Imagine a technology so advanced that it can save communities in draught-ridden as well as water-logged or flooded areas, and yet so simple that it can be administered by rural women with no formal education. A technology that can change land ownership patterns in rural villages in developing countries, relieve poor families from debt and empower women to take control of their lives. A technology that can help communities build resilience to climate change.
This technology, a water-management system called Bhungroo, is precisely what Naireeta Services Private Limited offers to communities in need in Asia and Africa, across various climactic zones. Bhungroo, which means “straw” in Gujrati, stores storm water underground, retains it in conformable subsoil strata, and injects the water back during lean periods. In areas with high salinity levels where vast areas of arid lands become uncultivable, Bhungroo filters the contaminated water.
“In Gujarat (in India), where we first installed Bhungroo’, erratic and inadequate rain results in crop-failure together with severe food insecurity, financial loss and large-scale migration to cities. The situation is so bad, in fact, that farmers are even compelled to commit suicide,” says Biplab K Paul, Director of Naireeta Services. “In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the problem is too much rain and water-logging. Bhungroo can solve both these climatic crises, and save farmers from debt, poverty and insecurity.”
One Bhungroo can take care of as much as 400,000 to 40 million litres of water, taking up a surface space of only one square metre. However, unlike shallow tube wells which use up an exhaustible source of ground water, Bhungroo has zero water footprint, giving back only what it takes in.
Harvesting water for about 10 days each year, it can supply water for as long as seven months. The technology makes it possible for farmers to cultivate round the year as opposed to one season only.
It is not just Bhungroo’s technology that is unique, however, but the way in which the technology is administered. In societies where traditionally it is the men who own and farm agricultural land, Bhungroo is owned and managed by the poorest women in the villages, with five households collectively owning each well.
“The common conception is if you want to introduce new technology, you involve the men. But we turned this idea on its head,” shares Paul. “We received a lot of flak from all quarters who thought it was suicidal to hand over the reins of the technology to women, but we said, ‘If a woman can carry out the difficult task of bringing up a child, she can do anything.’”
And proving Naireeta Services right, the illiterate rural women soon mastered the seven engineering concepts entailed in this technology.
The organisation targets the poorest women in a given community, following Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of “Ontodaya,” which means development of the last person – women who are destitute, belonging to the backward caste or on the margins of society. The beneficiaries are identified following a thorough three-tiered selection process: first, the women of a given village identifies the poorest woman in their community; second, the list is crosschecked by women from surrounding villages; and finally, the list is vetted again at the sub-district level to ensure that the intervention reaches the targeted community.
“Our beneficiaries had annual income less than USD 120. Today, they are earning USD 800-1000 every three months. Everybody has settled their loans. They are living secure lives, and are even taking part in the political process,” says Paul.
Currently, nearly 19,000 farmers have benefited from this technology, and Naireeta, founded by Trupti Jain, has expanded its services in three countries in Africa and Asia, including Bangladesh. What makes Bhungroo so adaptable in different contexts is the fact that its design, development and installation are tailor-made to suit the prevailing water, soil and general environmental conditions of the project area. In addition, in order to ensure that it’s not perceived as a foreign project, it obtains all materials for the development of Bhungroo from the host country.
What is more, as the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCC) notes, “by curtailing desertification, the technology helps to build resilience to climate change and to rejuvenate local biodiversity.” As such, it doesn’t simply benefit the direct beneficiaries, but also the local communities by facilitating more crop, biodiversity and nutritious food, an outstanding feat which won Bhungroo the UNFCC “Momentum of Change” award.
It costs between USD 23,000 to USD 33,000 to install one Bhungroo. However, Naireeta provides this technology free of cost to the poorest poor (the farmers only need to pay for the materials to construct the device); for governments, they charge a minimum rate, and for corporations and INGOs, they charge the government rate plus a premium.
To safeguard its financial sustainability, Naireeta offers its services and the technology to rich farmers at twice the cost.
Sushmita S Preetha is a journalist of The Daily Star, Bangladesh, and can be reached at email@example.com.