India consumes the largest amount of groundwater in the world. It is home to the largest tube wells in the world as well. Most of the water is used for irrigation by farmers in dry and arid regions in the north, in the absence of irrigation canals or rivers. Indian farming had long enjoyed the benevolence of a bountiful rainfall. However, erratic rainfall and weather patterns, and the lack of policy direction in irrigation have led to the Indian farmer becoming dependent on groundwater for their needs.
Groundwater has become a major source for irrigation and for domestic and industrial use. With little check on this resource, overexploitation has led to rapid depletion in groundwater levels in the country, particularly in the rain-deficient northern and western regions. Even in coastal areas, seawater ingress has led to water table salinity, and the problem is multiplied by denudation.
States like Punjab, Haryana, etc., which are the granaries of India, are finding that depleting groundwater levels have dipped to alarming levels, making farming an unsustainable proposition. With many urban municipalities facing water shortages due to inadequate freshwater supply, groundwater exploitation has only increased. Available water is polluted and unfit for use, and this situation is likely to become worse with the supply estimated to be less than half of demand by 2030.
Artificial Recharge Need and Techniques
The need for groundwater augmentation, coupled with the realization that climate change is for real, means India will soon be “staring down the barrel.” Artificial recharge of groundwater augments the reservoirs and recharging tables using manmade civil structures. These structures divert the natural movement of water for recharge or storage. Essentially, water augmentation:
1) Recharges depleted aquifers
2) Stores excess water/ runoff for future
3) Reduces the pollution through dilution
Techniques that are being used for artificial recharge of groundwater through water augmentation structures can be classified as:
- Bench terracing
- Contour bunds and contour trenches
- Check dams
- Percolation ponds
Importance of check dams in water augmentation
What are Check Dams? These vertical barriers are constructed against the direction of water flow on shallow rivers and streams for water augmentation and harvesting. Check dams hold excess water during the rainy season in a catchment area. The water held back percolates into the ground and replenishes the nearby water table and water wells. Excess trapped water can be used over a period of time for irrigation and domestic needs. Types of check dams range from concrete structures, stones, sandbags, or wooden logs, which can easily be constructed depending on the complexity and minimum monetary outlay.
Check dams are one of the most-important augmentation structures and play an effective role in enhancing water especially in dry, arid, and semi-arid areas that are bereft of canal or river supply. These have been used extensively in India for some time. However, there is renewed interest in such structures as erratic rainfall and a burgeoning population places pressure on India’s water assets and supply system. A check dam with a reservoir is able to recharge groundwater double the amount of runoff or a watershed, and is useful in trapping and reducing sediment from the runoff or downstream flows.
Check dams constructed, after careful site evaluation, recharge groundwater reserves and enhance water availability for agriculture. Several benefits to the community over time:
– Create employment through agricultural intensification and extensification.
– Create additional revenue for people through better yields and other activities.
– Improve the quality of life for the nearby communities.
– Conserve the environment through reduced degradation.
STORIES FROM WATER-DEFICIT REGIONS
“Johads” in district Mahendragarh, Haryana
The traditional water-harvesting systems in India had a positive impact on the rural inhabitants. Narnaul in Mahendragarh, Haryana, is well known for its farming and developed agriculture. The villagers of this area are highly dependent on farm produce. The groundwater was depleting rapidly and affecting the livelihood of its residents. S M Sehgal Foundation joined hands with HDFC Bank to construct johads, redundant ponds, in the Sarelli and Panchnota villages. The project brings a positive change with Parivartan Prayojana by increasing the water table in the region.
The locals used to wait endlessly for water tankers. The cattle went thirsty, causing a reduction in milk output. Once the johad was fully constructed, two to three hours of heavy rainfall was sufficient for the pond to be overflowing enough to last an entire year. Extra water in the pond resulted in recharging the water table, leading to a higher level of groundwater. The diameter and depth were increased in order to collect as much water as possible, making it last for a longer duration after the evaporation process. Wells in the adjacent villages also appeared fuller and were able to feed more people than previously. The spinoff effect was undeniable. The locals felt more confident and aware regarding water management and its uses.
Johads in district Alwar, Rajasthan
Five villages of Samra panchayat (village council) in Alwar district, Rajasthan, relived the old times by constructing johads to augment water for agriculture and other uses. Strong community participation led the panchayat, located on the periphery of once water-abundant Sariska forest, to solve water scarcity in the area. In the 1970s and 1980s, the high population growth rate led to large-scale unemployment. Wood cutting, an easy livelihood option, lured many youngsters in the village, starting a vicious cycle of environmental damage. Mass-scale cutting of trees reduced the protected area of forest and led to soil erosion that increased the sediment load in rainwater runoff. This sediment, deposited in johads, reduced their capacity to channel water underground. With less water percolation, the water table in the region slowly dropped. Trees and vegetation died as the water table fell below the reach of their roots. The loss of vegetation led to more erosion and sediment in the runoff. As a result, johads disappeared, resulting in a loss of local water supplies (underground sources) and forests. As a result, farmers plant only a single crop in a year due to lack of water resources in the region. To reverse the situation, villagers undertook water augmentation work in Samra panchayat area that includes Samra, Hamirpur, Kaler, Jaitpur Gujran, and Natata villages, with the help of Sehgal Foundation.
PIONEERING WATER MANAGEMENT
As India grapples with the burning issue of water, there is path-breaking work being done at the ground level in water management by pioneers in this area.
S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) is a public charitable trust in India, a rural, grassroots implementing NGO, with a mission to achieve positive social, economic, and environmental change across rural India by addressing critical issues concerning food security, water security, local participation and information asymmetry, with a focus on the empowerment of women and children. Sehgal Foundation operates across ten states, in over 1,000 villages so far, reaching more than 3 million people.
Sehgal Foundation has been working on both supply and demand side of water management for the past twenty-plus years Their extensive experience has been used to augment water resources, helping farmers fetch good returns and lead a dignified life. Emphasizing the combined use of surface and groundwater on the supply side, Sehgal Foundation works on soil moisture retention, irrigation, augmenting surface and groundwater, and potable water.
Through development efforts and community work, the foundation has helped in augmenting groundwater levels using check dams, contour trenches, dug well recharging, pressurized recharge wells, pond development; and community soak wells and pits to ensure safe disposal of wastewater.
Rooftop rainwater harvesting systems, storage tanks, groundwater recharging, JalKalp biosand filters, and safe drinking water in schools and homes provide water for drinking and sanitation—allowing children to stay in school, especially girls who, if without water at home, spent their days fetching water.
The foundation’s integrated approach to water management has led to several innovations, including integration of silt traps in check dams structures, creating freshwater pockets within saline aquifers, rainwater harvesting systems with storage tanks, and a stainless steel biosand filter models, which have been recognized by industry experts, and national and international organizations.
Water Resource Augmentation. Sehgal Foundation’s Water Management Program focuses on an integrated approach to replenish depleted underground aquifers and augment groundwater primarily with rainwater harvesting to improve availability and quality of groundwater in the long run. Teams work with communities to revive water bodies, traditional water harvesting systems in India, and design and construct cost-effective recharge structures to harvest surplus monsoon runoff for either augmentation of groundwater and/or creation of surface water storage. Water resource augmentation structures include check dams, ponds, farm ponds, tanks, and recharge wells, among others.
Sehgal Foundation’s Water Management Program footprint as of 2020:
– 75 check dams were constructed.
6,282,726 cum was the annual water-harvesting potential of selected water harvesting structures.
– 20 community tanks cater to a population of approx. 20,000 people.
– 66 ponds harvested 792,000 kL of water annually.
Case Study from South India
With the prime objective of reviving groundwater levels and sustaining livelihoods of farmers and villagers, project Jaldhara (chapter V) was launched in February 2018, implemented by S M Sehgal Foundation, and funded by Coca-Cola Foundation. The project was undertaken in Kolar in Karnataka and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh reached out to 6,740 villagers across eleven villages.
The approach for improving groundwater levels in the areas included harvesting rainwater runoff through check dams and desilting, and rejuvenation of traditional tanks, which helped in collection, storage, and increasing water retention and percolation facility. The project focused on creating awareness and capacity building of local communities on efficient management of water resources and operation and maintenance of project interventions.
Groundwater Restoration: Check Dams. Five check dams have been built in the villages of Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh: Nallapareddipalli, Mudapalli, Subbaraopeta, Kandurparthi, Timalapalli.
“Since the check dam is in place, the level of water in my bore well is showing visible improvements with half an inch rise every month. There is an increase of the water level is twenty meters, so far.” —T. Sreenivasulu, Koduru
Groundwater Restoration: Tank Desiltation and Rejuvenation. Silt is the eroded top layer of soil, deposited in the nearest water body. Although nutrient-rich, it accumulates at the base of the lake; shrinks its size, and reduces its water-holding capacity. These water bodies are generally lakes, locally referred to as water tanks.
Five water tanks are desilted in the villages of Kolar: Aninganahalli, Halepalya, Obatti and Kempasandra, and1,76,641 cubic meters of silt have been excavated from the tank bed, restoring 3,41,064 cubic meters of water storage capacity. This nutrient-rich silt was applied by farmers in their fields to restore the topsoil layer. A total of 2,034 individuals have directly benefited from desilting.
To control and contain the water in tanks, bunds were created to enable water percolation. This resulted in increased groundwater levels of the region.
Formation of WATER-GOVERNING BODIES at Village Level. Project Jaldhara initiated community-led water governing bodies in every project village, ensuring active community participation and transparency in water management.
Sehgal Foundation‘s pioneering efforts have facilitated farmers in these areas on the use of best agricultural practices for water-efficient irrigation and improving crop productivity. This was important because most of the local population is engaged in agriculture only, accounting to over 80% of total water use.
The Way Forward
While water management in India happens to be a state subject, the concern is visible all around. The Central government through its National Water Mission’s (NWM) campaign, “Catch The Rain,” came public to all stakeholders. The movement was highlighted by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi as he launched the Jal Shakti Abhiyan on the World Water day 2021 with the tagline, “Catch the rain, where it falls, when it falls.” A lot of work in creating/constructing check dams has been done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) , which made water conservation its key theme. Water retention through water augmentation structures, particularly check dams, are transforming lives and landscape in rural India.
The states on their part have also done notable work in the area. Some of these schemes are Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan in Rajasthan, Jalyukt Shibar in Maharashtra, Sujalam Sufalam Abhiyan in Gujarat, Mission Kakatiya in Telangana, Neeru Chettu in Andhra Pradesh, Jal Jeevan Hariyali’ in Bihar, Jal Hi Jeevan in Haryana, among others.
With rainfall becoming increasingly erratic and concentrated, the way forward must be to revive and aggressively take forward the concept of traditional water harvesting systems in India along with modern check dams. The beauty of this concept lies in the fact that they do not have to be constructed as part of a comprehensive development plan, but can be a stand-alone activity. Community mobilization on a local level can lead to achieving water sufficiency in the long run.