Community drive to revive wells in Sawna macrowatershed

Introduction of water harvesting and moisture conservation measures was necessary to rehabilitate the degraded lands in the Sawna macrowatershed area near Udaipur. A community drive to revive wells resulted in water security for longer periods and sustained increase in rural incomes.

Sawna macrowatershed, about 62 km southeast of Udaipur, reels under the impact of drought very often. “Teesre sukho, aathwe akaal’ (a drought in three years and famine every eight years) is a popular saying in the area. For generations, shallow wells have been an important source of water for irrigation and human needs in this drought-prone region. Two decades ago, even amidst drought, people depended on naturally occurring groundwater in the shallow wells. The communities had developed informal institutions called ‘kua pariwar’ to build, maintain and share water from these wells. However, both the wells as well as the institutions suffered with declining sense of community.

The Sawna macrowatershed area is in the hot semi-arid region in the Northern Plain and Central Highlands that includes the Aravalli Mountains. It has an annual average rainfall of around 653 mm and the normal rainy days are about 25 to 31 in a year, most of which takes place in the southwest monsoon season. The rainfall is low and erratic and droughts occur almost every three years. The annual potential evapotranspiration (PET) is 1380 mm. The length of growing period ranges from 90 to 135 days in a year. This area is also expected to witness climate fluctuations and the people here have seen the troubles, that recurring droughts interspersed by extreme rainfall, can bring.

Agriculture in the catchment area is mostly rainfed and land in the hill slopes as well as valleys is unable to produce enough, owing to poor soil depth. Maize, urad, chavla, wheat, gram and mustard are the major crops in the area. Single cropping practice as well as mixed one i.e. maize and redgram, is also common in the area.

As per a study (unpublished) by SPWD, maize is grown in the monsoon season, and can therefore be grown without irrigation. Wheat is grown in the winter and requires 6 to 7 irrigations, but is still preferred to other less water demanding crops such as mustard, which requires only 4 irrigations. Both wheat and maize are used predominantly for home consumption, with 60 per cent of maize producers and 61 per cent of wheat producers using their produce exclusively for home consumption. Other common crops include mustard for the winter season and guar for the monsoon season. An average of 0.35 bighas (one bigha equals to 2500 sq.m) of mustard is grown per farmer, and the oil obtained is used for home consumption and sold. Guar is grown both for human and animal consumption, and is cultivated on 0.65 bighas on an average. Land not used for agriculture directly is often used to grow dry grasses as animal fodder.

Green gram is generally cultivated during zaid season and only few farmers having sufficient water in their wells to go for the third crop. Nowadays, the farmers have started growing vegetables on small patches of lands in rabi season for which, water is fetched either from the wells or canals. The dangi community, in particular, is into vegetable cultivation.

According to the SPWD study “even though 81 per cent of the people have access to irrigation facilities, only 6 per cent of the land is irrigated … mostly due to the low water level in wells. The heavy use of groundwater in the area and semiarid condition means that many of the wells are dry for large periods of the year.” People have access to irrigation water for five and a half months a year. The limited groundwater is exacerbated by the slope of land in the catchment area.

An alternative to agriculture is goat rearing, which the Meena Rawat tribals do for a living. However, the rapid shrinking of grazing lands has made it difficult for them to sustain large herds. The income from agriculture and goat rearing added up to less than Rs 15000 per year and was no longer sufficient to feed their families. Most households were compelled to depend on wage employment for survival. There was no regular work in agriculture and households struggled to make both ends meet. Most of the people here migrated to Udaipur or various places in Gujarat for wage employment.

Revival of wells

By constructing lining to the well, half hectare of land was capable of generating additional 6 quintals of harvest.

The wells of most people were in a pathetic condition. Because of the inflow of mud during rains, the well did not have enough water for irrigation. In 2008, the locals began a community drive to revive the wells, with help from Udaipur based NGOs, Prayatna Samiti and Wells for India. While designing the project, it was observed that lack of lifting devices around wells was leading to huge time and energy losses.

The loss of water due to absorption and evaporation was also a prime concern. The absence of a boundary wall around the well rendered it unsafe for children and animals. So, women and children were tasked with fetching water from 3 kilometres away when the well dried up in the summer. The situation only worsened during drought.

In 2008, the locals began a community drive to revive the wells, as a part of the project. The work necessitated smallscale investments of Rs 15000-20000 in well lining, which the locals fell short of. The project planned to undertake resource development around wells as many families in the project area relate to each other around this. Developing effective sharing systems among the members could help sustain the livelihoods. Construction of well lining and provision of pipeline in this direction was expected to protect the water for longer use and enable farmers to irrigate the land without extra labour and provide them the time to irrigate wasteland.

The project took up some positive steps to improve the productivity of land and water around the wells by a three pronged approach (i) enhancing water availability (ii) optimising water productivity and (iii) reducing water wastage. Different techniques were planned to reduce slope and enhance moisture retention period and water harvesting.

Field investigation and surveys by a technical agency called Atlas Hydro Geo Tech Consultants, Udaipur, revealed that the village had highly weathered and fractured formations suitable for groundwater recharge. In general, the depth to water levels in the village ranged from between 2 to 20 m, which was considered good. The community came up with the idea of arresting the rainwater so that it percolated into the ground.

To begin with, they constructed bunds, terraces or loose stone check dams on the upper slopes mostly on common pasturelands. These inexpensive, temporary structures have been able to arrest the flow of water and allow it to go underground. This has helped in increasing the reliability and productivity of crops grown in private lands.

Construction of well lining and provision of pipeline improved the water yields from the wells and water was available for longer periods of time. Nowadays, the farmers have started growing vegetables on small patches of lands in rabi season for which water is fetched either from the wells or nallahs. Farmers were able to time their agricultural operations better and a greater access was available for irrigation. The need for engaging outside labour lessened and time was available for irrigating fallow lands.

Well lining has enabled 31 families in Sawna macrowatershed to irrigate the fallow lands and collect extra harvest by practicing improved varieties of crops. On an average, 0.5 hectare of land per family, is capable of generating 6 quintals of surplus harvest, which is sold in the market at Rs 12 per kg. Thus, the livelihoods of these families have been secured to an extent. Water management through the provision of pipelines to 106 families has motivated farmers to irrigate the fallow lands. A farmer can on an average save 7,000 litres of water a day by applying efficient management practices like providing pipelines.

In many cases, the support for well lining was given under the project and some work was done by the individual beneficiary to rehabilitate the well on their own. This helped reclaim existing wells which were otherwise about to be abandoned.

It was hard to recreate the old institution of kua pariwar. However, the locals had a plan. They knew that formulating clear understanding on resource management could not be rushed along. So, the work was not just limited to developing assets like wells. It also included creating a savings group that was linked to the banking mechanism. According to the Wells for India Country Director, Mr. Om Sharma, “It is easier to develop these institutions as they are rooted in the improvement of financial access”.

Some concerns

While the work on well revival is good in terms of both ecological restoration and improving livelihoods, it has led to certain externalities. Groundwater exploitation in the Sawna macrowatershed has increased leaps and bounds owing to technological development in groundwater abstraction methods and provision of subsidized or free electricity. The increase in groundwater withdrawal has led to the development of water stress in the near surface shallow aquifer that supports a significant component of groundwater draft for irrigation as well as domestic requirements. The resource is getting increasingly privatized by a few.

An area of concern for a programme like this is that it enables the communities to perceive the groundwater resources that were not perceived clearly, while creating new assets. Very often this leads to further borewell development in the areas which had shallow wells earlier. In the project villages such as Alukheda in Sawna macrowatershed it was observed that the spate of borewell development is creating a groundwater crisis and the shallow wells deepened under the programme are faced with lowering of groundwater tables.

With well revival there is need to have controls on water demand in areas to prevent intensive use of groundwater for agriculture. This can be done through introduction of water saving technologies such as drip irrigation. Else, the impact of the work will be quickly annulled by increased exploitation of groundwater.

Mohan Dangi and Amita Bhaduri

Mohan Dangi
Secretary, Prayatna Samiti, 26-27 Mahavir Colony, Bedla Road, Badgaon, Udaipur – 313011, Rajasthan

Amita Bhaduri
Programme Director, Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development 14 A, Vishnu Digamber marg, New Delhi – 110002

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