become very acute in urban areas, giving rise to a need for decentralised water conservation measures in cities. To this end, rainwater harvesting, recharge and wastewater treatment and reuse have been implemented at the MAJLIS office in Indore, so the office is self-sufficient in water. The office also has both active and passive solar energy with net export of surplus renewable energy to the grid, as well as fruit trees and vegetables growing in the garden. The drumstick tree that dominates the office building is very popular with people living in a radius of 2 kilometers and its leaves, flowers and fruits are consumed with enthusiasm. The office is covered in creepers and has good cross ventilation so that it remains cool in summer and saves on energy required for cooling.

Here too, considerable investment and government support is required, which not every individual household or institution may be able to afford to implement and maintain on its own.

Thus, even though communitarian implementation of decentralised survival edge technology is the need of the hour both in rural and urban areas, there is not much progress in this direction due to governmental apathy and preoccupation with impracticable centralised solutions. Implementation continues to be left to lone and marginal efforts by NGOs. The MAJLIS climate change mitigation centre at Pandutalav village is now a demonstration farm and training centre on how survival edge technology can be implemented.

Subhadra Khaperde is an Indore-based social activist who works with Bhil Adivasis and Dalits. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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