Through a community project to trap rainwater and use it to turn parched land green and fertile, a Jesuit priest in India hopes to make life more bearable for poor villagers.

By Frederick Noronha

June 1999

If this Jesuit priest could have his way, quite a few villages in Maharashtra and elsewhere would become greener and more fertile. Fr Crispino Lobo's mission is to convert parched land into one that would enable villagers to lead a less dehumanising life.

From the city of Ahmednagar, Lobo (40) is working hard on setting up a network that will make the local environment less harsh and degraded. Villagers have reported how their environment is on the mend. Agricultural seasons have lengthened, women get clean drinking water near their homes, and migration to the cities will hopefully be stopped.

How did Lobo get involved in this project, unusual for a priest?

He recalls: 'As a youngster, I was working with Fr Herman Bacher, a Swiss Jesuit who has worked in India for 50 years, and the founder of Social Centre, a voluntary agency based in Ahmednagar, working for 35 years in agricultural and rural development. The work appealed to me. There's no pastoral work, just direct development work.'

On becoming a Jesuit priest, he again met Bacher in 1989, who by then had launched the Indo-German Watershed programme. Given the chance, Lobo came to join the programme, grasped the opportunity and was subsequently groomed by the Swiss Jesuit to take over the mantle. What does watershed development actually mean? Says Lobo: 'It means - at the operational level - to trap and conserve rainwater as it falls. Since rain falls from the top, the main thing is to stop its hammer effect, break its speed, and force it underground.'

As Lobo puts it dramatically, 'Where water runs, you make it walk. Where it's walking, you make it crawl. Where it's crawling, you stop it.'

To really trap the water, one has to put in a lot of work. To begin, you have to start from the top, a high point in the locality. Depending on the topography, you put in continuous contour trenching. You put barriers. Vegetative barriers like grass and trees. There could also be mechanical barriers, like earthern ones or continuous contour trenches which store water. It is also helpful to put up water-absorption trenches and contour bunds.

Lower down in the village, one needs farm bunds. Along river courses one makes gulley plugs, nalla bundhs (local name for a system of blocking tiny rivulets) and check dams. Right down at the water outlet, at the end point of the catchment, one can put up percolation tanks.

Lobo explains that the whole aim of the exercise is to save as much water as possible, and store it - on the ground surface, and primarily underground. 'In an area where there's drought, the limiting factor is the availability of water. Areas we work in get 15 cm to 50 cm rainfall a year. In five years, you could have three years of drought and two of normal rain. So our problems are lack of drinking water, poor agricultural productivity, and poverty. This leads to out-migration. So children and women get a bad deal.'

In past decades, the Indian state believed that poverty was a result of low agricultural productivity. But the modern technical inputs did not change rural agriculture in a manner that would tackle mass poverty.

Under the watershed programme, the catchwords are: conservation, regeneration and management. As Lobo explains, it makes sense to work with the watershed as the unit. Watershed is the area from where the water to a particular drainage system - river or stream - comes. It could be tiny or huge, covering a few or several thousand hectares.

Watershed development implies conservation, regeneration and the judicious use of all natural and human resources within a particular watershed, including land, water, plants and animals.

Watershed development aims at bringing about a balance in the environment, between natural resources on the one hand and man and grazing animals on the other. 'It requires people's participation; hence, while we do make efforts to promote the idea, we don't go about arguing with reluctant villagers. We just tell villagers that other people have done this. We ask them to go and see for themselves, talk to the other villagers, and decide for themselves,' says Lobo.

Currently the project he heads is working in 20 districts of Maharashtra and covers about 110,000 hectares. There are over 200,000 people involved.

To complete 1,000 hectares, it would take four to five years of work. Villagers involved in the work are paid, but one-fifth of the work is put in as voluntary labour.

Fortunately, the impacts are visible very quickly. Groundwater gets positively affected, for irrigation, cattle needs and drinking supplies. As soil moisture improves, better cropping patterns set in. Animal-husbandry possibilities grow. Biomass is created. Food security increases. 'Out-migration has stopped 100% in most cases. In-migration has in fact started,' says Lobo. Once drinking water increases, women and children will benefit.

Maharashtra is seen as a leading state in watershed development today. Other Indian federal states - like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - have also done noteworthy work.

Cautions Lobo: 'We can't solve all problems. But we're offering an opportunity for survival, which otherwise is very bleak. Unless people have their basic needs met in terms of food, clothing, shelter, you can't talk of development.' - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based journalist, interested in developmental issues.