When the Barefoot College was established in Tilonia in 1972, water in Rajasthan was not only affected by geography but also by social customs. Potable water was hard to find and retain in the desert environment, and the availability and accessibility of drinking water was a primary concern in poor rural communities.
Rural communities throughout India and the rest of the southern hemisphere often suffer from water scarcity, droughts and a lack of clean water sources for sanitation, drinking and cooking. Barefoot College has been providing sustainable community-based water sources using the following guiding principles: a) decentralization of water sources, b) replenishment of water tables, c) participation of rural communities in implementation, d) reduced dependency on external aid and e) fair treatment of women and children, who are the worst affected by water problems like poor hygiene and accessibility.
Barefoot College has implemented the following water solutions to address the variety of water challenges faced in the rural communities: rainwater harvesting (RWH) tanks, dams, Solar Powered Reverse Osmosis (R/O) water desalination plants and wells and ponds for groundwater recharge.
In addition to physical water solutions, Barefoot College has also implemented Neer Jaal (www.neerjaal.org), a water mapping website that is fully controlled and managed by rural communities. Above all, Neer Jaal helps manage scarce water resources across communities in India.
Barefoot College believes that every drop of fresh water that falls on the ground, especially in developing regions, should be harnessed for use. Rather than wasting water that runs off rooftops and along streets, we combine traditional harvesting practices with new technologies to make water accessible, clean and safe to drink. We do not have to rely on hand pumps, wells, and unpredictable groundwater levels to provide potable water to hundreds of thousands of people in need.
Of all the water solutions that the College has tried and tested, rainwater harvesting has been the most sustainable and effective. Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) is a low cost method with maximum benefits. It provides clean, potable drinking water for villages, irrigates fields and sustains livestock—all important criteria for communities that depend on agriculture and animal husbandry.
How it works
RWH helps to replenish or rejuvenate groundwater levels directly as well as indirectly. While some methods of RWH (such as trenches, anicut, contour and dug wells) replenish groundwater levels by keeping rainwater on arable surfaces long enough to be absorbed naturally into the topsoil, other methods (like constructing RWH underground water tanks and small ponds) restore the water table by creating alternative water sources, thus reducing groundwater use for four to six months. This model is highly replicable in hilly, drought-prone coastal and desert regions of India, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ethiopia, Mali, The Gambia and Afghanistan. The construction and implementation of RWH equipment is simple and inexpensive; it does not require assistance from outside contractors, and it can be tailored to each community’s unique geography and rural climate.
Rainwater collection begins by allowing surfaces to be cleaned naturally by the first rainfall of the season. Next, as rain continues to fall, gutter systems collect runoff and direct water flow into a sedimentation tank underground to separate additional toxins. Clean water is then pumped back up by hand so that nothing goes to waste.
Cost and impact
Since 2006, more than 20 collection tanks have been constructed. Nearly 1.5 million litres of fresh water have been made available to children during school hours. And more tanks are being constructed independently by community members who have passed on training to others. Even very arid regions that receive very little rainfall over the course of a year can still collect millions of litres of rainwater for sustained use throughout rainy and dry seasons.
On average, a 100,000 litre collection tank—complete with two low-cost, hygienic toilets built to encourage girls to attend classes—costs under $15,000 and can be constructed in less than five months. This estimate includes the cost of design, engineering, construction, training, travel and documentation. The cost of a litre of water comes to less than 5 to 10 cents. The average population of a village in Rajasthan is 1,000 people. Therefore, the average cost of constructing an RWH structure comes to approximately $10 per person. This individual investment of $10 provides the community with sufficient drinking water for four to six months each year. If the structure lasts 10 years, the cost will be $1 per person per year, and if it lasts 20 years, the construction cost will be fifty cents person per year. The community can continue to use the RWH tank even after it goes dry by refilling it with portable containers.
Rural communities have practiced rainwater harvesting for hundreds of years. Now, with new technologies adopted and implemented within a village, these communities can experience the lasting benefits of clean and accessible water sources.
In the past 40 years, the College has supported the construction of three dams that bring drinking water to more than 100 communities. These dams are not repurposed for energy—they were built to support the water needs of the people and livestock living in some of the most arid regions of the world. Two additional dams are scheduled to be constructed in 2014.
The construction of the Korsina village check dam (in the Jaipur district of Rajasthan) is a huge step forward for Barefoot College’s commitment to increasing viable water sources in dry and impoverished areas. After large scale drought in 1986, communities were left with no support from local government agencies or other outside contributions. The dam, which was completed in 2010, slows the speed of water and allows sediments and contaminants to settle; it also slows erosion and separates salt and other minerals from the water in order to better serve entire communities.
Benefits and Opportunities
The dam sits at the edge of the Sambhar salt lake. The total catchment area is three square kilometres, and more than 20 villages access drinking water from the dam. The dam has been able to generate gainful employment and access to clean water for 100,000 people and can restore groundwater levels in more than 109 hand-humps, 36 open dug wells and 31 ponds. More than 200,000 cattle will also be able to meet their drinking water needs from the dam.
Within a span of one rainy season, the Korsina dam improved the quality of the groundwater in its periphery. Notable improvements include: four more potable water sources, a reduction in defunct sources from six to two, and a significant reduction in fluoride levels in the groundwater. In the years to come, this project will increase opportunities for clean water, sustainable agriculture, education, and public health and hygiene. With additional training from the College in maintaining the dams and in keeping accounts up to date for community water usage fees, community members have a lasting commitment to—and responsibility for—the structures that bring them replenishable fresh water.
Location and Implementation
Kotri, a small village with 300 families in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, received the first ever solar powered desalination plant in India. Nearly 100 villages surround Sambhar lake, a large saltwater lake where villagers make their livings manufacturing salt as it evaporates from the water. However, the salinity levels are so high that even after significant evaporation, the water is too brackish to consume or use for cooking and cleaning. Over time, the contaminated water has entered the groundwater and caused skin ailments and stunted growth in children as well as poor crops and infertile soil.
With the new desalination plant, brackish water from Sambhar lake enters the village through the government pipelines and is pumped through the plant and stored in a 5,000 litre tank. The plant is made from materials that are simple and easily available: a booster pump, a sand filter, a cartridge and a carbon filter that prevents waste and impurities from mixing with the desalinated water. The RO plant reduces salinity levels (Total Dissolved Solids or TDS) from 4,000-6,000 parts per million to only 450ppm, making the water clean and safe for consumption.
The RO plant runs on a 2.5 kilowatt power plant that allows it to produce 600 litres of water per hour for six hours each day. Even though Kotri already receives electricity from the traditional electric grid, the coverage is erratic and rarely powers the village for more than three hours per day. For this reason, the plant has been solar electrified to ensure an uninterrupted supply of electricity for six hours, with some power to spare for a computer, a solar workshop, fans and light.
The plant meets the drinking water needs of more than 1,000 men, women and children from Kotri and its surrounding villages. Each family can take 40 litres of water every day for a token fee of Rs.10 per month. It costs just INR.15.5 lakhs to install a mini-RO plant specially designed for operating in a village, which in turn brings drinking water to the entire rural community.
How it Works
Barefoot College has also implemented Neer Jaal (www.neerjaal.org), a water mapping website that is controlled and managed exclusively by rural communities. Neer Jaal is an Information Communication Technology enabled water resource management system for grassroots communities. It collates groundwater related information and organizes water resources with the available information. The Neer Jaal software facilitates generating, storing and making public the water related information in a village. Above all, Neer Jaal helps manage scarce water resources across communities in India.
Neer Jaal is the first village-based, interactive website that catalogues data and information on water tables and water sources in villages. It has been designed to map water sources, bodies, consumption, usage, harvesting, shortages and needs at a national level.
Barefoot College offers trainings and mobile water test kits to interested community members three times per year. Once trained, members can pass on knowledge throughout the village so that everyone can help monitor and manage water resources. The College also holds meetings to discuss and educate community members about the results of their water samples, which come from any source they use for drinking (including hand pumps, tanks, and open wells). The long term vision of Neer Jaal is to allow each and every villager in India to put their data related to water on a public domain and to gradually help the people of India gather widespread information on water sources.