Making the most of sun and water in rural India

The Chhota Shigri glacier in India

The Chhota Shigri glacier in India (raghav.goel/flickr)

Perched 4,200 feet in the southern Himalayas, the Nauni-Majgoan Panchayat, a village council overseeing nine hamlets in India’s Himachal Pradesh state, is on the tipping point of climate change. On the peaks above, the Chhota Shigri glacier has been receding at an accelerated pace; on the road below, the village of Solan has morphed into a small city replete with concrete office buildings and business lunches. Demand for water — to spin hydroelectric generators, to irrigate crops and for residential use — is soaring throughout the area.

Baldev Singh Thakur, the Nauni-Majgoan’s leader, is determined to see that the villages he oversees don’t fall into an ecological abyss — and he dotes over such environmental projects as solar photovoltaic street lights, solar cooking, rain harvesting, organic farming and composting latrines.

Solar photovoltaic lights now illuminate streets and homes in all nine of the panchayat’s villages, thanks to generous loans and subsidies arranged by the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency. The street-lighting systems, built by Indian companies, are sold for about 22,000 rupees ($437), half of which is paid for by the agency. Solar-powered generators cost about 100,000 rupees ($1,988) and are eligible for a 40 percent subsidy.

Plastic rain barrels, too, are visible on most properties. And the toilets, costing about $30 to $150 and built with local labor and materials, are now in every village, though not in every home. Of these projects, the Nauni-Majgoan’s biggest environmental — and consequently, economic — success has been its sanitation campaign. Because poor sanitation directly affects health, it is increasingly seen as a lynchpin for sustained economic growth throughout South Asia.

As of 2006, 74 percent of rural Indians and 17 percent of their urban compatriots were still defecating in the open. The practice fouls drinking water sources, and remains the chief reason why 20 percent of Indian children who die before the age of five succumb to water-borne diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

It is such a huge problem that the Indian government 10 years ago began what it calls its Total Sanitation Campaign, with meritorious behavior awards handed out to districts by the country’s prime minister. The Nauni-Majgoan Panchayat was among them. “The Total Sanitation Campaign is a new chapter for us,” said Mr. Thakur.

Nauni-Majgoan doesn’t have all the answers, however. It hasn’t figured out what to do with its wastewater. It incinerates its solid waste (its possession of an incinerator, in fact, is a source of pride). And changing weather patterns have kept farmers on their toes. “The rains are not coming at the proper time,” says Mr. Roop Lal, a farmer and shopkeeper in Nauni-Majgoan’s Kangahn village.

The snow melted early this year and by early March his peas and garlic crops were in peril. And last year’s rainy season, usually late June to early September, began early and ended late. During dry spells villages must now pump groundwater from beneath the spring-fed Giri River, say local officials.

Meanwhile, the state has been aggressively courting private investment in hydroelectricity, waiving foreign-investment caps and promising to purchase electricity produced by new power plants. Forty-one hydroelectric plants, generating 6,370 megawatts, are now in operation in the state, and 67 projects are now underway or being planned.

That pits the panchayat’s own water needs against those of the state.

“Our job is to make sure we don’t waste one drop,” says Mr. Thakur. “Not one drop.”

pic Kevin FergusonBy Kevin Ferguson, American journalist member of Media21 network. He has worked as a journalist for 27 years, including 12 years as a freelancer. His articles and photographs on climate change and energy have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, BusinessWeek, Grist, InformationWeek and other media.

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