Groundwater levels across India have been falling rapidly, affecting the livelihood and wellbeing of village communities. Top-down approaches to groundwater management have not worked. The MARVI project, ‘Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention’, was a village-level participatory approach for measuring groundwater levels and improving groundwater productivity.
The MARVI team led trans-disciplinary research on sustainable groundwater management in India. Nine organisations from three countries, 35 researchers and 36 farmer researchers worked together to improve the groundwater situation.
The project has developed a participatory approach, models and tools that can effectively work for villagers to monitor groundwater and rainfall. Villagers can also plan for sustainable groundwater use through village groundwater cooperatives. The approach is ready to extend and adapt beyond the study watersheds.
More than half of India is undergoing serious water stress and the situation is expected to worsen in the future. In rural communities, reduced availability of groundwater constrains food production, jeopardises farm incomes, catalyses increased urban migration, and fractures community cohesion and harmony.
The management of groundwater has become quite complex due to a range of actors involved in its development and use. MARVI—Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention - was a collaborative project between India and Australia.
It aimed to improve cooperative decision-making for sustainable groundwater use. This required developing a village-level participatory approach to measure groundwater levels, rainfall, water quality and check-dam water levels, and improve water use efficiency.
A total of eight organisations were involved in the MARVI project with Western Sydney University leading the project. The other partners were (i) CSIRO Land & Water; (ii) International Water Management Institute; (iii) Arid Communities & Technologies; (iv) Development Support Centre; (v) Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology; (vi) Vidya Bhawan Krishi Vigyan Kendra; and (vii) Mekong Futures Research Institute.
The MARVI approach
The MARVI project was carried out in two watersheds in India with hard-rock aquifers, one in Rajasthan and the other one in Gujarat. In total, 11 villages were involved. The main activities in MARVI included creating awareness about the extent of the groundwater problem; capacity building of the local people to monitor, quantify and manage groundwater resources; and piloting village groundwater cooperatives.
A unique feature of MARVI was the development of Bhujal Jaankaars (BJs), a Hindi word meaning ‘groundwater informed’. These are volunteers who went through training and capacity building to monitor rainfall, groundwater levels and quality, and water levels in check dams, and who worked as local champions.
BJs monitored water table fluctuations in 350 dug wells weekly for more than five years. They also monitored rainfall and water levels in check dams. The monitoring was the basis for the first comprehensive water database at the village level.
The project also developed the MyWell app (currently available only on the Android platform but it will soon be available on iOS platform as well) for volunteers to use to record water data and make them widely available to improve understanding of the groundwater situation. Other tools and protocols were developed to understand aspects of annual groundwater recharge, water availability for irrigation, crop water demand and agronomic practices that will improve groundwater sustainability.
The project integrated environmental, social, and economic dimensions through the following key activities:
- Training and capacity building of local villagers to monitor groundwater;
- Designing participatory processes to assist village level discovery and implementation of solutions for sustaining groundwater use and improved livelihoods;
- Establishing a comprehensive database about groundwater level fluctuations, availability, and riverbed structures to augment recharge;
- Understanding the gender issues of groundwater management and how groundwater impacts women in general and the school attendance of girls; and
- Providing tools for estimating annual groundwater recharge, water availability and crop demand.
Also, a detailed socio-economic study, along with crop demonstrations, engagement through PhotoVoice and community forums, was conducted to understand farmers’ needs and capacities and explore what changes will work for future groundwater management strategies.
Overall, the advanced groundwater knowledge of farmers, local communities (including schools) and decision-makers and built the capacity of villagers and other stakeholders to improve cooperative decision making for sustainable groundwater use.
Empowering village communities
The educational approach in the MARVI project was based on ‘adult and action learning principles’ and focussed on training of BJs in their local settings through relevant theory and practical exercises, so that they could perform a geo-hydrological evaluation of their area, monitor groundwater and share their findings and experiences with their village communities.
The BJs went through a training program of seven modules in a series of sessions (totalling 45 days) that covered mapping, land and water resource analysis, geo-hydrology, water balance analysis, and groundwater management strategies at their level and practical needs.
The training was designed in the local language and used simple terminologies. Experienced trainers were engaged in the training process and it was continually reviewed and refined. The training included lectures in both classroom and field; practical mapping and data collection exercises in the field; and the review and verification of data and maps in the classroom.
Also, experienced BJs were engaged in the process to facilitate and mentor the learning for new BJs, acting as ‘senior peers’ to boost their self-confidence. Post-training mentoring of BJs was an important element of the MARVI as the BJs are community representatives and knowledgeable resource persons.
Key findings and lessons
- Groundwater management needs to start at the village level. Evidence from MARVI indicates that effective groundwater cooperation and sustainable water sharing can be attained at the village and aquifer levels.
- Villagers as BJs can learn how to monitor, understand, and take responsibility for collectively managing their groundwater. As a result, they can become village champions of groundwater sustainability. They help their villages to develop water security plans and widely share data and knowledge.
- The voices and active participation of women in groundwater matters are critical to success, as are those of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in communities. The availability of groundwater affects the education of girls more than boys.
- Existing recharge structures require sustained monitoring to further refine siting and design of new managed aquifer recharge (MAR) structures. This will improve the cost-effectiveness of silt removal and quantify the economic effects of these investments in recharge enhancement alongside demand-side measures.
- Each village is different and therefore groundwater management actions should be based on the diversity of socioeconomic attributes. A singular reliance on a uniform, ‘one size fits all’ approach will not help in the effective management of groundwater or achieve high returns from public investments for groundwater projects.
- It is becoming obvious that groundwater management actions need to be trans-disciplinary, trans-departmental, trans-ministry and holistic to achieve long-lasting village water security.
- Programs to develop community-led village water security plans should be implemented. These will use village rainfall, groundwater-level, check dam and water-quality data monitored by villagers themselves. Therefore, investment is needed to select, train, and accredit BJs at the village level, and their facilitators at the local, state or national level.
- BJs should be formally connected with gram panchayats (village councils) and they are given a significant role in data collection and village level engagement in any government-sponsored groundwater and other natural resources management schemes implemented by gram panchayats.
- The government at all levels should recognise the collection of the reliable water table, rainfall, check dam water-level and water-quality data by BJs and make them widely and easily available.
- BJs should play a significant role in the implementation of the 'five waters’ concept—that is, the integrated management of rainwater, surface water, groundwater, soil water and wastewater.
- There is a need to initiate a national program to measure rainfall in every village in India through the help of citizen scientists (farmers). They should collect the data by using the MyWell app. The one-off investment required for doing this will be less than Rs 250 per village, with little ongoing costs.
- There is a need for mainstreaming of gender aspects in groundwater management as women are affected most in the event of groundwater overexploitation.
- There is a need to provide incentives that will engage the village community to prepare and adopt ‘village water security plans’.
- Efforts need to be made to develop an inventory of all groundwater recharge structures at the state and national levels. Groundwater levels, rainfall, water quality and recharge from check dams vary significantly from one village to the next. For effectively managing groundwater at the village level, there needs to be monitoring of rainfall, groundwater levels and water quality in several strategically located wells (perhaps four) in each village, as well as monitoring of water levels in at least two check dams. This will provide valuable information for making decisions about groundwater use and evaluating the effects of interventions.
Thanks to all MARVI project team members in Australia and India, BJs, participating schools, and farming communities for their generous support through this MARVI journey.
The research in the MARVI project was led by Western Sydney University (WSU) in partnership with CSIRO Land & Water, Development Support Centre (DSC), Arid Communities and Technologies, Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology (MPUAT), Vidya Bhawan Krishi Vigyan Kendra (VBKVK) and International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
The funding for this project was provided by the Australian Water Partnership and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Prof. Basant Maheshwari, Western Sydney University
Dr Yogesh Jadeja, Arid Communities and Technologies
Dr P.K. Singh, Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology,
Shri Mohan Sharma, Development Support Centre and
Shri Hasmukh Gehlot, Vidya Bhawan Krishi Vigyan Kendra
Shri Pranav Chauhan, Dr Yogita Dashora, Dr Peter Dillon, Dr Brenda Dobia, Dr Dharma Hagare, Dr Rai Kookana, Adj. Assoc. Prof. Roger Packham, Shri Sachin Oza, Dr Pravin Patil, Shri Prahlad Soni, Assoc. Prof. Maria Varua and Dr John Ward
All images are by MARVI.