When Cloudless Skies Impact India’s Water Security

It is the first week of June – the season of hope for Indian farmers who exist in the grey zone between optimism and despair. Hope, for the rains may arrive soon. In this habitation of Harsule, located in Sinnar taluka in the Nashik district of Maharashtra, small parcels of land are ready to be sowed. But last year, the monsoons played truant , and memories of that betrayal still linger. This year again, if there are clouds anywhere, they can be seen only in the eyes of the farmers.

In Harsule village, water scarcity takes material shape in the form of containers of different scales. 4000 tankers are plying the dusty roads of the taluka since February 2019, ever since Nashik declared a drought. Rural households are spending over Rs 20,000 rupees in a year for water. In Ambajogai taluka in the Beed district, people are receiving water just once in eight days. The story repeats itself across large parts of rural Maharashtra, which is experiences the worst drought-like conditions every year.

The Maharashtra Government recognises this crisis, and has responded with various schemes such as the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan that aims to make 5,000 villages drought-free in 5 years by desilting existing water harvesting structures to increase their storage capacity. This includes deepening and widening streams, constructing cement and earthen stop dams and farm ponds. While this would make more water available in the short term, it would require a repeat of the same exercise every year, unless it is complemented with tackling soil erosion to avoid future siltation, and revegetating degraded catchments and watersheds. The deepening and widening streams and nullahs impact the capacity of sediments and porous material to retain water. Stream beds are critical to harbor moisture loving species and help them tide over dry months. Desilting needs to take into consideration such critical hydro-ecological aspects.

Long term water security in Maharashtra requires a combination of measures implemented at the watershed level, which address land-use change, land degradation and deforestation, over-extraction of groundwater, unsustainable farming practices including choice of crops being cultivated in water-stressed regions, imbalanced water allocations, and gaps in institutional capacity.

Demonstrating Proactive Watershed Management for Water Security

The lifeline of Sinnar taluka in Nashik district is the 70 km Devnadi river, which is bone dry, except at its source upstream. A narrow fracture in the basalt holds a sliver of water in the form of a spring. It does not flow, but it is in these subterranean fissures or aquifers, that Maharashtra seeks resuscitation. The 560 sq km Devnadi basin receives an average rainfall of 400-600mm in a good monsoon year but the rainfall variability within this small basin is quite high. Traditionally, people cultivated crops such as jowar, bajra, Bengal gram, pigeon pea which were well suited to the local climate. However, water availability through irrigation canal and sinking of water pump to access groundwater led to a boom of horticulture and sugarcane in the basin. This considerably altered the water-crop matrix. Today, Devnadi is both rainfall and groundwater deficient.

The Nature Conservancy is working to develop a model of water governance in this basin. We aim to find solutions that support human well-being as well as healthy ecosystems. To this end, we are studying the geology and ecology of the region, as well as the status of aquifers, current water availability, and recharge capacity through appropriate structures. We are undertaking participatory mapping and monitoring of groundwater aquifers. We will translate this geo-hydrological knowledge to guide the communities living in the area to make informed decisions about water use, livelihood, and choice of crops being cultivated, based on water availability. By empowering communities with such information, we hope to build their resilience to drought-like conditions.

Maharashtra needs policies that adapt to changing climate regimes and rainfall patterns as they play out. Some dry parts of the state will almost always experience drought, due to their natural climatic conditions. Our policies must focus on proactively planning for such conditions, and not only treating drought as a disaster to provide aid.

The time has come to take groundwater as seriously as surface water in managing Maharashtra’s deepening water crisis. Hope floats, not just in the monsoons clouds that one expects to see in the horizon soon, but also in the small sliver of water in subterranean fissures.

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