At crossroads, from left: Sudarshan, Sairam, Rahul and Pavaman strike a pose with a traffic policeman
India’s groundwater challenge

Amitangshu Acharya

In 2009, reports from NASA, based on data from its Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), caused much alarm in India. The reports showed that groundwater levels in Northern India have been declining at the rate of 33 centimetres per year over the past decade. The reports estimated that a staggering 108 cubic kilometres (26 cubic miles) of groundwater had disappeared from aquifers in areas of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi, between 2002 and 2008.

Such empirical evidence of groundwater over extraction was a follow up on a large number of studies which had highlighted the same issue earlier. It was clear that within three to four decades, India was witnessing both its groundwater ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ phase. From being the largest user of groundwater in the world (more than 25 per cent of the global average), India was heading towards groundwater deficit. 

The story of groundwater development in India is a unique one. This ‘democratic’ resource generated rapid agricultural growth in areas which had little hope of irrigation from surface water sources. As a result, 2.48 million hectares in India are now being irrigated with groundwater extracted through 16 million wells. However, there have been no scientific management systems in place to guide users towards sustainable extraction. The impact of unregulated use, low crop water efficiency and poor demand management now stand documented by NASA. But even before NASA’s revelations, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) had been demarcating administrative blocks as semi-critical, critical or overexploited. It was four per cent in 1995. In 2005 it stood at 28 per cent.  

Scarcity is just one side of the coin. Quality is emerging is another concern. Nearly 85 per cent of rural drinking water schemes in India are dependent on groundwater. In 2009 the Planning Commission acknowledged that almost 60,000 rural habitations were affected by arsenic, salinity, fluoride and nitrate.

Regulatory approaches to sustainable extraction and management of groundwater for quality and quantity issues don’t seem tenable. The context specific nature of the resource increases the cost of monitoring and regulation. Monitoring 20 million wells is not an easy task. However, if this state of affairs continues, then according to the World Bank, 60 per cent of India’s administrative blocks will be in a critical condition by 2025.

But there is a silver lining. Over the last two decades, several civil society initiatives have taken place to build a case for people-centred groundwater management. Such initiatives have their roots in regions witnessing acute groundwater scarcity.

The earliest took place in Maharashtra, in Naigaon village in Purandhar Taluk, Pune district. Vilasrao Salunkhe, having witnessed the plight of farmers in Maharashtra during a severe drought in 1972, instituted village level water management institutions called Pani Panchayats for improved water availability and wise use. This was a revolutionary institutional model which recognised water as a common property resource which had to be equitably shared between stakeholders. It helped delink land rights from water rights by extending irrigation rights to the landless. Most importantly, it ensured that cropping patterns matched annual water availability.

Salunkhe also started an NGO known as Gram Gaurav Pratisthan (GGP), to facilitate the formation of Pani Panchayats. GGP, now headed by late Vilasrao’s wife, Kalpana Salunkhe, has forged an interesting collaboration with Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), a groundwater research institution based in Pune. ACWADAM is generating accurate hydro geological data for 12 villages in Purandar Taluk. While earlier calculations on water availability were based largely on rainfall and local weather data, ACWADAM has provided true estimates of groundwater availability. This has given Pani Panchayats a clearer picture of water availability in their area and they are adjusting their cropping patterns accordingly. GGP’s work remains exemplary as it is a perfect marriage between equity and efficiency, the two most critical goals of sustainable and participatory groundwater management.

Another path breaking endeavour has taken place in Andhra Pradesh, a hotspot of groundwater over extraction and resultant agrarian crises. Numbers illustrate the crises. Three hundred out of 1227 groundwater blocks in the state were declared as critical or overexploited. Two hundred and eight were deemed semi-critical.

Response to this problem was attempted through the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS), a project that has been implemented by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) from 2004 to 2009 through 10 NGOs.   This project, within a span of five years has managed to create 555 groundwater management committees in 303 panchayats in seven drought prone districts. The uniqueness of this approach is that it has concentrated on non formal education tools to demystify hydrology and geo hydrology.

Once the complex processes were made simple, farmers took to it with gusto. Improved understanding of groundwater processes have led to its wise use. Approximately 4,800 farmers have adopted water saving methods and technologies (such as drip irrigation) to reduce groundwater pumping. In some cases, villages have restricted drilling of new bore wells and also prevented tankers from tapping water from existing wells. The scale of APFAMGS’ success has led to renewed interest in government circles on community based groundwater management. Recently the World Bank  published a detailed study of the programme and a number of visits from the states of Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra have taken place.

Though not as high profile as APFAMGS or as well recognised as GGP, Arid Communities and Technologies (ACT), an NGO based in Bhuj, the headquarters of Kachchh district, Gujarat, has managed to carve its own niche. ACT specialises in geo hydrological studies and groundwater management. Given the semi arid landscape of Kachchh which receives 312 mm of average annual rainfall, the criticality of groundwater management was more in the area of drinking water. ACT, to its credit, mapped aquifers in 135 villages in Abdasa Taluka in Kachcch district and developed a drinking water resource management plan for each. When Water and Sanitation Management Organisation (WASMO), a government institution in Gujarat, came forward to use these maps and develop decentralised water resources in the area, ACT took another step forward. It developed a team of rural youth called ‘Parabs’ (meaning a local water point in Kachchhi) who would work with village institutions to help them demystify groundwater management and develop technical plans. These plans were then submitted to WASMO for approval.

To their credit, 30 technical plans prepared jointly by Parabs and village based Pani Samitis won approval and were implemented. This is a major feat for a group of individuals most of whom haven’t even completed their schooling. Yet, they  acquired understanding not only of complex geo hydrology but also mapping with  GPS and presenting and interpreting data on GIS platforms. Bolstered by this success, ACT has now initiated a training programme on geo hydrology for rural youth and  the first batch recently received their certificates.

Amitangshu Acharya is a Development Analyst working with Arghyam,
a water sector specific non- profit foundation based in Bangalore.
The author would like to thank Dr KAS Mani (APFAMGS),
Dr Himanshu Kulkarni (ACWADAM) and Dr Yogesh Jadeja (ACT)
for sharing information on their projects.


April 2010 Edition
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