Hydrological impacts of rainwater harvesting in the catchment of the Arvari river, Rajasthan - Case study from the Agricultural Water Management Journal

These two case studies describe a study that explored the hydrological impacts of rainwater harvesting in the Arvari river catchment in Rajasthan.

Part 1 looks at the field scale impacts and reports the results of a 2-year field study in the 476 km2 semi-arid Arvari River catchment, in Rajasthan, where over 366 RWH structures have been built since 1985. Rainwater harvesting (RWH), the small-scale collection and storage of runoff to augment groundwater stores, has been seen as a solution to the deepening groundwater crisis in India. However, hydrological impacts of RWH in India are not well understood, particularly at the larger catchment-scale.

A key element to grasping RWH impact involves understanding the generated recharge variability in time and space, which is the result of variability in rainfall-runoff and efficiency of RWH structures. There are very few reported empirical studies of the impact of RWH. Catchment-scale impacts are best studied using a water balance model, which would require a basic level of field data and understanding of the variability.

As a part of this study, potential recharge estimates from seven RWH storages, across three different types and in six landscape positions, were calculated using the water balance method. These estimates were compared with recharge estimates from monitored water levels in 29 dug wells using the water table fluctuation method.

The average daily potential recharge from RWH structures varied between 12 and 52 mm/day, while estimated actual recharge reaching the groundwater ranged from 3 to 7 mm/day. The large difference between recharge estimates could be explained through soil storage, local groundwater mounding beneath structures and a large lateral transmissivity in the aquifer.

Overall, approximately 7% of rainfall was recharged by RWH in the catchment, which was similar in the comparatively wet and dry years of the field analysis. There were key differences between RWH structures, due to engineering design and location. These results indicate that recharge from RWH affects the local groundwater table, but also has potential to move laterally and impact surrounding areas.

Part 2 looks at catchment scale impacts. A conceptual water balance model, based on field data from the Arvari River catchment, was developed to study and understand catchment-scale trade-offs of rainwater harvesting (RWH). The model incorporated an effective representation of RWH function and impact, and worked on a daily time step. Catchment spatial variability was captured through sub-basins.

Within each sub-basin, hydrological response units (HRUs) described the different land use/soil combinations associated with the case study catchment, including irrigated agriculture. Sustainability indices, based on irrigated agriculture water demand, were used to compare conceptual management scenarios.

The results showed that as RWH area increased, it reached a limiting capacity from where additional RWH structures did not increase the benefit to groundwater stores, but reduced stream flow. If the irrigation area was increased at the optimal level of RWH, where the sustainability indices were greatest, the resilience of the system actually decreased.

Nevertheless, RWH in a system increased the overall sustainability of the water resource for irrigated agriculture, compared to a system without RWH. Also RWH provided a slight buffer in the groundwater store when drought occurred. The conceptual analysis highlights the important link between irrigation area and RWH area, and the impact of RWH on the catchment water.