Water strategy: Ponds need pondering

A farm pond (Source: Renie Thomas, WOTR, Pune)
A farm pond (Source: Renie Thomas, WOTR, Pune)

In the last few years, the water situation in Maharashtra has got worse resulting in severe droughts leading to drinking water scarcity and agricultural crisis. This has caused immense suffering for the rural folk in the state and saw instances of violence in the name of water. The government was forced to enforce Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code to facilitate smooth distribution of water among the population.

This article, Problematic uses and practices of farm ponds in Maharashtra published in the Economic and Political Weekly says that the situation was so bad that it was for the first time in the history of the state that water trains were used to supply potable water in drought-hit villages.

What has led to this situation in the state?

The article says that this grave water situation has to do with the widespread electrification in the farms following the green revolution. This resulted in deep borewell technologies which led to increased extraction of groundwater from wells and surface water storages. As borewell technology became cheaper and easily available, small marginal, as well as large farmers, got caught in the race to dig deeper in search of water, thus depleting the groundwater resources at alarming rates. Now the situation is such that even after digging deeper, farmers are unable to procure groundwater.

Farm ponds as a solution

Farm pond technology has been hailed as a ray of hope or a miracle strategy to deal with this increasing water crisis in the state. Farm ponds are square or rectangular holes made on the earth which harvest rainwater and store it for future use. The farm pond has an inlet that regulates the flow of water inside the pond while the outlet discharges excess water. The pond is surrounded by a small bund which prevents erosion from the banks of the pond. Water from the farm pond can be used for the fields either manually or by pumping or both [1].

Realising the advantages of the farm pond strategy to mitigate drought situations in Maharashtra, both the state and the central governments have come up with various schemes to promote and subsidise the construction of the ponds on a large scale. The central government budget for 2016–17 has set an ambitious target to construct five lakh farm ponds and wells within a year in rain water-scarce areas of the country.

Problematic farm pond practices

The article, however, argues that there are major problems in the actual implementation of the farm pond strategy at the ground level. There are gaps between the proposed objectives of the farm ponds and its actual use by farmers.

For example, although the important function of a farm pond is to harvest rainwater, most farm pond owners extract groundwater from dug wells and borewells and then store it in farm ponds, thus defeating the very purpose of its construction.

Moreover, there are major faults in the way the farm ponds are constructed like the absence of inlet and outlet valves to receive and discharge rainwater. Farm ponds help groundwater recharge through percolation of the stored rainwater. However, in practice, high micron plastic paper is applied in almost all functional farm ponds to stop the seepage of stored water. This reduces the possibility of the percolation of water from the farm pond to recharge groundwater.

There seems to be a lack of clarity at the policy level on the purpose and strategies used for constructing farm ponds. There is inadequate planning while sanctioning the construction of farm ponds and poor regulatory mechanisms in their use and practice. No attempts are being made to understand the overall water resources available at the village level or watershed area under consideration, the total carrying capacity of that area which supplies water for different uses and structures while planning and deciding on the number, the size and the depth of farm ponds. Evaporation of water from the farm ponds is another serious issue that is not considered. 

The article thus argues that although the construction of large-sized farm ponds has helped to raise the income of some farmers who are financially better off, it has worsened the overall groundwater situation in water-scarce areas due to the unregulated extraction of groundwater. In a few villages, people still face severe drinking water problem and depend on public tankers for drinking water security while farm ponds in the nearby fields are full of extracted groundwater.

Besides depletion of groundwater, this has also led to drying up of dug wells and borewells in the neighbouring area plus a reduction in runoff leading to water scarcity in downstream villages. Pumping large amounts of groundwater from shallow and deep aquifers for storing in farm ponds may also affect the water flows in streams and drains by threatening the already strained ecosystem.

What can be the way out?

The article ends by making the following policy recommendations to effectively deal with the situation:

  • The need for a ban on extraction of groundwater for storage in farm ponds in notified areas, exploited watersheds, and water scarcity zones.
  • Setting limits on the number of farm ponds that can be constructed in a village or watershed area taking into consideration the carrying capacity of the village/watershed.
  • Controlling the size of farm ponds and ensuring that farmers abide by the sanctioned design appropriate for the village or the watershed area.
  • Focus on small farmers for the provision of subsidy.
  • Explore alternatives to the plastic lining currently used for lining the farm ponds.
  • Encourage construction of common farm ponds and community sharing to secure drinking water needs and better water management.
  • Explore strategies to reduce the rate of evaporation of water stored in the farm ponds.

A copy of the article can be accessed from this link.

Eshwer Kale works with the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), Pune.