Posted by Steve Lettau on Jun 27, 2019

Rotary Club of Sanford-Springvale, Maine

In 2012, Elias Thomas was in Rajasthan, India, visiting a site that two years before had been dusty and barren but now was lush and green. “Waterfowl had moved in to make it their habitat,” he recalls. “I heard engines pumping water up the hills to irrigate garden beds on terraces. As far as I could see, everything was green.” The transformation was the result of a catchment dam, which collects rainwater during the monsoon season and holds it in reserve for the dry season.

The dam had been built in 2010 by Thomas and other Rotarians from his club and the Rotary Club of Delhi Megapolis, with the support of a water conservation trust in India. It was the first of 10 such dams they have built together. “I first went to India in 2001 to participate in National Immunization Days. We thought the time would be more valuable if we incorporated a service project,” says Thomas.

A local rural development foundation identifies ideal locations near villages and farms where the dams can be built, taking advantage of dry riverbeds formed during previous monsoon seasons. “We dam it up and force it to create a reservoir — that’s a water catchment dam,” says Thomas, a past governor of District 7780 (parts of Maine and New Hampshire).

Local workers use machinery to dig huge trenches, and then the Rotarians spend four to five days building the foundation and walls by hand. Local laborers finish the project. The dams allow farmers to employ gravity-fed irrigation, help raise the water table, and recharge wells.

Last year, U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine recognized Thomas on the Senate floor, reading a tribute to his four decades of work as a Rotary volunteer. But he isn’t resting on his laurels; in February, he led a group of volunteers back to Rajasthan to build another dam.

This new dam will benefit more than 11,000 people. “Farmers can grow three crops instead of one. The first is for subsistence, the second will feed cattle, and the third can be sold,” Thomas says. “So what they make from selling the crop can be used to buy goods and services from others, and there’s a ripple effect.”

— Anne Stein