The Long and Thirsty
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).
BY MIROSLAWA HIRNA, E.I.T.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Engineers Without Borders
(Keywords: Engineers Without Borders)