Want to help the environment? Here’s an affordable, easy, and devastatingly effective approach

business environment innovation Oct 12, 2023

When it comes to challenges like climate change, it can feel overwhelming. After all, how much of an impact can any individual have on such a massive problem?   Imagine my delight at finding out about an initiative which is already having a dramatic effect on global groundwater restoration.  

The Global Groundwater Crisis

According to the United Nations, climate change is, at its core, a crisis of water.  As they say, “From unpredictable rainfall patterns to shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels, floods and droughts – most impacts of climate change come down to water water (UN Water).  Climate change is exacerbating both water scarcity and water-related hazards (such as floods and droughts), as rising temperatures disrupt precipitation patterns and the entire water cycle (UNICEF).”

The global water crisis is rapidly becoming a global calamity - with extreme weather causing both severe droughts as well as sudden floods. With surface water not always handily available nearby, groundwater is where the real climate crisis is felt worldwide.

Lack of water, and especially groundwater, has been shown to increase rural poverty by 10%, childhood stunting by 20%, and forced migration by over 10%. In addition, lack of water disproportionately impacts women and girls - studies have shown that they waste over 200 million hours every day collecting water.  


India's Groundwater Challenge

India is the world's largest user of groundwater, extracting over 25% of the world's scarce groundwater resources. This has led to severe water scarcity, which has caused poor crop yields, soil degradation, reduced farmer incomes, farmer suicides, and mass migration out of villages.  One recent report found that “almost two-thirds - 63 percent - of India’s districts are threatened by falling groundwater levels. In many cases, this water is becoming contaminated. Worryingly, poverty rates are 9-10 percent higher in districts where groundwater tables have fallen below 8 meters, leaving small farmers particularly vulnerable. If current trends persist, at least 25 percent of India’s agriculture will be at risk.”


The JalTara Vision

I met Manu Namboodiri, the founder behind JalTara at the Princeton Innovation Forum on September 29.  JalTara is Save Groundwater Foundation's vision for nation-scale groundwater recharge and flood prevention. Their India goal is to address the groundwater crisis in 100,000 drought-hit villages within five years. This project will recharge an estimated 30 trillion liters of groundwater annually, which is about 60% of India's annual groundwater deficit.  You can read more of his writings here on Medium

The JalTara Approach - "One recharge pit per acre"

As Namboodiri explains, “Scale is the real problem to solve if we have to execute nation-wide solutions within a short time. JalTara's approach is to dig small recharge pits (~6 feet deep and 4 feet across) at the lowest point in every arable acre – with an average of ~500 pits per village. This creates a “sponge-like” effect over a large area, enabling rainwater to bypass dense top layers of soil and percolate down to recharge our depleted underground aquifers.

The JalTara approach is scalable, rapid, and cost-effective. It does not require engineers, experts, or government approval, and it is cheap (~$12/pit), fast, long-lasting, and massively scalable. Our strong belief is that a "simple, repeatable solution" at large scale can be a game-changer.”  


Project Validation and Benefits Over the last three years, Jaltara has validated its approach across 92 drought-hit villages - digging roughly 45,000 recharge pits. These projects have demonstrated significant economic, social, and environmental benefits:

  • Water tables have improved YoY by 14 feet on average
  • Farmer incomes have increased by over 120% - reducing rural poverty
  • Crop yields have improved by over 42%
  • Agricultural land usage during Rabi (second) season has gone up by 58%
  • Labour requirements increased during Rabi by 88% - reducing forced migration 
  • Crop spoilage due to waterlogged fields have been virtually eliminated - thus reducing unexpected crop losses


GIST Impact, a global social impact analysis firm, calculated that JalTara provided a one year Social Return on Capital (SROI) of over 19X. Based on the above results, JalTara has the potential to be one of the highest ROI social projects in India - and across the globe.  


Next Steps - 2024 Plan and Beyond

Jaltara’s plan for next year is to scale the JalTara project to 1000 villages and dig 500,000 recharge pits. This will improve the lives of an estimated 1.5 million villagers while increasing water capacity by an estimated 300 billion liters. Our estimated budget for this is $6M - or about $12/recharge pit.

The JalTara approach can rapidly replenish depleted aquifers globally - and the Save Groundwater Foundation is developing a plan for worldwide groundwater impact within a decade.  This is not just a problem for India – as Wired Magazine recently wrote, “If you don’t already live in a sponge city, you soon will!”

Want to get involved?  Contact them at their website – what an exciting project!