GROUNDWATER-A DISTURBING DIP

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– KV Maitreyi

As many parts of Maharashtra continue to be inundated with rain it is easy to forget that at this time last year much of the state was reeling under drought. While the rains this year will recharge groundwater tables, given current groundwater usage patterns it is unlikely that this water would contribute to help farmers tide over the next drought, when it inevitably arrives. Groundwater availability and usage have always been a matter of concern for the state of Maharashtra. Over the last 50 years, there has been a subsequent increase in dependence on groundwater use However, it is informal, yet a successful coping strategy in the face of climate change and lack of reliable formal public water supply systems. Post 1972, the occurrence of frequent droughts, uncertain rainfall, limited availability of surface water resources, coupled with the availability of low cost drilling equipment and institutional support for irrigation has subsequently led to a rapid increase in the no. of irrigation wells in the state. It has  increased from 5.5 lakh in 1972 to 21 lakh in 2012 across the state, almost by 4 times in four decades[1]. This number continues to rise i at a frightening scale, ineffectual legal & regulatory restrictions doing little to stem the tide. This has created a serious imbalance, with an escalating draft yet and constant recharge; forcing farmers to continuously drill deeper bore wells as they continue to chase a falling water table.

From this trend, the developmental sequence of groundwater exploration can be understood as follows: The increase in  groundwater extraction usually results in the drying up of open wells during the rabi season. Initially this occurs along the hinges of the aquifer, subsequently rippling to the other areas. Once the sources are tapped, continuous abstraction tends to lower the water tables,. In the next developmental stage, deepening of open wells and construction of bore wells begin. Continuous extraction again leads to decrease in yield, leading to the final stage of extensive and uncontrolled drilling of bore wells regardless of the availability of groundwater at deeper depths.

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Figure 1: Declining Groundwater levels across districts in Marathwada [2]

The story of a disturbing dip ‘ Our village was prosperous a few years back, now it’s in a phase of downfall ’ said an old farmer, from Mardi a village in the district of Jalna..

What was there few years back? And what has changed now?

This village in the Marathwada is prone to reduced rainfall and droughts.. Over the years, the village has seen tremendous transformation; in the sectors of farming, livestock and the livelihoods of the people. Taking a look at the agrarian changes, the major crops of this village were the traditional Jowar,Bajra, gram, and other rainfed crops. These were cultivated using the traditional farming practice. In recent decades agriculture shifted pace from subsistence to commercial farming coupled with the use of hybrid/chemical inputs. Cotton, Sugarcane, Pomegranate, sweetlime, soyabean and many more have emerged as the primary crops cultivated across this region.

I started cultivating cotton four years ago. Due to lack of sufficient rains, I had to invest in borewells. Initially, after 3 bore wells failed, I had no money left. In the hope of finding water, I took a loan from a local moneylender and constructed another bore well. My stars were good this time, it yielded water. But the next year, this one failed too. Again I had to risk an investment. Till date , I have constructed 15 bore wells, but now, only 3 of them yield water. I remember when I was a child,; water was just 8-9 feet in the wells. Now, the depth has plummeted to 30-40 feet. With failing rains, many had to sell their land and migrate as they did not have the financial capability to invest in bore wells. Saware owns a grocery store and remembers his days of loss that forced him to shift his livelihood options. “I lost all my land, as I had neither money to drill bore wells nor the money to invest further in agriculture”…

The shift to water intensive crops coupled with reduced rainfall increased the dependence on groundwater resources for the farmers. As a consequence of which, the water table started to fall. Decreased availability of water had forced these communities to rely on tankers for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Also, the hiring of tankers seemed to be an expensive affair for the communities. Usually, villages are granted tanker supplies by the state government within 15 days of registration. However, the communities receive water only after a month or two post filing the application. In this manner, groundwater depletion has serious impacts on these communities. The spiraling costs of well construction ,well deepening/pump sets, elevated levels of energy consumptions reduced availability of groundwater for irrigation during the dry seasons despite wells going up to a depth of 200-300 ft A combined with reduced availability of drinking water are a few consequences recorded.

What further aids the continual exploitation of groundwater are the new and affordable pumping technologies coupled with flat rate electricity tariff that reduces the marginal cost of extracting groundwater from greater depths to zero, enabling the economical private abstraction of the limited resource. Government policies are tricky grey areas; with the exigencies of democratic politics exerting  a strong influence over the choices available to policy makers. Government subsidies have shielded the farmers from paying the complete cost of pumping and this encourages the increasing dependency on groundwater.

Every drop counts- The way forwards.

The explosive growth in groundwater extraction and subsequent overexploitation has been furtive in its nature, owing to the extensive drilling of private wells that are unfettered by any legal framework. This presents a challenge of its management at daunting proportions.

Drought in the previous year had brought this discussion to the forefront , however with surplus rainfall this year, it is very likely that this challenge will fade from public and political memory as the news cycle zeroes on the next big story. Good years present an opportunity to prepare for bad years when they inevitably arrive, and as climate change is expected to make the monsoon more unreliable, bad years are likely to increase.

A starting point is the Groundwater Development And Management Act, 2009, provides guidelines for groundwater management and intends to extend greater support to the water scare areas aiming to rejuvenate the natural base. It strives for a participative approach to manage groundwater resources, the foremost step towards sustaining groundwater in the long run. However the challenges associated with acheiving this are manifold and exist at multiple scales. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) has been designated as the state groundwater authority with the mandate of overseeing the implementation of the Act. However the MWRRA has a troubled history and much work needs to be done in order  to fulfill its challenging mandate. It is hoped that, despite criticisms recent changes to the Authority’s structure and the introduction of a dedicated member for groundwater and law would allow it to tackle the issue in a better way.. At the local level, the success of maintaining groundwater levels is not just in the hand of the legal authorities, but requires realization and active participation of the communities in turn to conserve the ever depleting precious resource. Between these two levels lies the myriad district, block administrators, NGOs, civil societies and private stakeholders, who influence the actions at the local level .Grappling with the challenge of groundwater management involves coordinating the actions of all these stakeholder and working collectively with them to evolve effective strategies.

 

[1] Fourth Well Census

[2] http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/drought-in-marathwada-ground-water-levels-dipping-every-year-focus-shifts-to-conservation/

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