Vodafone’s billboards store up to 2,000 litres of water and are fitted with sensors to alert collection teams who transport the rainwater to rural farmers
Since they were set up two months ago, Vodafone’s smart billboards have become a lifeline for about 60 farmers who have been left penniless or in debt after four consecutive years of drought. Dada Navsare, a sugarcane and pomegranate farmer, gets a 2,000 litre tanker of water every day to help water his crop.
“For four years [...] no crops have grown in this village. I have lost hundreds of thousands of rupees and I’ve had to take out loans with an interest rate of 4% every month. I still have an outstanding loan of 250,000 rupees (£2,800) to pay off. The government used to give us water, but it was a very small quantity and we didn’t get it every day. We didn’t even have water to drink. This year, since the trucks started delivering water, there have been no losses.”
Although Vodafone has made it clear the collected water is only for farming, the farmers also drink it since there are few other options. “We just use it as it is,” says Navsare. “We don’t purify it or boil it.”
The billboards are fitted with a U-shaped aluminium sheet to funnel water through a tube to the tanks which can store up to 2,000 litres of water at the bottom of each hoarding. Each tank is fitted with water sensor technology to alert employees when the tanks are full. The billboards are serviced by a collection team which transports the stored rainwater to villages in trucks. Every part of the process is funded by Vodafone.
The smart billboards, designed by advertising firm Kinetic, could be used in other regions, says Siddharth Banerjee, CMO of Vodafone India: “While this initiative has been implemented in Maharashtra, we expect this effort to be replicated in other geographies of India.” More than 330 million people across the country were affected by drought earlier this year.
“We are talking to the local government in Maharashtra and in the state of Haryana about fitting many more billboards with tanks,” says Somnath Sengupta, national creative director of Kinetic. “You can give these farmers money, you can give them food, that’ll help them for a while. But what they really need is water.”
In India, increasingly extreme weather has added to the water woes of farmers across the country. In the last few years agricultural cycles have been disrupted by floods and drought in different parts of the country. Seventy-five per cent of India’s rainfall occurs in the monsoon months between June to September. When there is a shortfall of rain, water sources can dry up before the next year’s monsoon season.
Earlier this year, armed guards had to be deployed to protect India’s dams. In April, water trains brought tankfuls of water from neighboring regions to drought-hit villages near Latur in Maharashtra, where some villages had only been getting water once every nine days. In the cities, where water supplies are usually protected, swimming pools and cricket pitches were closed to help save water.
According to the last census in 2011, around 70% of India’s 1.25 billion population is rural and relies on agriculture to survive. Scarcity of water has led to fights between states to control access to rivers and dams, and increasing migration to India’s already overpopulated cities.
Smart billboards are one of many innovative rainwater harvesting solutions that have been set up by businesses to curb the effects of drought. In the drought-prone region of Marathwada, in western India, Total helped villagers dig ponds to store rainwater. Hindustan Unilever has spent millions on water conservation initiatives on structures such as bunds (dykes), check dams and ponds to help collect and store rainwater which can be used for irrigation. Reliance Industries and Mahindra & Mahindra have also set up similar projects in the country.
Sushmita Sengupta, deputy programme manager at the Centre for Science and Environment thinktank, says that rainwater harvesting initiatives have been life-changing for drought-struck communities. “It is a big potential solution, and if the villages are getting water for farming through this [Vodafone’s] scheme then that is a good thing.” But she sounds a note of caution: “if villagers are going to drink this water, then you have to be very careful about the catchment, it has to be maintained regularly, and a filter needs to attached.”
Sengupta says rainwater harvesting projects have been launched by many state governments, for example in Delhi and Bangalore, where the government gives incentives or reimbursements to people who harvest rainwater. In Tamil Nadu, the authorities disconnect the water supplies of those who don’t have a harvesting system. “It’s good that private companies are setting up initiatives,” says Sengupta, “but there needs to be some way of checking up on those, and there needs to be a maintenance system in place for the tanks.”