YAVATMAL (India) • When residents of a city in one of India's most water-stressed regions banded together with the authorities to de-silt their local reservoir, they were trying to secure the future of their drinking water supply.
But the activists discovered that the silt that clogs the Nilona reservoir, 750km east of Mumbai, in Maharashtra state, could also boost harvests in this drought-stricken area, where crop failures have driven thousands of farmers to suicide.
Their innovative model of crowd-funded, citizen-led action has become an example for what is possible to protect water supplies in India, backers say.
Residents of Yavatmal, in Vidarbha district, rely for their water on the earth-lined Nilona reservoir 10km away. The nearly 700m-long lake, built in 1972, originally had a capacity of 6.39 million cubic m, but this has fallen by at least a third as soil has washed into the lake, according to government estimates.
Local government officials initially argued that Nilona would not become completely silted up for another 20 years, at which point they planned to divert water from the Bembla reservoir, 25km away.
The government estimated the cost of digging canals from Bembla to Nilona at 25 million rupees (S$529,000). But members of Prayas, a network of professionals who promote civic action for social causes, wanted to act sooner, and they proposed an alternative: Mission Deep Nilona (MDN), a crowd-funded project to de-silt the reservoir at a cost of about 3.5 million rupees.
The activists published a brochure and roped in young people to tour the city in a truck singing patriotic songs and appealing to locals to save their only source of drinking water.
The response was overwhelming, said Mr Avinash Saoji, founder of Prayas. MDN raised 2.3 million rupees of its budget from private donations. The government provided the remainder and helped get the necessary approvals from agencies. Apart from cash, donations also came in the forms of dredgers, trucks and free labour.
MDN was formally launched in April. By the end of May, MDN had removed the first 35,000 cubic m of the 6.3 million cubic m of silt clogging Nilona.
For MDN's leaders, what they did with that silt is a highlight of their story. They offered the silt to farmers for free, provided they transported it themselves. "Silt increases soil fertility. If farmers use the silt from Nilona, they can get a higher (crop) yield. In turn, we don't have to worry about its disposal," said Dr Alok Gupta, who volunteers as MDN's project director.
The initial success of the project has inspired the activists to add other improvements to the water system. The budget for the whole project will expand to 17.5 million rupees, but the Prayas members are confident that they can crowd-fund the remainder of their plans.
"It will be challenging but together we can do it," said Dr Gupta.