How WaterHarvest is Combating Water Poverty in Northern India

by Givey Team

30 September 2022

Ever wonder what water poverty is? Listen to this episode or read this transcription to find out and see how WaterHarvest combats water poverty in the north of India.

Ruby Illing  00:10

Hello, and welcome to the Givey community, a sonic space for empathy and kindfulness.

I’m Ruby Illing. And in this episode, I’m talking to Om Prakash, a civil engineer working for WaterHarvest, a charity based in the North of India. That helps villagers create water harvesting structures, so, they can have easy access to running water. 

In our last episode, we spoke to Neil Mehta, the chair of WaterHarvest, and we announced that they have a golden ticket entrant into the London Marathon. And I can now name the runner.

WaterHarvest’s London marathon runner is Alyson Mitchell. She is the treasurer of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church, based in Chiswick, who have had WaterHarvest as their chosen charity for 4 years, and has raised over £30,000 for it so far.

Links to her fundraising page is in the description.

Now let’s have a chat with Om Prakash. 

Hello, Om Prakash and welcome to the Givey community.

Om Prakash Sharma  01:26

Hello namaste. It’s an honour to share WaterHarvest work with the Givey Community.

Ruby Illing  01:32

Yeah, it’s an honour to have you on. I remember when we last spoke, you sounded really proud of your work at WaterHarvest. So, I’m really happy to have this chat with you today.

Let’s start with you introducing yourself and your work with WaterHarvest.

Om Prakash Sharma  01:48

So, my name is Om Prakash Sharma. And I was born and brought up in Udaipur, where our India Liaison Office is. I’m a technical engineer, so civil engineer.

So, my role primarily is to design, plan, water harvesting structures. I started in 1990. And with WaterHarvest, I have been working for the last 22 years permanently, announcing my role as project manager. We have a team of three, four people who are being managed in the India office.

Ruby Illing  02:23

Okay, and why did you want to start working with WaterHarvest?

Om Prakash Sharma  02:29

So, during 1990, when I did my civil engineering, I looked for a job initially, and then I was in touch with an agency, who was providing free technical services to NGOs, and we were going into villages.

That was the first time where I was exposed to village communities, me being born and brought up in a city, where, you know, everything is taken for granted where, water supply schemes are 24/7 available.

When you go into villages where you see women, girls, walking 5-6 kilometres daily to fetch water, then you understand the plight of the people. So, from this experience I thought it was worthwhile spending my life helping these people.

Ruby Illing  03:20

That’s lovely. So, you found a passion there.

Om Prakash Sharma  03:24

I think, is self-satisfying too, you know, in the sense that you can earn money, but you can also give something to those who don’t have. It’s self-satisfactory. It helps you to, you know, enhance your confidence et cetera.

Ruby Illing  03:40

That’s really lovely. And you said that when you went there, you learn a lot.

Om Prakash Sharma  03:45

Yes. So, the region where, I studied is basically the northwest side of India, which is one of the driest states, where rainfall is just 100 to 400 millimetres, and it only rains for 3 months, out of the 3 months, it only rains for 30 days. And that’s what people do have to catch water year-round. 

During studies we were only taught about large structures, which can help catch water, etc, etc. But, then when I went into the villages, and especially in desert communities, where there is lots of wisdom and knowledge, I found that there are 45 different ways and means to harvest water. And that surprised me, that there was something we learnt going there, rather than me teaching them, being a trained engineer.

Ruby Illing  04:41

So, it wasn’t just a one-way exchange of you, giving your knowledge, they were also, giving you, their knowledge.

Om Prakash Sharma  04:50

I think, I think, maybe it’s a two way there. We can also give new technological solutions and new ideas, and, while going into other villages, we can also share village experiences to the other villages we visit.

But at the same time learn a lot from communities, especially small-scale harvesting solutions. You can save lots of water with small scale harvesting solutions, rather than looking for big solutions to harvest water, use water efficiently.

Ruby Illing  05:26

So, through creating these water harvesting systems working with the villagers, what impacts did you see from helping them create these water harvesting systems?

Om Prakash Sharma  05:37

So, let’s see, in the last 22 years, I’ve been working full time and going into villages where WaterHarvest is implementing projects through our NGO partners.

So, I’ll talk about short term, as well as a long-term impacts, what the major changes have been. What I have personally observed, three perks, which really impressed me. 

One village example is one that started in 2002, water was brought in form the construction of a water harvesting structure. And in 2009, people had enough water to grow three crops. In 2002, they had just one crop. These crops meant that they have enough food to eat, so, they don’t need to buy from outside. 

Second, migration, migration is good, you know, you need to go out, learn, earn et cetera. But, if you are pressed or migrating because of distress, then it’s not possible.

Distress migration in these villages have gone down drastically. 

And then third, cooperation, co-creating, people start believing in themselves that they can do it. And then they can continue growing their life. 

Another example in the desert, typically, villagers don’t have water. So, we put up small scale, water harvesting systems called tankers. And seven villages have got 2000 such structures and the whole village is settled.

When you’re settled, then you start thinking of your education, or income generation. So, the long-term impacts are very, very beneficial. I always say that water is foundation, water is key for all development, and WaterHarvest projects have set up a foundation for overall development of these communities.

Ruby Illing  07:27

That’s brilliant. And it’s great that you guys have done this and they feel a bit less forgotten.

Om Prakash Sharma  07:35

I think that’s true, if you see the villages where we are working, these are isolated villages. We always select villages, which are far away from reach of any government or NGOs project. So, they are already isolated and neglected sometimes by government and NGOs… but when you start helping them, they start believing in themselves and then they develop their whole life.

Ruby Illing  07:58

Yeah, of course, they start believing in themselves. And the values that you go by encourage that as well, don’t they?

Om Prakash Sharma  08:07

So, since, the beginning in 1998, when WaterHarvest was founded, we were very fortunate to have NGO partners and leaders who were basically value based. 

When I say value based there are some key values you need to adhere to, like transparency, accountability, honesty, integrity, valuing every caste and creed.

We always believe that whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are from any religion or caste, everyone needs to sit on the same platform. There should not be hierarchy.

So, I think such kind of values and principles were ideal at all the years, and that has brought democratic institutions within villages to further development.

Ruby Illing  08:55

And do you visit these villages, even past installing these water harvesting systems?

Om Prakash Sharma  09:03

We are a really small organisation, as in really small money, as well as, doing small projects in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

So, resource wise it’s very difficult to visit, but we do visit, on and off, to go and see how people are living after water harvesting is done.

So, while visiting one of the key things is we learn from our work, and then we can do it better in the next projects.

Ruby Illing  09:34

Yeah, learn as you go along and see maybe what you could have done better. 

I’d like to get a bit personal now and ask you, what did you learn personally working these 32 years with WaterHarvest and with the villages.

Om Prakash Sharma  09:51

See my personal life has really changed. I was born and brought up in a little bit of a wealthier family, you have everything.

One of the key things which I learned, if you have something, and those people who don’t have, where I was exposed to, all 32 years, then you need to, not be helping them, you need to encourage them, you need to inspire them to bring the change within.

And that can only be done through investing in people, rather than investing in water infrastructure, which I think sometimes water harvesting agencies do. Infrastructure alone cannot bring the change unless and until, people are encouraged and inspired.

Ruby Illing  10:39

Yeah. So, rather than just going in and doing a technical job, you go in and talk to the communities and try and encourage them to follow what they want to do.

Now that they’ve got a water harvesting system, now they’ve readily got water, how they can now improve their lives with this newfound freedom.

Om Prakash Sharma  11:06


Ruby Illing   11:07

Brilliant, could you tell us a bit about how you encourage these villages.

Om Prakash Sharma  11:13

So, I’ll give you an example. Typically, we are introduced by our NGO partners to go into a particular region or village. When we go there, the first key thing is meeting in a community place, rather than meeting in individual houses.

So, you need to meet everyone in a common place, which doesn’t belong to anyone. So, you send a message that you are here to help everyone rather than helping certain people.

Then, you know, as I said, sitting on one place, sitting on one level, one carpet. So, you always sit, men, women, different gender, different caste groups together, and start talking what they can do, rather than, you know, what I’m bringing to them.

So, it’s not like introducing, “this is what the project is, and we want to do these things for you,” like water infrastructure. And that’s it, no, the conversation has to start from what they can do.

So, they start believing that they do have, so, they contribute either in cash, some money, in labour for construction of these water infrastructure.

And then we commit that, “if you can do say 30% of the total cost, we’ll put 70%”. So, our 70% is adding as a catalyst for them to reach 100%. 

And that changes mindset of people that we are here to help them rather than being just giving money, and then you go to another village.  Another thing which we also, do, is we continuously meet with people, so, on and off, and try to share our knowledge which we have acquired while travelling from the different parts of India, etc. So, they can also, learn and then we do trainings.

Ruby Illing  13:02

Oh, what trainings?

Om Prakash Sharma  13:03

One example is, we provide safer drinking water. We know that rainwater harvesting might be biologically contaminated, the water is not pure. So, like training, how to make sure that water can be purer, safer to drink. So, filters, how to make sure that health and hygiene practices, hand washing is important for your own hygiene and health too.

These types of trainings are also, done in local dialect, it’s not just Hindi, there are different dialects – Rajasthan and Gujarat. So, you need to do these trainings in local dialect, in more simplified wordings, and then we continue doing that, till people reach to a level where they can sustain these works themselves.

Ruby Illing  13:51

Yeah, they become independent.

Om Prakash Sharma  13:53


Ruby Illing  13:54

So, you said that the main people in the villages collecting water are women and girls. What sort of transformation do you see in the village’s expectations of women and girls and their life opportunities?

Om Prakash Sharma  14:15

See, traditionally, in villages where we work its women and girl’s responsibility to fetch water, no boy, not your husband or brother, not anyone will help you to fetch water. Women and girls walk at least 6-5 kilometres daily to fetch water.

Once they have water harvesting systems, and if they have year-round water, they don’t need to walk. They have enough time to help their family.

Basically, we organise these women into women’s self-help groups. So, 10-15 women, are organised into a group and they start saving and credit.

They save a little bit of money, and then land it within themselves. And this is how they start helping themselves. 

That’s the initial start and then they’ll do some income generation schemes. We observed that women start selling things in nearby villages and earn money. They do livestock, like milk selling.

This helps women to be more economically empowered and have a more dignified life, rather than just 24/7, 365 days, even if you’re sick, they have to walk, bring water for the family. So, the whole fetching is literally gone, and I’ve observed that in many villages.

Second thing is girl’s who can’t to go to school because they have to help their mother’s. These girls can go to school now.

And we have some brilliant examples, which I have personally observed. Some girls have graduated. Some school students have become chartered accountants, it takes maybe 10-15 years of their time, but, water has provided that opportunity for them to be thriving.

Ruby Illing  16:10

Wow, some of them become accountants.

Om Prakash Sharma  16:13

Correct, Chartered Accountants.

Ruby Illing  16:14

That’s amazing. What’s a Charter Account?

Om Prakash Sharma  16:17

It’s basically an accountant with certified, accounts, which are certified in any accounts of companies or NGOs.

Ruby Illing  16:25

That’s amazing.

Om Prakash Sharma  16:26

It’s a very big post. It’s very competitive.

Ruby Illing  16:29


Om Prakash Sharma  16:29

Only 25% are passed out yearly in India.

Ruby Illing  16:33


Om Prakash Sharma  16:33

So, we have some people who have gone up to that level.

Ruby Illing  16:37

So, other than selling products and goods, what other jobs do these women take up?

Om Prakash Sharma  16:45

Women self-help groups are doing handicrafts. There are lots of handicraft items in Rajasthan and Gujarat. They create these and then sell them to raise money for their families. Women are also, helping other village women too. They share knowledge, share experience, and inspire women in other villages to come out from water poverty, come out from these traditional ways of working. 

Another example is sanitation. Toilets are very rare, but for the last 5, 6 years, the Government of India has put up lots of efforts to have a toilet. Without toilets women have very difficult lives. And we have observed that these kinds of services have really helped women to go further and have a more dignified life.

Ruby Illing  17:39

So, you install toilets, as well, into the villages?

Om Prakash Sharma  17:42

Er, we don’t do, we help the government to achieve, but we provide our knowledge, maybe, you know, upgrading them.

People with disabilities, people have a difficult life fetching water, accessing sanitation facilities, how to make sure that the sanitation and water infrastructure are disabled friendly. So, we have innovated designs to make sure that they are accessible to people with disabilities too.

Ruby Illing  18:10

So, you make sure that people with disabilities are able to use the toilets as well? 

Om Prakash Sharma  18:15


Ruby Illing   18:15

We’re coming to the end of the interview, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think you should mention?

Om Prakash Sharma  18:21

Yeah. Okay, I just want to share, as you are listening, the UK is facing severe drought during these couple of months, because of less rain etc.

And I would like to share that the world needs to learn from desert communities, how they handle water, how they use water efficiently.

There are smaller steps. So, if even smaller steps, like using water during shower, or you know, cleaning etc, we can save lots of water, and come out of a drought situation.

We know that climate change, weather patterns are changing, and this is going to be a regular phenomena across the world. And my learning through the various water harvesting projects, is there is still so, much the world needs to learn from the desert communities. 

Thank you very much for your time to Ruby-ji.

Ruby Illing  19:21

No worries. Thank you so, much.

It’s been a really lovely interview to hear about what change WaterHarvest can provide and help.

Om Prakash Sharma  19:35

Thank you.

Ruby Illing  19:49

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