Agricultural development in India has undergone a radical shift in recent times. Balancing social inclusiveness and environmental sustainability was tilted to the former in the policy framework. Successive governments have looked at reforms that were concentrated on social and economic aspects as they tried to uplift small farmer incomes and derive an equilibrium in the space. Environmental sustainability was largely ignored in the process in a sector that depended on rain-fed farming operations. About 65 percent of the cultivable land in India is dependent on rainfall.
In India, small farming operations in arid/semi-arid areas often suffer from low productivity, high risk, and poor adoption of modern technology/agricultural practices. These areas account for almost 60 percent of farmers (the majority being small holders). These areas contribute to almost 80 percent of the area for pulses, 60 percent for oilseeds, and 40 percent for paddy. The importance of watershed management in these areas, thus assumes primary importance.
Even as soil and water degradation are already major issues, climate change and the environmental concerns grow. Water tables continue to deplete at an alarming rate as small irrigation sources are neglected. This has led to a shortage of drinking water and a decline in water quality.
Understanding Watershed Management
The concept of “watershed” was introduced in 1920. In simple terms, watershed refers to “water-parting boundaries.” A watershed system is the area of land which drains, and the water is able to accumulate for runoff to a common outlet. Water is collected in a “catchment area” from where it flows out. In combination, the land and water help in accumulating water at a common point. Management of this system is helpful in agriculture as it maintains equilibrium between ecosystems, land and water and human activities. Besides acting as a buffer in dry regions, it helps to improve soil health and achieves efficiency in stored rainwater for irrigation, thereby enhancing productivity for small farm holders by creating dependable sources for water for irrigation and consumption. It ultimately improves stability for small farming communities collectively and provides security from an erratic supply of water
Different watershed systems are unique in their nature and application, and will need customization in practice to be effective. This involves management of land surface and vegetation in an effort to conserve soil and water for the benefit to the farming community and society as a whole. Rainwater harvesting is the key component in watershed management for agriculture and sustainable development. Some of the watershed management structures are described here:
1) Contour bunds help to intercept the water runoff that flows down the slope through the construction of embankments and help retain moisture in farms and can be used for all types of soils.
2) Bench terracing refers to constructing steps on the field at different levels to help cultivation and are generally used in hilly areas.
3) Percolation ponds help in the recharge of groundwater and are suitable for areas where the soil has a permeable nature. They also help in silt detention, and water gets augmented in groundwater collection wells for later use.
4) Check dams are vertical barriers erected against water direction on shallow rivers and streams. They are helpful in water augmentation through harvesting. Check dams hold excess water during the rainy season in a catchment area. The water held back percolates into the groundwater table and helps replenish water wells.
Effect of Watershed Management on Small Farmers
Small farmers are vulnerable to the vagaries of extraneous factors and circumstances beyond their control. To mitigate the effect on their livelihood and provide them with a secure future, effective and resource-friendly interventions are needed. Simple watershed management techniques can lead to stability and enhancement of their future incomes. Watershed management can result in increased water availability for small farmers which will further improve . . .
a) growth rates of areas under cultivation,
b) productivity and production of major crops,
c) crop diversification,
d) crop yields,
e) livestock breeding,
f) socioeconomic factors such as reduction in poverty, food security, employment opportunities and reduced migration; and
g) more equitable development
Stories from the Ground: Equitable Development through Water Augmentation
Agricultural development in India is dependent on small and marginal farmers. It is imperative to ensure that they are able to gain adequate remuneration and gainful employment through their efforts. Increase in demand for food in a growing nation can be met by providing them with a platform to achieve self-sufficiency and financial security. S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development NGO in India, has been working since 1999 to improve the quality of life of the rural communities in India. With support from donors and partners around the world, S M Sehgal Foundation’s grassroots programs and development interventions have already reached more than three million people across India. One of the key focus areas S M Sehgal Foundation has been concentrating on is water management. Some work done by their experienced and qualified team is outlined below.
Rejuvenating a Pond in village Dhodhakari, Behror Block, Alwar District, Rajasthan.
Under a CSR-supported project, S M Sehgal Foundation rejuvenated the pond in village Dhodhakari in January 2021. Earlier, the water collection area of the pond was small and surrounded and filled with thorny bushes of keekar. The water catchment area was diminished, and large quantities of rainwater used to forcefully and wastefully flow from the Aravalli hills across and out of the village. This damaged the crops growing in the path of the water.
As part of the project, the catchment area of the pond was increased, leading to its rejuvenation, desilting, and directing the water flow toward the pond. The rainwater now accumulates in the rejuvenated pond and its capacity has gone up four times to 16.8 million liters. The water level of nearby wells for irrigating crops has also increased by ten to fifteen feet.
Recharge Well In Government Senior Secondary School, Kherla, Supported By Rio Tinto India Pvt Ltd
S M Sehgal Foundation and Rio Tinto came up with a low-cost, environment-friendly solution: a recharge well, which helped to clear up the waterlogging in the school campus as well as improve groundwater levels through recharge. Addressing the scarcity of sweet water in the area, the rainwater infiltrates through the recharge well into the ground and helps recharge 1.5 million liters of water/year. Thus two solutions were handled simultaneously through the recharge well.
Now the students and staff do not have to encounter waterlogging because the rainwater percolates through the recharge well into the ground. The well also helps to recharge the water table, addressing the problem of rapid water depletion. Availability of the water has also gone up for farming and consumption.
Public Private Partnerships are the way forward in the area of watershed management. The role of NGOs in development of watershed programs is important due to the fact that government programs have large budgets directed toward several villages. Individual issues are compromised, and this is where specific and focused interventions come in. Socially oriented organizations are the way forward to carry technical expertise to villages on a specific level. Problem areas can be identified and addressed with more effectively. While it is given that watershed management is important, what is more important is to reach the small farm holders with interventions that can carry forth the vision of the government to double farmer income. Providing them with watershed management programs that are affordable to construct and maintain can be effectively achieved through this route.