Maharashtra: In April this year, the women of Mhaswandi village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, about 93 km from the district headquarters, approached the Gram Panchayat to pass a decision that the people of the village would use tap water on alternate days. “This was so that we could conserve enough water for the dry months,” said 45-year-old Chaaya Rajaram Bodke.

Mhaswandi received very little rainfall last year, she said, dipping the water level of the three lakes which are the main source of water for the village. Hence, the women decided not to take any chances this year. By the first week of June, however, the villagers stopped the alternate-day arrangement. “We received 40 mm rainfall last week,” Bodke told IndiaSpend on June 10. “As per the water budget of our village, we will be fine.”

Water budgeting is the process of calculating the total amount of water required by a community--for drinking and domestic use, and agriculture--against the amount of water available from different sources. Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a non-profit based in Pune that works with rural communities to alleviate poverty by effective management of their ecosystem, taught the community members in Mhaswandi how to calculate their water budget.

In Kolegaon village in the Jalna district, farmer Bhagwat Ramrao Gavande knows exactly how much rainfall their village received in the previous week. This calibration is important, he said, because it helps the community realise that by conserving this rainwater, and by conserving through other means such as “by switching to crops that are not water-guzzlers”, they will not face water scarcity, even in the dry months. “Until a few years back, the wells of our village would have water for about six-eight months and in the rest of the hot months, they would become dry,” he said. “Now that is no longer the case.”

Parts of Jalna district fall in the Assured Rainfall Zone. Yet in recent years, water scarcity and drought-like conditions in the summer months have become frequent in this area. According to a report by WOTR, Kolegaon received only 458 mm of rainfall in the five-year period between 2017-2021. This is about 27% less than the average of 630-640 mm in the region, said Eshwer Kale of WOTR.

Jalna is not alone in facing changing climatic conditions and accompanying repercussions. At the peak of this year’s summer, large parts of the country, including the capital city of Delhi, faced acute water shortage. Making a water budget, rainwater harvesting, making changes in agriculture--even aquifer management--have, however, helped villages in Jalna slowly become more self-sufficient in terms of water and resilient to the changing climatic conditions.

Plugging the hole with water stewardship

India has 18% of the world population but only 4% of renewable water sources and 2.4% of land area. “At the same time, India is one of the largest groundwater users in the world,” said Kale

According to the Central Ground Water Board, India’s groundwater extraction for all uses--irrigation, industrial and domestic use--stands at 59.26% of the annual extractable groundwater resource in 2023, a marginal improvement from 60.08% in 2022. Even then, India remains the largest groundwater extractor in the world. “Hence water sources in India are under severe stress. Added to this are erratic weather patterns and climatic changes. Traditional knowledge alone is unable to cope with these challenges and simply increasing water availability for people in the dry regions is not a sustainable solution,” Kale said.

In this context, WOTR’s Water Stewardship Initiative (WSI), which enables communities with knowledge and capacity to use available water in a sustainable and judicious way, holds significance. This initiative, which began with 100 drought-prone villages in Maharashtra and six in Telangana, has now reached 356 villages across four states including Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. It has also been implemented in a few villages in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

The Water Stewardship Initiative, which views community members as water stewards, has four main components:

  • Facilitating the assessment of the village’s water health, where the community analyses the water situation of the village, including the groundwater level and surface water bodies

  • Pre-summer water budget preparation in which the water requirement--including for livestock and domestic use--for the whole agricultural year, from June to April, is calculated

  • Water harvesting and water saving plan, which includes strategies such as rainwater harvesting, as well as crop diversification and water-saving practices for irrigation

  • Setting social norms for water management, such as regulation on borewells to curb overexploitation, limits on water-intensive crops and restrictions on water pumping directly from common surface water bodies.

Changes in agricultural practices

Talking about the changes in his village, Gavande said that until about five years back, people in his village grew only cotton and maize, both of which require a lot of water. “Usually, we would grow a single crop, mostly cotton. But then we were told that if we switched to a crop that requires less water, like soybean, it would be more beneficial to us,” he said.

They were also told about the benefits of drip irrigation. “Cotton grown on 2.5 acres of land requires 10 million litres of water, but with drip irrigation it requires 6.5 million litres,” Gavande said. “It took some time for people to get convinced of these changes but now, 313 acres of 458 acres of agricultural land in our village is under drip irrigation. Cotton production has gone down and soybean has increased. We are also growing more crops instead of just one.” On his four-acre land, for instance, Gavande grows cotton, maize, soybean and chilli.

In Kolegaon village in Jalna district, farmer Bhagwat Ramrao Gavande knows exactly how much rainfall their village received in the previous week. This calibration is important, he says, because it helps the community realise that by conserving this rainwater. He is seen here explaining the water budget to villagers.

In Bori village in the same district, 23-year-old Gopal Gajanand Jadhav said that “70% farmers now rely on drip irrigation”. Not just that; farmers who once grew sugarcane here, a water-guzzling crop, have nearly stopped growing it altogether. Instead, they grow multiple crops like soybean, cotton and chilli.

An astute understanding about water governance has also helped farmers in the district of Dharashiv grow more fruiting trees, such as dragonfruit, guava and mango. “In Dharashiv most farmers grow soybean but now more and more are also growing these fruiting trees which require less water,” Ravindra Mane, district superintendent agriculture officer told IndiaSpend.

In Bori village, Jadhav added that they have also nearly stopped boring wells for groundwater extraction.

Aquifer management: A common resolve to save a common resource

According to Jadhav, Bori village has 85 wells of which 45 are bore wells. “However in the last five years, only two-three bore wells have been dug. This is because, as a community, we now know that over-extraction of groundwater will affect the common aquifer underground which is the source of groundwater for many villages,” he said. An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing rock. Aquifer management, explained through a film, model and talks, is a crucial component of WSI, launched as a pilot project in Jalna, now extended to the Ahmednagar district.

In Jalna, community members of villages like that of Jadhav’s were made aware that 14 villages shared a common aquifer underground--which means that over-extraction of water by even one village can affect the groundwater level for all the other villages. “Some villages have many bore wells which is leading to the groundwater level going down. Groundwater is a common resource which we all share so it is our responsibility not to exploit it,” he added.

The Maharashtra Groundwater 2009 Act talks about water management at the aquifer level to be implemented in notified areas rather than along administrative boundaries. It also suggests that people from villages that share a common aquifer be brought together and a Watershed Water Resource Committee be formed. The Water Stewardship Initiative works on this principle, “and other policies which highlight water management at the aquifer level”, said Kale.

Umesh Chandra Sarangi, former chairman of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development who also served as agricultural advisor to former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, said that awareness about water governance, particularly for a state like Maharashtra where 80% agricultural area is rain-fed, is crucial.

In the aspirational district of Dharashiv for example, Mane said that 82% agricultural land is rain-fed. “Water governance is therefore very crucial especially because climatic conditions are increasingly becoming erratic. Dharashiv gets an average rainfall of 603 mm, but last year we received only 373 mm. In 2022, there was continuous rain from June to August; last year monsoons began in the beginning of July, and this year we have already received 218 mm rainfall in June which is much higher than the average of 196 mm for the month,” he said. Increase in rain during harvest of soybean in September-October has also become detrimental for the crop.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, rain-fed agriculture accounts for 51% of the net sown area in India, and accounts for 40% of food production. “This dependency may go down by 5% in the next 10 years but will remain,” Sarangi told IndiaSpend. In Dharashiv, Mane said that desilting of water storage tanks for water harvesting has proved beneficial for the community.

Water budgeting and water governance is also important so that people are aware how much rainwater recharges the groundwater table, and how much can be drawn in a sustainable manner. “There are 1.6-1.7 million irrigation wells in Maharashtra but many are drying up because water drawn is more than recharge,” Sarangi added.

Maharashtra, he went on to say, is sitting on basaltic rock which is a poor aquifer and water movement is slow. “So if there are so many wells, not all of them can be fully recharged. Aquifer management is therefore an important component in water governance. The government should provide funds for watershed development. At the same time, we need a large number of people, NGOs getting involved in this process,” Sarangi added.

Water stewardship also has the potential to alleviate the increasing privatisation of water for drinking and other domestic purposes. For instance, the water management committee of Kolegaon, of which Gavande is a part, was surprised when the first assessment of their village’s water health status emerged as ‘ill’. The village did not have a severe drinking water scarcity. However, the community realised that there was high dependency on private water tankers during the dry summer months. The community decided to repair defunct water harvesting structures, make some new ones, identified farmers for water-saving practices, etc. as part of their water harvesting plan. In 2016, the amount of water harvested was 102.6 million litre; in 2018, it was 143.1 million litre, and in 2021, it was 356.3 million litre.

The good news is that wherever the idea is introduced, water stewardship is adopted by communities. There are many government programmes around water harvesting and rejuvenating groundwater as well, including the introduction of climate-resilient agricultural practices by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. The challenge however, is to keep up with the fast changing climatic conditions, increasing heatwaves and concurrent increase in demand for water.

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