Ramgarh (West Rajasthan)
It’s a searing afternoon in early May . The expanse is a simmering yellow and parched brown. A handful of khejdi and ruida trees and a cluster of vilayati babool add the only touch of green. In weatherbeaten Ramgarh, a kasbah about 65km from Jaisalmer, hundreds of sheep and goats crowd around livestock farmer Bhim Singh in a midday ritual that stretches almost half an hour.Bhim lowers an improvised plastic bucket tied to a rope into a beri -a shallow sweet-water community well -draws out the water and pours it into a small stone tub. In an adjacent beri, another livestock farmer does the same.As the animals quench their thirst, a couple of farmers with their flocks wait for their turn some distance away to avoid overlapping of the herds. “These two beris are the only water source in summer. Without these, animals would probably have died,“ says Bhim.

A traditional system of harvesting rainwater, beris have been lifesavers for both humans and animals in these parts for centuries. Shaped like a matka (pitcher), the shallow wells are dug up in areas with gypsum or bentonite beds that prevent rainwater from percolating downwards. Instead the water gets guided to the wells through capillary action.

“Last year, Ramgarh and neighbouring villages barely received any rain. But, even so, the beris were fully charged. One can draw 10,000 litres of clean water daily; it gets replenished overnight,“ says Chatar Singh (56), local eco warrior with masterly knowledge of water conservation in deserts.

His initiatives, with those of Sambhaav, an NGO that helps to restore aquifers, have led to the digging of dozens of new beris and revival of others that had fallen into disuse. The locals’ trek for drinking water is not so long anymore.

The importance of beris gets underlined by what unfolds kilometres away . Water from the humongous Indira Gandhi canal gathers in a pond-like structure on its way to the filtering unit. The water, full of algae, looks unfit for consumption. Yet tractors line up to ferry it away in large cans. “Hum yahi pani peete hain (We all drink this water),“ says Suraj Singh Bhati, Class X, here to ferry water home.Near the Sagarmal Gopa branch of the canal a cow’s rotting carcass lies.

On the outskirts of Netsi village, 23 beris are in use. The village has a huge cement tank that stores water released from the IG canal. But most women trek a kilometer to Viprasar, where the beris are.“Most of us drink the beris’ water,“ says Mala Devi. Water from the IG canal has undeniably eased their woes but most villagers told TOI that taps often run dry .“We got water after a gap of five days,“ said Guddi of Ekalpar village. Traditional Netsi beris were made of wood. “They’d rot after a year. The new beris are built with long-lasting blocks of yellow stones that Jaisalmer is known for,“ says retired armyman Jitu Singh.

Success in these water harvesting projects resulted from partnering with locals. Netsi villagers offered the labour required to make the beris functional.Chatar says villagers were first motivated, while Sambhaav provided materials.

Chatar, who used to teach children of the tribal bhil community in Ekalpar and Dobalpar, once regarded the area’s poorest villages, has over the last decade, worked on water conservation alongside Farhad, who routinely visits these villages. Part of their work is to help the bhils learn the traditional art of khadeen, a form of cultivation in arid regions where the ground’s moisture is harnessed to grow wheat, mustard and black gram in the main. “We help them help themselves,“ says Farhad.

The bhils, largely a hunting community, would be asked to shift from one place to another by the local administration.“They did not know how to harness water. Sometimes they would lie down on the field to stop rainwater from escaping,“ recalls Chatar Singh, influenced by environmentalist Anupam Mishra’s seminal book `Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein’ (The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan).

The bhils were taught toba: a way to store rainwater for drinking, dhora: a technique to store rainwater for irrigation and chhapai: a method to use a `wall’ of bushes to stop the spread of desertification. “We didn’t know how to grow crops,“ says Padma Ram (60), a bhil who owns 75 bighas. In 2015, he earned Rs 3 lakh growing black gram.Such examples abound. The two bhil villages now boast 30 motorcycles and 15 tractors; unthinkable few years ago.

A distance from his village, Padma is building a mound three feet high, over 500 feet long. “The dhora will trap rain water,“ he says. Rain arrives late in Jaisalmer, plays hookey in Ramgarh at times. But the bhil is an optimist. “It will rain one day,“ he says. “When it does, I want to trap every drop.“