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Groundwater Drill: an innovative, low-cost and sustainable solution for smallholder farmers to access groundwater

In many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, despite the presence of shallow groundwater, most farmers cannot access that water for irrigation due to lack of affordable, efficient drilling methods. As a result, the farmers must rely on slow, manual drilling.

Groundwater Drill: an innovative, low-cost and sustainable solution for smallholder farmers to access groundwater

Water Security

Improving access to irrigation is perhaps the single largest means for increasing food production among smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia.

The Green Revolution introduced irrigation, hybrid seeds, fertilizers and new farming techniques and to farmers across much of Asia. However, large parts of South Asia and most of Sub-Saharan still have not felt the benefits of the Green Revolution, and still practice very basic agronomy. The lack of access to water for irrigation—even in the presence of abundant shallow groundwater—is one of the single most critical constraints to increasing agricultural productivity in these regions; and the absence of efficient, low-cost means to access groundwater is one of the reasons these farmers experience what the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) calls “economic water scarcity.” If sustainably extracted and used, access to this groundwater can play a significant role in improving crop yields and food security for hundreds of millions of people, for generations to come.

A case example of an Indian smallholder farmer facing water scarcity despite availability of adequate groundwater in his village 

Jagabandhu, an Indian farmer who owns a small piece of land (3 acres), faces lack of water for cultivation in summer and dry years. In order to meet the demand for irrigation he has to purchase water from a neighboring farmer who owns a borewell, despite having shallow groundwater reserves in his own land. This type of challenge faced by farmers is referred to as the economic water scarcity problem, prevalent in developing countries, where the farmers are not able to use water for cultivation despite having adequate groundwater resources.

In Jagabandhu’s village in Odisha state, farmers use slow and inefficient manual drilling methods (such as sludging) to access groundwater because mechanical drilling machines are expensive and beyond the reach of such remote areas. As a consequence, farmers have to depend on short-term means for cultivation, creating a major constraint in agriculture productivity. For example, because of the lack of efficient and cost-effective water extraction technologies, Jagabandhu manages to cultivate just one acre of land with the water purchased from another farmer, leaving the rest of his field unirrigated.

Our solution: Reverse circulation technology for groundwater drilling

In order to address this challenge, the Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT), with support from US-based inventor, Russell Crawford (who goes, simply, by “RC”), has developed a low-cost drill to enable smallholder farmers gain access to shallow groundwater in a sustainable manner.

The drill uses a patented application of the standard reverse-airflow mechanism powered by a small air compressor. It can dig up to 10 feet, every sixty to eighty minutes (depending on the soil type and underlying rock formations), and it is ideal for wells up to hundred feet in depth, in most agricultural soils common to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This drill offers significant cost and time advantages over most manual methods and can be easily assembled because of its modular design.

In partnership with IDE-India and RC, ITT has developed different prototypes of the drill and successfully demonstrated the models in several geographies. Close to 100 wells have been drilled, in different soil types, in the U.S. (Texas), Mexico, India (Kerala and Odisha states) and Africa (Zimbabwe). These demonstrations received an enthusiastic response from farmers, drillers, and local entrepreneurs. But the resounding question is when will the drill become commercially available.

To utilize the drill’s potential, we are looking for organizations that share our vision to scale up this technology in multiple geographies across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

RC and his ‘One Million Wells’ Mission

Texas-based inventor Russell “RC” Crawford has numerous inventions to his credit, including the shallow groundwater drill that he developed in 2016. He has supported ITT with the product development and testing of the drill in India.

He is the co-founder of One Million Wells, an organisation dedicated to solving the global water access problem by providing one million wells to the world’s underdeveloped areas. He has also partnered with ITT to explore the potential of the low-cost drilling technology in economically water scarce areas of Asia and Africa.

  • Jagabandhu Saha, farmer from Dhaulabanapur village in India's Odisha state.
  • A farm of radishes cultivated with water from the borewell installed by ITT.
  • The team at one of our drilling sites in Bhartipur village, Odisha state, India. (From left to right) Farmer Benu Dhar and his drilling crew, inventor Russell Crawford (center), Sai Madhavi and Aarsh Pande (ITT), Bibhuti Bhusan (IDE-India).

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