Stories in India

Conserving Watersheds To Ensure Water Security In Drought Prone Areas

By Sushmita Mandal and Shuchi Vora

Conserving watersheds is critical to long-term water security across a country that often faces extended droughts.
Water security Conserving watersheds is critical to long-term water security across a country that often faces extended droughts. © Yuva Mitra

Standing atop a hill in the Sahyadri mountain range in Maharashtra, we look down at a drought affected landscape—the Devnadi basin in the Sinnar Taluka of Nashik district. Here, water—the life-giving elixir—makes its importance felt through its absence. Sinnar is currently hit by a drought, its third in five years. It is the worst affected block in Nashik and farmers have had to depend on water tankers for their fields, livestock and drinking water needs.

We are here on a field trip to understand how we can add value to the efforts of the government, villagers and regional NGOs in ensuring long term water security. The downstream landscape is dotted with wilting agriculture fields and dried up check-dams built by farmers to store water from the river. We hear farmers’ stories of wild boars, antelopes and black bucks destroying their fields, as their upstream habitats have shrunk due to human interference and impacts of recurring droughts.

Maharashtra represents the story of close to 70% of India’s geography that is classified as “dry zones” and receives nearly 80% of its annual water supply in a short span of two to three months. With lack of adaptive water management policies to complement the short rainy season, these regions are prone to drought which adversely impact humans, nature and biodiversity.

The Maharashtra government has launched several initiatives to “drought-proof” the state, but they mainly focus on increasing groundwater recharge and storing surface water to improve agricultural productivity. We can see canal structures for irrigation and contour trenches in many places on individual farmlands as we drive through this landscape. While these initiatives satisfy water needs in the short term, they have not built the capacity of people and nature to practice adaptive water management, which would improve people’s capacity to cope with droughts that have become a recurrent phenomenon in these times.

Long term water security for people and nature will require proactively improving and conserving the watershed as a whole and building the resilience of the people. This would require science-led solutions that address land degradation, deforestation, land-use planning, over-extraction of groundwater, unsustainable agricultural practices and gaps in institutional capacity.

We are partnering with an Indian NGO Yuva Mitra to develop and implement a comprehensive, science-based drought resilience plan for the Devnadi watershed in Maharashtra. This 70-km river flows through a human-dominated, agricultural landscape and forms the main water source for 66 villages. Villagers tell us that the Devnadi they remember from their childhood was perennial, but today, flows intermittently only when it is a good rainfall year. Devnadi is a groundwater, spring-fed river and therefore improving groundwater will be key to building drought resilience in this region. We aim to scientifically map aquifers to understand groundwater flows and the potential ways to recharge them, thereby establishing linkages between groundwater and surface water. This will enable us to site watershed interventions that conserve critical ecosystems, manage water use sustainably and maximise benefits for people and the ecosystems.

In parallel, we aim to better understand the response of biodiversity and ecosystem to drought—an area that receives little attention but forms the basis of designing interventions to improve nature. We are conducting studies to establish baselines for biodiversity, types of habitats and ecosystem services found in this region. This will help us monitor changes in the ecosystem as a result of our interventions. This would also inform us about long term impacts of a ‘drying’ landscape—i.e. reduced rainfall, less number of rainy days, and reduced groundwater—and thereby possible changes in species association and adaptability occurring at an ecosystem level.

Finally, we will build the resilience of communities by working on the challenges they face in adapting to the “new normal” situation of frequent droughts. We aim to support villagers to draw up water security plans based on better understanding, and projection of, available water (as groundwater and surface water) versus water use. These plans would involve conserving and restoring watershed ecosystems as well as managing agricultural water demand through behaviour change. We will work towards setting up decision-support tools for drought risk management to bridge the gap between modellers who forecast  droughts, and farmers as end users.

Community participation and ownership will be key to sustain conservation efforts. Therefore, we aim to strengthen village-level institutions and involve communities in restoration activities on common lands, such as protecting forests and grasslands, identify and site groundwater recharge along with rainwater harvesting structures. We hope to co-produce new knowledge and build communities’ capacity to map, monitor and manage groundwater recharge through participatory approaches.

By showcasing that building drought resilience for people and nature is more effective in ensuring long term water security, we aim to inform drought policies in Maharashtra and in the country, for pro-active basin level planning that is scalable and guided by sound science to manage water resources sustainably.

As we leave the Devnadi basin, we carry with us the words of Kalsubai, holding her ten months old granddaughter and wishing for rain, “I hope my family is back together farming on our small patch of land here so we don’t have to migrate as labour to far flung parts in search of work to feed our children.” She reflects the fear of many other families living in this drought-affected landscape, who are at risk of losing livelihoods without water. We at TNC-India are committed to work with communities and in the ecosystem to secure life, livelihoods and nature.

This story has been co-authored by Sushmita Mandal, Programme Lead, Freshwater and Shuchi Vora, Applied Scientist, Freshwater, The Nature Conservancy India