Meandering waterways the interconnectedness of people’s action on water availability
“Everything is connected”. I watched a docuseries named “Connected: the hidden science of everything” where a journalist named Latif Nasser investigates how we and the universe are connected. After watching this docuseries, I thought about it and tried gathering pieces of evidence regarding this connectivity around me over the past one year. I found plenty of incidents that have connections to one another. I would like to highlight one connectivity evidence from my field visit last year during one of my research projects.
The village we visited had faced water scarcity in the past despite being in a good rainfall zone. But over the last decade, few farmer groups have lifted water from the river situated 4 kilometres from the village, which inadvertently improved agriculture for those who invested in the pipeline. But without doing anything, the neighbouring farmers also benefited from this. But how? Let me take you there.
The story of Mogras
Mogras, is a small village in Akole block of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra is made up of 250 households. The total geographical area of the village is 2206.65 acres out of which 575 acres are under forest area and around 1500 acres is cultivable land.
Earlier, agriculture was the only source of livelihood for the people. However, over the past decade or two, farmers have invested a lot in dairy farming and this was made possible through loans from banks and private money lenders. Each household in the village has at least 2 to 3 cows.
Akole comes under the agro-ecological zone transition II, which receives an average of 608mm rainfall. In recent years the block received more than average rainfall, 1264 millimetre in 2019 and 947 in 2020. There was an abundance of water in the Kharif season.
Previously, most of the farmers cultivated crops like rice and pearl millet in the Kharif season while farmers who had wells were the only ones who could cultivate crops like chickpeas in rabi. No crops were cultivated in the summer months due to acute water shortage. The water shortage was so severe at times that people faced problems accessing drinking water, let alone water for other purposes.
Farmers come together to plan their water use
To tackle the drinking water issue, in 1990 the gram panchayat and government dug one well along the banks of Mula river and lifted water from there to the village water distribution tank. The river is 4 kilometres from the village.
Lifting of water from the river to the village brought immediate respite to the drinking water situation. However, water for irrigation still remained a huge hurdle to tackle for the farmers. To deal with the water shortages for agriculture, government and forest departments constructed a few watershed structures like check-dams, percolation tanks, Nala bunds, and CCTs on the forest land. Ultimately, these structures paid off and helped in increasing the availability of groundwater. As a result, farmers constructed more wells and borewells and started to take up water-intensive and cash crops like tomato, maize, cabbage, soybean and sugarcane.
The change in the cropping pattern, intensive water usage and climate fluctuations resulted in the dwindling of the water table. Farmers began experiencing water shortage again. To overcome this, in 2012-13, a group of farmers came together and decided to lift water from the river by sharing expenses. The whole process of digging the pipeline, installing motors and installing electricity connections cost them around Rs. 17-18 lakhs. After seeing the success of these farmers’, 15 other groups installed similar pipelines.
Farmers came together and decided the terms and conditions for water use. This was based on who contributed more money, the greater the money the greater the time allotted to fetch water. When water was not required for irrigation then those farmers who had farm ponds preferred to store water to use it anytime in the future irrespective of the scheduled turn for using the water.
While those farmers who had access to the pipelines were reaping its benefits certain inadvertent benefits were also observed in the region. Mogras has a shallow aquifer and people in the village have tried digging borewells and despite reaching depths of 500 feet they have been unable to attain water. Whereas, farmers who have wells to a depth of 40-50 feet have touched the water table. It is, for this reason, there is a greater dependence on pipelines from the river. The water brought in by the 15 pipelines has indirectly helped restore the groundwater level quicker due to the quantity of water inflow in the village, and reduced extraction of groundwater.
Considering the days of irrigation, two pumps of 15 Hp with the minimum discharge of 500 litres per minute, for 16 hours a day (excluding the load shedding of 8 hours), 15 pipelines, and the total inflow of water a village in one day come around 4,80,000 litres. And as the farmers are sharing the water, there is a possibility of continuous irrigation for the entire rabi and summer season, which is ultimately a massive inflow of water in the village. What was observed is that when these pipeline-owned farmers are irrigating their crops, their neighbouring farmers have experienced the rise in well water level.
Managing water demand and equitable distribution of water needed to improve outcomes
When there were water availability issues in the village, watershed interventions helped increase the surface and groundwater. But increased water availability also increased the water usage, reduced sowing of indigenous variety crops and increased hybrid crops cultivation. Agricultural production increased as hybrid variety crops generally are of higher productivity. An increase in the level of income increased individuals’ spending capacity in water and agriculture infrastructure. The water brought in through the pipeline not only irrigated the land, but it also helped other farmers irrigate their lands as well. Thus every component was interconnected with the next, operating as an entire system leading to better outcomes.
The success of lift irrigation for the farmers in Mogras, cannot be considered as a long term solution to the water problem. This is because only a few people can make such sizable investments pushing the marginal and small farmers into further poverty. Moreover, there are no checks on the amount of water extracted. Water use and water sharing needs to be done in an equitable manner if we are to achieve sustainable resource management. However, watershed management is the only natural way to increase water availability with a small investment and minimal maintenance cost that everyone can afford and benefit from.