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Satichiwadi lies in India's rain shadow, an especially water-deprived swath of land that includes much of central Maharashtra. Each year after the summer monsoon pounds the west coast of India, it moves inward across the plains and bumps against the 5,000-foot peaks of the Western Ghats, where the clouds stall out, leaving the leeward side punishingly dry.

In an effort to lessen their dependence on the monsoon, the village's residents had signed on to an ambitious, three-year watershed program designed to make more efficient use of what little rain does fall. The program was facilitated by a nonprofit group called the Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR), but the work—a major relandscaping of much of the valley—was being done by the villagers themselves. Teams of farmers spent an average of five days a week digging, moving soil, and planting seedlings along the ridgelines. WOTR, which has led similar projects in more than 200 villages in central India, paid the villagers for roughly 80 percent of the hours worked but also required every family to contribute free labor to the project every month—a deliberate move to get everyone invested.

From the vantage point of the temple, the effort was evident: Beyond the small grids of tile-roofed mud homes and the sun-crisped patchwork of dry fields, many of the russet brown hillsides had been terraced, and a number of freshly dug trenches sat waiting to catch the rain. If only, of course, the rain would come.

In Satichiwadi the anticipation was high. "Very soon," Bhaskar said, "we will know the value of this work."

Complex and capricious, the South Asian monsoon—widely considered the most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, affecting nearly half the world's population—has never been easy to predict. And with global warming skewing weather patterns, it's not just the scientists who are confounded. Farmers whose families for generations have used the Panchangam, a thick almanac detailing the movement of the Hindu constellations, to determine when the monsoon rains are due and thus when to plant their crops, lament that their system no longer works reliably.

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