Beginning to grow

Water, now:

Growing water security has been the most inspiring lesson learnt at pointReturn. This first story in 2007 celebrated the commissioning of our windmill

“A windmill is a good starting point to start thinking of frugality, sustainability, responsibility and sanity and go on to build water security on a holding. Combined with rain water harvesting and run off management one can be water secure if not water affluent. That would enable one’s water capital to influence crop selection. And that would in turn, almost certainly lead to crop rotation and diversity.”

but I ended that article rather ominously, noting that all was not well with the water source. The second story in June,2007 reported how the windmill would lose suction after some minutes of pumping. [This article is useful reading for anyone venturing into the world of aquifers and wells.] The diameter of the suction pipe was reduced to 2″ [-from 2.5″] and its length increased to 120′ [-from 60′]. That led to longer spells of pumping. In that story I mused as follows;

“So where am I in the pointReturn adventure? When I embarked on it, I sought a piece of land where water was not easy to come by. I sought the opportunity to show how a wasted land can be made alive again. My wish has been granted rather more fully! – and here I am with reserves having to be built almost from zero.”

Late in 2007, a large pond of a million litres capacity was dug, nearly surrounding the windmill’s bore. Pardon this lyrical boast

“A pond once dug, costs too much to destroy and too little to maintain. This pond is a new feature on the face of the earth that can endure eternally and survive most man made creations. I fantasized that it was a new mappable entity on earth with a fair chance of immortality.”

The pond has since become a great companion to the windpump. Though it loses more to evaporation than to percolation, overall, groundwater network has improved. 2008 was a good year with two defined monsoons; the pond filled to the brim twice.

2009 was not. The suction pipe was increased to 140′. By April we were struggling for drinking and wash water. The SW monsoon failed and farmers all around were abandoning plans for a mid-year crop. On July 30 2009, I Twittered:

“09 is hottest in 40 years. rainfall is 10% of the average.,just 20mm: http://bit.ly/IygD0 pointReturn is reeling under the drought”

and again on the same day, I grimly resolved:

“the windmill that pumped 15,000lpd manages 2,000 now. the drought is real- and maybe here to stay. so, drought-proofing pR is the next task”

Within a month a mini excavator had arrived at pointReturn and my romance with swales had begun. Since then an additional rain water harvesting capacity of 1 million litres has been created, dispersed in four major swales and a few percolation ponds dotted over 8 acres of the project site.

The upshot of all this endeavour is that water is now steadily available though not yet, in abundance. A good monsoon at the end of 2009 and some unseasonal rains a few weeks ago have also helped.

For pointReturn, swales have been the crucial departure from ponds. A pond receives and holds the water that has fallen elsewhere. A swale does the opposite: it collects the water near where it falls and distributes it all along its length. A pond is for storing water; a swale is for hydrating the soil. A pond stores water accessibly, and is susceptible to evaporation losses. A swale sends water to deep underground storage, where access maybe harder but losses are none. The more parched and derelict a piece of land, the more the required number of swales.

I love swales.

Readying for the road ahead:

It is worth restating the ultimate mission of pointReturn. I see it as a community of environmentalists who believe in a life away from the conveyor belt of ‘modern’ economy. Here they will live, work, produce surpluses of water, food, energy and cash, distribute those surpluses locally and in support of those causes that ring true to them. Simply by living such a life they will guide and inspire others to replicate the pointReturn model.

Obviously I expect more people to come and commit themselves. I am already turning to create facilities to receive them. We discuss problems and requirements of such a place. A number of projects suggest themselves. We are now building a solar cooker that can feed ten. Next on the list is a second washroom. A volunteer who stays more than a year becomes a resident and deserves a more private space than our pavilion’s dormitory affords; we have decided on specialising in rammed earth buildings as all raw materials we need are available for free. We need devices and means for processing grains and oilseeds. We need to get more vegetable beds and agricultural fields into production to keep volunteers and residents engaged.

But for current residents of pointReturn-which is still mostly in the creation phase- there are limitations to cope with. Our breakfasts and lunches are cold. There are too few of us to be split up and deployed for cooking; assuming everyone has cooking skills, which they don’t. The solar cooker if it is successful, might cook hot meals unattended. The other conundrum is that our success with vegetable growing requires that the project be manned whole time. It will be a nice relief if there were more to take turns at watch keeping.

But there are pleasures already that outweigh the difficulties. We sleep in silence, mosquito free. The drinking water is increasingly clearer and rich in taste. The air is fresh. Though the days maybe hot, in the pavilion’s shade, it is always pleasant. Recently drilling for an exclusive drinking water pump, we hit water at 15 feet; a fact that endorses our water harvesting methods. That’s not a hard depth for our trees’ roots to dip into; which explains why trees planted in 2008 have required no more than two hose watering this entire year. It is a swale hydrated patch- it sports a green patina, where once the soil was bare and hard.

Bird count and visitations are increasing. A kingfisher and a blue jay are so regular and convivial that we have pet names for them. Drongos, mynahs, coucals, lapwings and partridges are common. A harrier and an owl have audited us. An egret is evaluating the threat of the windmill that stands by our inviting pond. A hummingbird flew in one day for a drink. A fearless gang of a resident blue jay, mynahs and drongos keep me close company, impatient at my pace of digging a swale; they want tiny critters to be exposed in numbers, so they may dive for them. A partridge nested and brooded over its eggs within yards of us sickling away.

And just this week a young man, an ex-IT professional, formally enquired if he could join us long-term.

Yes, yes! We are beginning to grow.

3 thoughts on “Beginning to grow

  1. Dear DV,

    You continue to amaze me. You are in the same mold as Robinson Crusoe and the hero in the film “Cast Away”. It is a pity I am not able to make a trip to pR. Hope I do it in 2011. This is to wish you all the best in 2011 and may your family (of 40) find happiness in pR.God Bless you sarath

  2. Dear DV,

    I am a regular reader of your site. Thanks so much for sharing info with us. This is all very inspiring.

    While discussing your work amoung friends, one of them summerised…you will be building various banks…Water bank (beneath the earth(!)), food bank (will require it if start producing surplus and for yearly crops), seed bank (to avoid junk and BT seeds), plants blank (like you did for Pongamia), energy bank (solar, wind, pongamia oil, biogas), a bank of rich fertile soil all over the land :-) ….and a defined cycle to replenish stocks in those banks…..!!

    One query – Have you given any thought on installing a biogas plant? Like the one developed by ARTI, Pune which is very efficient. This site also gives D-I-Y instructions. (I should not give the site address as you have already given a very good artical about Dr. Karve’s work on GoodnewsIndia!)

    http://www.arti-india.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45:arti-biogas-plant-a-compact-digester-for-producing-biogas-from-food-waste&catid=15:rural-energy-technologies&Itemid=52

    Best wishes for your mission and may this project become a guiding start for many to come up in future.

    Regards,
    – Kedar

  3. DV, just to compare my situation since I started in 2004. my land was always cultivated when i bought it – main crop was groundnut and raggi. I adopted horticulture and planted 1000 mango samplings. with ill planning, i faced a harsh reality of water shortage.

    following your footsteps, i have created 2 ponds with more than 4 million Lt water capacity, adopted my own version of swales across the area. the monsoon started good but looks like the current 35% deficit will not be reclaimed this year. however, the water harvesting system seems to be yielding results. whether it will help me sustain the upcoming summer is a question, but i have resisted digging another bore well until now.

    I can definitely see a increased bird population, a horn-bill gang, peacock flocks along with jackal family who have become residents at the farm.

    However, I continue to have the challenges of parthenium menace if you have that at your land?

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