Making the invisible, visible

Groundwater, a fast disappearing resource (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Groundwater, a fast disappearing resource (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Excessive dependence and unregulated use of groundwater is draining India dry with 84 percent of groundwater being used for irrigation and 90 percent for drinking in rural areas. The number of overexploited blocks (district subdivision) in the country have increased from 28 percent in 2004 to 31 percent in 2013.

The State of Maharashtra, which has 52 percent of its area prone to drought has been witnessing rapid declines in groundwater levels. Climate change and monsoonal variations are further worsening the situation and extreme events such as droughts, heat waves and floods are rising in the state. Drinking water shortages are becoming common. The perception of groundwater as a private resource has made it vulnerable to exploitation and put farmers into a competitive mode as they abstract it through wells and boreholes.

The challenge is to mobilise and sensitise communities for improving water governance by making the invisible groundwater visible argues the paper 'Making the invisible, visible: 3D aquifer models as an effective tool for building water stewardship in Maharashtra, India' published in the journal Water Policy.

Making the invisible, visible

It is important to develop an understanding of the aquifer systems, including basic hydrogeology, groundwater flows, groundwater depth, and sustainable aquifer yields among people from villages for them to manage it sustainably. Maharashtra has a long history of watershed development programmes, which have increased water availability in the villages, resulting in an increase in irrigation, agricultural output, and economic prosperity.

However, this effort has now become unsustainable as surface water availability has declined triggering a race among farmers for groundwater, resulting in water scarcity and crop failure. Thus, how to develop an understanding of groundwater among the villagers has been a challenge.

Water stewardship initiative (WSI)

The paper discusses the findings of a unique effort made by Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a premier organisation working in India in the field of water management and sustainable land management practices to initiate the Water Stewardship Initiative (WSI). This involved the development of a Community-Driven Visual Integrator (CoDriVE-VI or CDVI) as one of the important tools that can produce an operational 3D map of the local aquifers.

WSI was implemented in 100 villages in Maharashtra from 2015 to 2018 and stakeholder engagement events were conducted leading to water supply and demand-side interventions, institutional strengthening, and capacity building. The CDVI tool was applied in 25 villages that were groundwater stressed along with WSI activities, to enhance groundwater literacy and mobilise communities for aquifer management.

A pilot on aquifer management under the WSI was planned in a district of Marathwada region. Applying the CDVI tool, an aquifer shared by 14 villages was identified and delineated in Bhokardan block and named as the ‘Malegaon aquifer’ - based on the name of the central village in the shared aquifer.

The main objectives behind the Malegaon pilot were generating awareness, sensitising and mobilising the villagers, building a cadre of ‘Water Stewards’ (Jal Sevaks, trained village youths) who would take up the responsibility of managing the aquifer sustainably, and motivate villagers to regulate their water use through water management practices.

Village Water Management Teams (VWMT) were formed in 14 villages, and Jal Sevaks facilitated VWMTs for planning and execution of water management practices. These 14 VWMTs were federated in the Aquifer Management Committee (AMC). Each Gram Panchayat (local government executive) nominated two members from its VWMT to the AMC. Once the AMC was formed, a CDVI model was prepared for surface and sub-surface with the involvement of key villagers.

These models were then presented in the Gram Sabhas and village meetings. The Malegaon AMC had 15 members, one representative from each village, and the Jal Sevak on this committee. The Malegaon AMC was registered under the 1860 Societies Registration Act by contributions from members to pay the registration fees and for covering daily expenses.

The maps helped participants develop a clear understanding of aquifers

The maps generated consensus on many points and all the participants understood that they all drew groundwater from the same aquifer, and thus needed to prioritise more efficient groundwater use. This led to:
•    Plans to harvest water to recharge their aquifer (a few structures have been constructed to address this)
•    Demand management through appropriate crop planning
•    Water-saving by micro-irrigation
•    Formulation of village-level rules for water use and crop selection.

These discussions and information shared during the stakeholder engagement workshops led to a new and deeper understanding of  water resources and presented the villagers with an opportunity to deliberate and discuss ‘water’ as a ‘shared problem’ leaving aside all other differences and dynamics of the village. They learned how to calculate the water budget and decide how to use water efficiently by taking collective actions.

The villagers also highlighted some external challenges that served as barriers in sustainable use of water such as convincing the large irrigating farmers, mainly orchard owners, for following the village water budgets and aquifer management plans due to availability of good market for water-intensive cash crops and changing rainfall patterns. The AMC members highlighted the need for effective regulation on water users by law and the district and block-level administration, besides social pressure.

Applying the CDVI model in the villages or watershed

With the CDVI tool, CDVI models were prepared in 25 groundwater-stressed villages of the Ahmednagar and Jalna districts with the help of the CDVI tool and engaging a team of key village informants representing older knowledgeable people, women, members of the Gram Panchayat, and other village institutions, adults and youth. This greatly helped the villagers to visualise their village topography as well as sub-surface aquifers, which they had never seen in a 3D format before.

As one of the participants from the Sangamner block stated "I never thought that I could see our groundwater resource. The stakeholder engagement event made us realise that we pull out groundwater from the same aquifer. It is a common resource and therefore, important to manage together.".

A Sarpanch (village head) from one of the villages from the Bhokardan block said, "Attending the workshop enhanced our knowledge regarding the different rock types that are available in our village. It made us realise that if we do not manage water sustainably now, the coming generation will suffer. At the same time, women must be involved in these efforts as they face water problems in everyday life.".

WSI outputs and impact

Of the 100 villages where WSI work was carried out in Maharashtra, the performance of 46 villages was considered satisfactory.
Most members of VWMTs in these villages acknowledged the water crisis facing them and their own water usage and management practices. In all these villages, communities made their water stewardship (WSI) action plans (such as water budgeting and its follow-up in terms of supply and demand-side management), and 75 villages submitted these plans to the government authorities to seek the convergence of different government schemes and programmes.

Information about the poor water status and the water demand has encouraged the VWMTs and the Gram Panchayats to frame village-specific rules as guidance that are endorsed by the Gram Sabha. Seventy-eight villages have formulated rules, such as a ban on drilling new boreholes, limits on the depth of boreholes, and other such rules as acceptable to them.

Around two thousand farmers have adopted water-efficient technologies (such as micro-irrigation and mulching) and better farming techniques. The water harvesting capacity in all the villages has increased by about 9 billion litres through community contributions and governmental action.

The VWMTs and Jal Sevaks have played an important role in sensitising people and organising them and stakeholder engagement events have provided a platform for village representatives, experts, service providers, and government agencies.

The events have helped government functionaries to understand the underlying causes of the local water crisis and lent their support to the committed measures in these villages.

The WSI has provided valuable lessons in understanding the complex relationships and compulsions that influence behaviours that determine water access and use them at the ground level.

It remains a challenge, however, to sustain the motivation of Jal Sevaks and VWMTs after the withdrawal of WOTR from villages.
Limitations have also been found in achieving equity as gaining the cooperation of large and irrigating farmers for changing their practices has proved to be difficult. However, the social pressure through the Gram Sabhas has been able to address this to a limited extent.

Learnings and the way forward

  • The implementation experience of the WSI highlights the need for an enabling policy and institutional framework that can facilitate and encourage community and stakeholders to participate in the effort.
  • Guidance and monitoring support to the community are extremely essential beyond the duration of the project period to make the effort sustainable in the long run.
  • The establishment of a mechanism that enforces policies and regulations for the common good in a transparent, fair, and consistent manner is necessary if the culture and practice of ‘water stewardship’ is to become ingrained.
  • The WSI and CDVI tools can be greatly useful in influencing the behaviour of groundwater-using communities and help achieve the goals set by existing policies and programmes such as the Maharashtra Groundwater Act of 2009, the National Project on Aquifer Management (NAQUIM), the Atal Bhujal Yojana, the SDG-6 (‘Clean water and sanitation for all’), and international commitments for climate adaptation.
  • Generating knowledge and information jointly with people, and making scientific information accessible to people through stakeholder engagement have great potential in encouraging communities to be a part of the effort.

However, it is necessary to simultaneously address the external forces such as the market incentives for water-intensive crops and the effective implementation of water-related laws and policies through effective regulation on the ground, argues the paper.