Terri-Jane Yuzda

No Water Tonight, No Water Tomorrow

An Engineers Without Borders intern returns home with a new appreciation of reliable drinking water, after examining the harsh realities of drought in India.


The Long and Thirsty Ride
An elderly man searches for water (above). During the 2002 Annur Block drought, it wasn't always found. People of the watershed, a dried-up, 20-hectare reservoir, and the stark contrast of a lush Nilgris District scene (bottom of page, from left).


Engineers Without Borders

In the middle of December the sun roasts your skin as dust settles in the sweaty grooves of your arms, legs and crow lines. Saliva begins to taste salty, you gulp, but your thirst swells like an itch you can't scratch.

There is a well on your neighbour's land but now it is dry. There is a village with a tap that draws drinking water from the Bhavani River, but now the flow is turned off because the designated hour to use it has passed.

With an empty bucket strapped tightly to the back of your bike, you ride towards home. When you get there, you will tell your family there is no water for tonight and none for tomorrow night either.

Internship Begins

My environmental engineering internship in India with Engineers Without Borders began Nov. 1, 2002. I arrived early in the morning at the foot of the lush mountains of Nilgiris District, and I was driven up, through a series of hairpin curves, to the Rural Development Organization. It would be my home for the next four and a half months.
As we climbed to 2,000 metres above sea level my lungs drank the sweet concoction of mountain dew and flowery fragrances. My mind swirled at the force of the newly formed waterfalls carving ever deeper the old paths in the brick-red, steep slopes, just as they had done in seasons passed. I had arrived just in time for the northeast winter monsoon, which supplied Tamil Nadu State with majority of its rainfall.

Like all interns before me I was in awe. I tried to piece together what was going on around me for the next few weeks until our work began in the watershed area of Annur Block, 100 kilometres away.

The Rural Development Organization had undertaken a watershed management project under the Watershed Conservation and Development Program, devised by the government of India. The sole foucs of my work for the RDO became ocumenting the socio-economic profile of the people, along with the present condition and kind of degradation of the land. Over the next couple of months my colleague, translator, friend and I gathered information.
We drove down from the mountains to the neighbouring district of Coimbatore where Annur Block sits on the plateau of gently sloping hills. The scenery and altitude quickly changed from raging waterfalls to dried up water tanks, as we dropped from 2,000 metres above sea level to 400.

Flourishing moist forests, tea estates, fertile farm terraces covered with potatoes and carrots gave way to uncultivated wasteland and umbrella like bushes and cacti carpeting a dried up water tank.

In the gullies stood masonry check dams and percolation tanks, silent giants waiting, waiting, waiting to arrest surface flow and recharge groundwater. But according to the people, rain no longer visits the plains as it once did.

Up to December of 2002 only 26 rainy days were counted in the year, supplying 23 centimetres of precipitation. Nevertheless, some farmers extracted water from open wells and bore wells to irrigate their maize, sugarcane or small patches of cash crops such as tobacco.

Cultivation Ceases

During drought, cultivation simply ceased so drinking water could go to a population of 3,400 living in the watershed area. Annur Block, already a drought-prone zone, was feeling the effects of the 2002 drought severely.

The most severe of all problems was drinking water scarcity, which lasted from four to seven months. Women, men and children went in search of water to nearby farms, villages and schools, hoping to fill up their buckets.

A search took as long as an hour and ended a kilometre or farther from home. During extreme dry spells, landowners turned their livelihoods into wasteland and allowed villagers to use their wells for drinking water.

Sometimes a farmer invested in a bore well, however the open aquifer did not provide more than two years' worth of water. Depending on the location, groundwater was found 30 metres to 45 metres deep, and it was highly alkaline due to the calcareous nature of soil.

No other source of drinking water was available for most villages, with the exception of Solavampalaiyam village. It had tap facilities, which allowed one hour per week of drinking water from the Bhavani River.

An acute shortage of water was not only a physical restraint, but also one which arrested development of the community. To add to the hardships of rural life, the lack of basic needs, such as water, prevented capable people from helping and developing themselves.

Agriculture was no longer a sustainable source of income, since irrigation water was diverted for drinking. More than 50 per cent of good, cultivable land lay wasted, while farmers worked in nearby factories or in the cities.

Where primary income generation was directly dependent on cultivation, insufficient water also took away the opportunity of education. School children often complained of stomach upsets, diarrhea and other waterborne diseases, most likely caused by drinking water drawn from shallow wells where pathogens thrived.

Education Affected

School absences sky-rocketed during droughts. Unhealthy children from rural villages did not succeed in school, nor continue education far enough to take advantage of the many government programs designed to uplift the rural poor by admitting lower grade students into professional colleges.

Children from poor families often dropped out of school at the end of Grade 8 to supplement family income. Those who did attend and were too young for work often became sole caretakers of even younger siblings, because their parents worked outside the village. Unfortunately, this burden was mostly placed on little girls.

Child labour was a silent but understood reality in the poverty-ridden community, which could not even quench the thirst of its children. Government programs, which attempted to stop child labour, had little impact because the issues such as water scarcity were never addressed.

For example, a family of a child labourer was granted 20,000 rupees, or $613 Can, to start cattle herding. But the family soon sold the animals and sent the child back to work. How could a family maintain cattle when the people themselves did not have drinking water for four to seven months of the year?

As an engineer-in-training and a new graduate, I am thankful to have lent a helping hand in the initiating steps of the watershed management project of RDO. Perhaps my experiences will allow other engineers to see the full picture of
sustainable development and encourage likewise planning of our natural resources.
Most importantly I learned to appreciate the great shoulders we stand on here in Canada to have clean drinking water and to be able to sustain this privilege.

Miroslawa Hirna is a University of Alberta civil engineering graduate.



Engineers Without Borders
Official website


PEGG Stories

(Keywords: Engineers Without Borders)

Home | Past PEGGs | PEGG Search | Contact Us