Indira Khurana, Romit Sen

With this year’s theme of “Valuing Water” on World Water Day, it can be diffused that a higher level of thinking is percolating multilateral agencies such as the United Nations (UN). The hashtags #Water2Me guides the question – What does water mean to you?

The answers are complex and depend on who is responding to this question. Water is the life, survival, health of humans and other living beings of the planet. It is essential for food security and enables economic activity. For those in the water business, it is a synonym for profits, even speculation for them. There’s much more to water: it enables human rights; addresses inequality. It is part of people’s faith, heritage, and culture, irrespective of religion, geography, or ethnicity.

“The movement to shift the value of water from a public good to a simple commodity, subject to speculation in the financial markets, particularly in the futures market is very real and so the celebration of World Water Day is an opportune moment to reflect on the values of water.” – UN Special Rapporteur on the Human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo

Water-empowered women

For a woman who has to walk great distances for a bucket or two, access to water is empowerment and freedom. They may have freedom from drudgery, the threat of abuse and violence, family fragmentation due to distress migration, the dispossession of land, and the daily struggle to meet the most basic needs of thirst and hunger. This liquid resource makes a positive movement towards addressing inequality and even allows her to have some me-time. For her, water improves the quality of life.

Rural women believe in the power of ‘water continuity.’ They have sustained intergenerational access to water resources with their efforts in securing water abound. From filling dried-up water coffers through water conservation work, growing indigenous crops to save water, and using scientific knowledge for preventing river pollution, women of India stand tall. 

The rich dividends of their work go beyond making water available, addressing distress migration, improving food security, providing for dignified livelihoods, and even improving the health of rivers. Several of them went on to address demands raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.  

Tribal women from Dhar: From water conservation to nutrition security 

Tribal women from Dhar From water conservation to nutrition security 1

Scarcity of water, leading to few livelihood options, and forcing villagers to migrate to towns and cities was the norm in the tribal-dominated Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. To change the landscape, women from Narayanpura village came forward to repair water harvesting structures. They mapped out the dug wells that were the primary source of water and worked for its restoration. The women were supported and empowered by VASUDHA, an NGO active in the region. 

Encouraged by the water harvesting’s success, the women engaged in planning for food and livelihood security. In addition to planting conventional crops like wheat, they convinced the farmers to grow maize and millets to provide nutrition to the people. The shortage of seeds was a significant problem that emerged in the villages, and the women addressed the issue by setting up a seed bank and grain bank. Both these initiatives helped address the food shortage problem and ensure a regular supply of seeds for the farmers. 

The women organized themselves into SHGs and then as a federation. They are reaping the benefits of economic empowerment. The federation and supporting the food, nutrition, and seed needs also provide credit to fellow villagers at lower interest rates. What began as an effort to save water has gradually transformed itself as a federation promoting economic wellbeing for the region’s womenfolk. They are now self-sustaining. 

The loss of jobs in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat cities due to the COVID lockdown resulted in people (mostly men folk) staying back in the villages. When livelihood options were limited, people did not have to bother about food and had an assured supply of food grains to feed their families. 

Investing in green capital for displacement-free tribal villages: Pratibha Shinde, Nandurbar district, Maharashtra

In Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, Pratibha Shinde of Lok Sangharsh Morcha was busy organizing the safe return of migrants from other states to their homes in Jharkhand, Odisha, and other states. Working with the state government machinery, she organized buses and food for the journey. For the migrants who returned, she facilitated the use of MGNRGA funds and forest department resources to prepare rainwater conservation structures and afforestation of hill slopes. “The migrants who returned are determined to find livelihoods back in their village, and this work will help them improve agriculture-based livelihoods close to their homes. But for this, a sustainable water source is required,” says Pratibha.   

Investing in green capital for displacement free tribal villages Pratibha Shinde Nandurbar district Maharashtra 2

Working in close coordination with the district administration, the villagers have set up monitoring committees at the village, block, and district levels to ensure the smooth implementation of government schemes and providing space for communities to share their experiences with the government officials. Moreover, as the demand for sanitizers increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are engaged in livelihood generation activities using local resources like hand sanitizer production from Mahua flowers.

Investing in green capital for displacement free tribal villages Pratibha Shinde Nandurbar district Maharashtra

Padma Shri Rahibai, Seed mother of India: Adopting traditional farming practices and using indigenous seeds for safeguarding health, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra 

Rahibai Soma Popere, known as India’s seed mother, began preserving native seeds when she observed her grandchild becoming ill after consuming vegetables with a high spray of chemical pesticides. She believed that indigenous farming practices are vital to maintaining the health of people and the environment. Savings on input expenditure and health problems add to the economic benefits. Soils are not harmed, and these save on water requirements.  

Hailing from Kombhalne village of Ahmednagar district, Rahibai has the distinction of conserving and multiplying 48 indigenous varieties, 17 different crops, including paddy, hyacinth bean, millets, pulses, and oilseeds. Rahibai also spearheaded Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Savardhan Samiti’s formation in the Ahmednagar district, working for the conservation and propagation of traditional varieties of crops. 

She trains farmers on seed selection, techniques to improve soil fertility, and pest management. She supplies farmers with seedlings of native crops, encouraging them to switch to native varieties.

When people returned to their villages during the lockdown, Rahibai encouraged farmers to cultivate native varieties, particularly vegetables, during the lockdown period for their sustenance and economic empowerment.

Preventing pollution of the Godavari through a biological cleaning product

Preventing pollution of the Godavari through a biological cleaning product: Dr Sunanda More, Nanded, Maharashtra

In June 2020, massive water pollution in the Godavari river led to significant loss of aquatic life. Deeply concerned, Dr Sunanda, a microbiologist and Assistant Professor at Yashwant College, Nanded, along with her engineer spouse Deepak Mortale, a committed jal yodha, began exploring the cause of this pollution. They found household toilet chemical cleanersto be the culprit. A single wash using a chemical cleaner resulted in COD (chemical oxygen demand) of the flush water to be around 15,000 ppm, way beyond the permissible limits. 

A single wash with chemical agents polluted more than 20,000 liters of fresh water, overloading the functioning STPs (sewage treatment plants). These chemical cleaners were also corrosive and damaged the toilet systems: Pipes were clogging because of chemical deposition. Because of the foul odors that emanated from toilets, villages were hesitant to use toilets. This called for alternate solution.

Dr Sunanda looked for a solution to stop pollution at origin while reducing the amount of water required. They developed a bioenzymatic cleaner – Godavari Naturals. “This requires less water for cleaning. The BOD (biological oxygen demand) and COD of the flush water are within permissible limits. The product also removes pipe clogs and forms a protective layer preventing inner pipe corrosion. A patent has been applied for,” informs Dr Sunanda. “The product will be mass-produced by the Gayatri Mahila Bachat Gat, from Nanded. These women will be paid 50 percent of the selling price,” informs Deepak. 

Padma Shri Rahibai Seed mother of India 1

Carrying on determinedly: Jal Sahelis of Bundelkhand 

Jal Sahelis (women friends of water) of Bundelkhand have created water assets and rejuvenated natural resources. They are engaged in securing the people’s rights and overseeing the delivery/ implementation of government schemes in their villages. Parmarth supports the concept of jal sahelis and their empowerment. 

The hardships of social inequities and patriarchal society didn’t invade their path to convince women in their villages to address the problem of water in their villages. They worked shoulder to shoulder to restore the water bodies and ensuring drinking water facilities in their village.

Empowered with information through training and realizing the power of collective will, the Jal Sahelis formed SHGs and are engaged in generating income for their households through community nutrition gardens and compost production. The nutrition garden is an effective model to ensure nutrition security in the villages. They also revived streams and defunct water conservation structures. 

Jal Sahelis of Bundelkhand

This is just a snapshot of the thousands of women who value water. While the COVID-19 pandemic has widened gender disparity globally, the women water warrior deepened their efforts to prevent water. Beating the odds and social norms, these women under their leadership role are moving towards achieving an equal and sustainable future in COVID-19 world. 

This article first appeared in India Water Portal: Sheroes: A tribute to women who value water, on March 22, 2021

About the Authors:

Indra Khurana

Indira Khurana, PhD is a water expert working with two and a half decades of experience and is based in New Delhi. Romit Sen is Director at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, leads the Agricultural Program and is based in Pune.

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 Romit Sen is Director at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, leads the Agricultural Program and is based in Pune.

Picture Courtesy: Mongabay India

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