Waterless Wells Mourn Dying Aquifers in India

An abandoned ground well in Chhapoli, Rajasthan, India

In western India, groundwater levels are falling at a rapid and irreversible pace, leaving many communities without access to drinking water. Due to a lack of surface water such as lakes and rivers, most of western India relies primarily on aquifers, underground geologic formations that store water. India’s aquifers have been depleting at approximately 60 cubic meters annually--at that rate, Lake Erie would be reduced to a dust bowl in only two years.

Throughout India’s history, infrastructures have been built around the importance and utilization of aquifers and groundwater as the communities’ main water source. As the groundwater levels began to drop, these infrastructures were left dry and forgotten about, and new solutions were needed. While many organizations and government bodies have attempted to remedy this life-threatening issue by introducing new water harvesting structures, most have proven to be unsustainable, leaving rural communities without access to clean drinking water once more.

A sobering manifestation of the rapidly decreasing groundwater levels lies in the empty water structures of the past, which have been completely dried up for upwards of one hundred years. On a recent trip to India, Sustainable Innovations paid a visit to the village of Chhapoli and saw the extent of failing water systems in the community.

The oldest water structures in Chhapoli are step wells, which are estimated to be around two hundred years old. This tall, temple-like well known as a bawdi was once a beautiful structure that was built into the ground to reach the groundwater below. Bawdis were very common in western India, where water supply fluctuates greatly depending on the time of year and communities needed ways to collect and store water for year-round use. These bawdis were also used as a gathering place where locals could find relief from the heat by descending to the bottom, where the temperature was often several degrees cooler than the surface. As the ground water supply began to dry up, the stepwells were left in a state of emptiness as they had outlived their usefulness.

This stepwell is known as a johara well. Catchments nearby the johara would fill with rainwater during the monsoon season, and the runoff water would flow from the catchment and into the johara through the arched openings on the sides, called sluice gates. The johara would fill with water that was easily accessible via the steps leading down to it. Farmers also kept their cows on the other side of the well, with a ramp called a gow ghat allowing the animals to access the water.

As time went on and the population of the village began to increase, development projects were built on top of the catchments, cutting off the johara’s water supply and leaving the well empty and barren. You can see in the picture above how a barrier of dirt and rubble has been pushed up against the openings from which the water would flow.

These step wells, while beneficial in hydrating both the villagers and their livestock, only lasted for around one hundred years, leaving the community in need for another solution.

Ground wells such as this one were built to replace the stepwells. Ground wells can be dug deeper into the ground, allowing them to reach the water supply that the stepwells were unable to as the levels began to sink. The water below was access with lowering a bucket on a rope to scoop up the water, and then pulling the bucket back up.

The shrinking groundwater supply and increasing population causes this ground well to dry up after only fifty years. Once it was empty and useless, a steel gate was placed over top of the opening of the well to prevent people from falling in.

The next kind of well to be utilized in Chhapoli was a borehole, which quickly dried up after only ten years. Boreholes can reach deeper into the ground than stepwells or ground wells to the water that is stored below, which can be accessed by pumping the handle. The boreholes in India are notoriously unreliable and are known to break down easily, and typically remain broken due to lack of maintenance. The boreholes that were able to remain functional quickly dried up, as the groundwater was being collected much too quickly for the supply to replenish itself.

As the groundwater supply and water structures in western India continue to rapidly deplete, a new approach is desperately needed. Instead of digging deeper and deeper into the ground to reach the shrinking groundwater supply, we need to take advantage of the monsoon season and collect and store the rainwater for year-round use.

Aakash Ganga provides that solution by installing a series of gutters and reservoirs in rural communities. Clean, bacteria-free rainwater is collected and stored safely in tanks that are located directly in the villages, removing the need of women to travel and stand in line to fetch it. The covered reservoirs protect the contained water from the elements, reducing the effect of evaporation and keeping contaminants out. Aakash Ganga utilizes GPS mapping to locate each installed system, making it easy to perform maintenance as needed and ensuring longevity.

Sustainability is our utmost priority in all of our programs. We are dedicated to creating and implementing systems that are viable for each unique culture by identifying why past solutions have not worked and learning from these flaws. As the famous quote by George Santayana goes, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Aakash Ganga is currently providing 10,000 people in six villages in Rajasthan with clean, accessible drinking water year-round, and we are expanding our program to reach 100,000 people in the next phase of the project.

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