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Mrs. Mathew still remembers the exact date, 15 November 2007, when her neck, head and shoulder injuries began to heal. That was the day HDS, which aims to empower the rural poor of Kerala’s eastern Idukki District, broke ground on construction of the 15,000-liter rainwater harvesting tank (about 3,963 liquid gallons) that now sits in her backyard, sandwiched between her home and the cowshed, rabbit cages and goat pen.

A metal gutter descends from her roof to the top portal of the tank, funneling enough rainwater harvested during the monsoon to satisfy her family’s domestic water needs for the entire dry season. For the mother of two, this has meant the end of lugging heavy water buckets on her head for nearly two miles uphill and, as a result, the end of physical therapy at the hospital.

“With two elderly parents, two young children and a working husband, what option did I have?” Mrs. Mathew recalls. As if by muscle memory, she rubs the back of her neck. “The doctor understood.”

In almost any direction, evidence of HDS’s efforts to confront water scarcity, as well as other rural development issues in Santhigram, abound. A stone bund lines the perimeter of Mrs. Mathew’s neighbor’s property. HDS had laid over 766 yards of bunds — embankments made of soil or stone — and bushy organic fencing across Santhigram’s slopes to limit soil erosion. In the shady field below, a ditch the size of a suburban swimming pool lined with a blue plastic lining formed a water preservation pond. The murky bath will irrigate crops during the dry months. Around the bend, a well recharging project implemented by HDS has raised the water level of the Kavanattu family’s open well by four feet, and no time too soon.

“Our climate has changed. Rainfall is less predictable than when I was growing up,” says Sunny Varkey, 45, who has witnessed the water level of his family’s well fall markedly over the years. “Agriculture now uses more water — that lowers groundwater levels — and more chemicals, which makes it harder and harder to maintain the fertility of the soil. It’s brought us some tough times.”

With the rest of his family by his side, Mr. Varkey points over the valley to a barren ridge line way out in the distance.

“But that’s the big reason,” he adds.

Unprompted, he scurries inside his home and returns with one of his children’s books from school. He flips through the pages until he finds what he is looking for and points to the chapter titled “Prevent Deforestation!”

The roads in Idukki District are hairpin tight, clogged with plodding trucks and laden with blind curves more frightening than any hair-raising thrill ride at a carnival. But that does little to restrain Father Sebastian Kochupurackal, executive director of HDS, from pressing on the gas pedal of his compact car as he zips to a regional meeting of community organizers at St. Sebastian’s Church in Nedumkandam, or from making conversation along the way.

Lifting his right hand dangerously off the wheel, he motions out the window toward fields of rubber trees.

“In earlier times, we had a lot of forest here,” explains Father Kochupurackal. “But nowadays, forest means big business.

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Water Socioreligious programs