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Small conservation, harvesting efforts key to ending water scarcity

Here is a disturbing picture of the growing water shortage in the villages of India on one hand and, on the other, exorbitant amounts being spent on mega water projects of dubious merit, which come with serious ecological repercussions

As India is increasingly troubled by heat waves, its water worries are also increasing. Home to 18 per cent of the world’s population and 15 per cent of its livestock but only 4 per cent of the its fresh water resources, the country’s water woes are being exacerbated by climate change – it is experiencing more frequent droughts, erratic weather and intense heat waves. A history of over-exploiting groundwater has added to the problem. However, a significant number of small-scale water harvesting and conservation projects, some of which have shown very encouraging results, offer a ray of hope. These include efforts by several voluntary organisations as well as the government.

In Chitrakut district of Uttar Pradesh, the Patha area inhabited largely by the Kol Tribe, has often been in news due to water scarcity. But now, the water harvesting structures installed by ABSSS (Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan), a voluntary organisation, have brought considerable relief to villages like Tikariya, Mangava and Itwa Patan. Many more farms are now irrigated. Farm animals and wild animals have much better access to water. Drinking water wells get recharged by the harvested water. Pastures have more grass. Gursarai, a hamlet abandoned due to adverse conditions, is once again a viable place to live in, with cultivation being resumed once water became available.

Gaya Prasad Gopal, a senior social activist, says, “The first stage of our work involved helping the tribal communities to get land rights. When several of them got water as well, it helped them set up sustainable livelihoods where earlier they had to toil almost like bonded labour for very low wages.” This also ensured that there was very close community involvement in the water harvesting work.

Parvati, a peasant woman who took keen interest in the project, said, “Committees of villagers were formed and most decisions were taken by these committees on the basis of local conditions.” Costs were reduced significantly as well. Most of the work was in the form of ponds, check dams and related structures, costing around half-a-million rupees each.

The Tikuri-Purva check dam in Kekramar Village, for example, was constructed with just Rs 3 lakh but managed, at its peak, to irrigate about 40 hectares of farmland, as estimated by Gopal. The benefits in terms of recharging of wells are greater. ABSSS has been supported by important government agencies including NABARD, and leading development organisations like Action Aid and Oxfam. It is based in the water-starved Bundelkhand Region, spread over 13 districts of Central India.

In sharp contrast to such low-cost, high benefit projects, funds are being wasted in gigantic projects of dubious merit such as the Ken-Betwa Link water transfer project which costs Rs 45000 crore and involves felling over 2 million trees and displacing thousands of people. At the national level, nearly 30 such river-link projects are being planned, costing around Rs 15 lakh crore, threatening river ecology apart from unleashing large-scale displacement and huge loss of forests and biodiversity.

Rajasthan’s Barefoot College, a voluntary organisation, has achieved great success by encouraging villagers to contribute their traditional wisdom on water conservation and rainwater harvesting. The output from its water harvesting structures is of proven quality, and helps to quench the thirst of students in several schools, thus keeping these schools functioning during times of water scarcity.

Similarly, the problem of increasing brackishness of water in areas around the Sambhar Salt Water Lake was handled by creating a system of bunds and harvesting rain water, using a grant received from Belu Water,a UK-based organisation. As a result, people and animals started getting better quality water and more of it. The success of the initiative was because of the close cooperation between the Barefoot College, Prayatna, a local organisation, and the village community. Inputs on water conservation and local conditions from elderly villagers like Sonath Gujar helped a great deal. In fact, Sonath drew a detailed diagram for me, explaining how this project can be expanded to benefit more villagers.

Some of the most water-scarce villages led by Korsina were helped through a project costing just Rs 18 lakh, including Rs 10 lakh spent on wages of workers from the poorest households in the same villages. This is the kind of great utilisation of funds which has been possible in some of the best-planned water harvesting projects. The unanimous view is that with increasing droughts and heat waves, much more water conservation work has to be taken up and, hence, the limited water budgets have to be more judiciously used for low-cost, high-benefit, small-scale projects rather than expensive projects that come with serious side-effects.

June 2022