Pumping groundwater to harnessing rainfall: A tale of two states

Saurashtra, and Vidarbha and Marathwada have similar climatic and aquifer characteristics. Why do the latter suffer from droughts when Saurashtra has been able to improve its groundwater levels?
Groundwater decline in India (Image Source: India Water Portal) Groundwater decline in India (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Groundwater depletion, a growing challenge for India

Groundwater depletion is assuming serious proportions in India with extraction having increased from less than one million in 1960 to almost 24 million in 2014. Irrigation consumes as high as 90 percent of the groundwater extracted annually, while 85 percent of rural water and 50 percent of urban water is extracted from aquifers. Easy access and availability coupled with lack of regulation and provision of free subsidised power have further triggered a frenzy to extract as much groundwater as possible.

What complicates things further is that the groundwater conditions vary significantly from region to region. For example, arid areas such as deserts of Rajasthan, Rann of Kutch and semi arid areas such as Vidarbha, Saurashtra, Western Andhra Pradesh, northern interior Karnataka, areas covering the western, central and southern peninsular parts of India are more vulnerable to groundwater depletion.

Saurashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha: Drought prone and groundwater dependent 

The paper  'Sustainability of groundwater through community-driven distributed recharge: An analysis of arguments for water scarce regions of semi-arid India' published in the Journal of Hydrology, Regional Studies informs that Saurashtra in Gujarat and Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra continue to be in news due to the severe droughts and acute water scarcity that they face every year. All the three regions share similar climatic conditions and the nature of aquifers, hydraulic characteristics, recharge mechanisms and storage capacities. There are no major perennial rivers or streams in any of these regions, and the population is highly dependent on the aquifers for their water needs leading to severe groundwater depletion due to increasing abstraction.

As high as 83 percent of irrigated land in Saurashtra is dependent on groundwater, while 58 percent of irrigated land in Marathawada and 50 percent in Vidarbha depends on groundwater. All districts in these regions are recommended for Drought Prone Area Development Programme (DPAP) or Desert Development Programme (DDP) by Hanumantha Rao Committee of the Government of India.

However, Saurashtra has been showing high agricultural growth even in adverse geographic and climatic conditions, due to improved groundwater conditions in recent years, unlike Marathawada and Vidarbha.

One point of view attributes this revival to policy interventions that placed emphasis on rainwater harvesting and recharging aquifers, while the other attribute it to the Sardar Sarovar Project.

The paper presents the findings of a study that explores the reasons for increase in groundwater levels in Saurashtra by comparing it to other similar regions in Maharashtra, namely Vidarbha and Marathwada.

The study compares:

  • Groundwater recharge patterns in Saurashtra during a recent period of high rainfall years with a similar period before the onset of the recharge movement
  • Groundwater recharge patterns during high rainfall periods in two other comparable aquifer and terrain regions namely Vidarbha and Marathawada in Maharashtra, which did not experience recharge movement on the same scale as Saurashtra did.

Groundwater stories of Saurashtra and Marathwada and Vidarbha

Saurashtra in Gujarat experiences highly erratic rainfall with low-potential hard-rock basalt aquifers and continued to rely on rainfall for its agricultural water requirements till recently. However, the availability of diesel and electric powered pumps and cheap and easy availability of drilling technology in the1970s led to increase in extraction of groundwater which further accelerated during 1980s. This high level of abstraction gradually led to long term decline in groundwater levels that led to acute water scarcity in summer and salinity ingress in coastal areas and a consecutive drought in 1985 and 1987.

The severity of this condition led to a consensus on an urgent need to conserve rainwater, and a community-led mass movement for construction of rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge structures was undertaken in Saurashtra.

Another drought in 1998-2000 led to acute water scarcity in Saurashtra when rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge movement was intensified with the Sardar Patel Sahakari Jal Sanchay Yojana, a people’s participation scheme under which almost 500,000 structures were created that included 113,738 check dams, 55,917 bori bandhs, 1,240199 farm ponds, and 62532 large and small check dams as of 2008 that created an estimated 808 MCM (million cubic meters) of storage capacity.

The Jyotigram Yojna, a flagship scheme by the state government of Gujarat to separate agricultural from domestic powerlines and ensure better quality electricity supply for limited time for agricultural power connections, was also launched during this time. The long-delayed Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on Narmada River also got a boost during this time with a good rainfall spell that started in 2003. A combination of all these factors led to groundwater revival in parts of Gujarat including Saurashtra during 2004-2009.

While In Maharashtra, the Groundwater Act (1993) focused more on saving the depleting sources through regulatory measures, Gujarat emphasised a combination of restricting power for groundwater extraction and groundwater recharge investment by providing support to communities and NGOs. Marathawada and Vidarbha also embarked upon the conservation of water through implementation of an ambitious programme from year 1992-93 through Water Conservation Department, Government of Maharashtra. However, inspite of having the highest number of major/large dams in India and governmental efforts for water conservation, these two regions of Maharashtra continued to to combat drought.

What led to this difference?

The study found that improvement in monsoonal groundwater recharge for Saurashtra was greater than in Marathawada and Vidarbha, which have similar hydrogeological, geographical and climatic characteristics, during comparable wet spells. This was mainly due to enhanced recharge from the thousands of small water-harvesting and artificial recharge structures. This was reinforced by the fact that the mean monsoon rainfall before the recharge and after the recharge period was same.

Impact of the Sardar Sarovar Project

The other possible factors contributing to recharge like agricultural return seepage and canal seepage from the Sardar Sarovar Project command area, return seepage from urban waste water (most of the urban water supply is imported from SSP) and impact of controlling the pumping through Jyotigram Yojna were found to have have a marginal impact on Saurashtra's groundwater recharge.

Impact of the Jyotigarm Yojana

Jyotigram Yojna was launched in Gujarat with focus on changing electricity supply to rural areas. The major emphases of this policy was on restricting power supply to rural agriculture to 8 hours a day, to shift powerload from peakhours to off-peak hours, and ensuring reliable availability of electricity during these 8 hours, which enabled farmers to have uninterrupted use of electricity for withdrawal of groundwater.

The policy was intended to address the problems of growing energy subsidy and groundwater over extraction. The policy initially restricted groundwater over extraction by placing restrictions on electricity connections to a number of pumpsets, but the condition changed rapidly in subsequent years with allocation of tubewell connections to small farmers from scheduled castes and tribes. Groundwater extraction thus steadily increased even during the good rainfall years and the area under irrigation also steadily increased. Even the electricity consumption for agriculture did not significantly decrease in Gujarat after full implementation of Jyotigram Yojna.The steady increase in electricity consumption during the post recharge period when the groundwater levels were also increasing suggests that more water was being abstracted for agriculture and that this policy was not be instrumental in restoration of groundwater condition.

Participatory recharge movement helped improve groundwater recharge

The study found that the much acclaimed people’s participatory recharge movement of Saurashtra indeed played an important part in improving the monsoonal groundwater recharge during 2004-2009, which was much greater than in Marathawada and Vidarbha.

Groundwater in Marathawada and Vidarbha had not improved in terms recharge even after efforts by the Government of Maharashtra as it involved little community participation and focused more on regulation.

Since 2010, Marathawada and Vidarbha also focused on managed aquifer recharge (MAR) and the Jalyukt Shivar Yojana was also introduced later, with many NGOs also investing heavily in community-based sustainable water management practices. In the next couple of years, it will be worthwhile to find out if groundwater levels in those regions have also improved significantly as in Saurashtra and whether effectiveness of MAR continues to be supported by data, argues the study.

The paper can be accessed here

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