Ramesh’s blooming cotton fields in the Beed district of Maharashtra stand out amid a landscape of cracked thirsty soil and wilting agricultural fields. Despite no rains for several days in the peak monsoon season of 2017, he harvested a healthy cotton yield – a rarity in a state that has been in the grips of debilitating drought for several consecutive years. Ramesh could achieve this feat because he participated in Maharashtra’s state-wide policy “Gaal Yukt Shivar” launched in 2017 to build drought resilience among farmers and ensure water security. The policy aims to desilt more than 34,000 traditional man-made water tanks across the state over 4 years to increase their water storage capacity and ensure water availability during the dry season. The policy rests strongly on active farmer participation and support from public and private sector organisations.
“India receives more than 80% of its annual water supply in the monsoon over a short span on just 2 – 3 months. In such a scenario, ensuring water security all year round requires efficient management of water resources. Maharashtra’s Gaal Yukt Shivar Policy is a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Aditya Sood, our Lead Freshwater Scientist. “It is also a win-win solution for farmers as the policy encourages them to apply the excavated silt from the water tank as fertiliser on their fields. This silt has high nutritional value, retains more water and is less susceptible to weed infestation. The combination of improvement in soil health and water availability in the tanks has measurably improved agricultural yield, while reducing the input costs for farmers who have participated in this effort.”
Currently, the policy has only been implemented in few pockets of the state and needs the support of private and public sector organisations to reach its full potential. To support the government’s efforts, we partnered with Watershed Organisation Trust and evaluated seven pilot desilting initiatives in Beed, Nanded and Jalna districts to quantify the impact of such activities on the local communities and the region. Based on this assessment, we created scientific guidelines for desilting these water tanks which have been adopted by the Maharashtra government to improve their policy. These guidelines will help implement this policy in a transparent and equitable manner, while also increasing benefits to farmers and encouraging conservation activities that benefit nature and biodiversity.
Using Conservation Science to Identify Best Interventions
Close to 70% of India is classified as dry land – arid, semi-arid and dry sub humid – which are prone to regular drought. These climatic conditions are further exacerbated due to mismanagement of water and land resources. Changes in land use and deforestation in the upper catchments of water sources, along with unsystematic and extensive groundwater extraction and unsustainable agriculture practices has resulted in several local water bodies drying up. Groundwater too has depleted beyond the range of borewells in the dry months. State Governments across the country invest hundreds of thousands of rupees in drought mitigation measures or managing the after effects of drought. These resources can be used more strategically if governments are informed about which drought resilience measures would provide the maximum benefits for local communities and the region.
“Creating and maintaining man-made water tanks is just one way of ensuring water availability during the dry season. We want to further support the Maharashtra government in building a holistic drought resilience strategy that is rooted in strong science. To this end, we plan to conduct a study on various water conservation efforts being implemented in different parts of Maharashtra and identify the most cost-effective interventions that will have the highest impact for improving water security, both for nature and people,” adds Aditya.
Called a Return-On-Investment analysis, this study will consider water conservation interventions such as compartment bunding, farm ponds, check dams, continuous or deep trenches, and groundwater recharge structures, which are being implemented by regional NGOs and private sector organisations in Beed, Nanded and Nashik districts. Further, the soil health also has a role to play in building drought resilience. Better soil has higher capacity to retain water and therefore requires less irrigation in farming. We will also conduct a study on different organic fertilizers used in farming practices to identify the ones that have the highest impact on improving soil health.
Linking Science to Policy By Demonstrating Success
Scientific research alone will not convince governments and other stakeholders on the potential of such holistic approaches. To bridge this gap between science and policy, we aim to develop and implement a drought resilience framework for a catchment in Nashik in Maharashtra. This framework will showcase how scientifically identified water conservation interventions can cost effectively reduce risks for people and improve water flows for the entire region, thereby also benefiting nature.