Ground realities

The importance of groundwater as a source of irrigation and the role of traditional methods in conserving it should be given due credit

Published: Sunday 31 August 1997

-- the pre-eminent position attained by groundwater in the field of irrigation in India must be duly recognised. It accounts for well above 50 per cent of the total irrigated area. Water management policies should aim at bolstering and upgrading the Central Groundwater Board and its research programmes. The state groundwater boards should also be empowered.

The track record of the minor surface-water sector has been worse than the lack of productivity exhibited by the major and medium sectors. According to land-use statistics published by the ministry of agriculture, the net area served by this sector registered a decline from 8.2 million ha (mha) in 1961 to 6.8 mha in 1989. The downslide occurred despite the fact that around Rs 6,000 crore was invested in the sector during the intervening 28 years. The main cause for this debacle is the premature siltation of reservoirs, which, being much smaller than those of the major and medium sectors, go out of operation much faster. In this context, I would like to propose a change in the very nomenclature in use. Irrigation schemes should not, as at present, be classified as either 'major' or 'minor' and groundwater should not be included in the latter category. It would be much more appropriate to describe projects as either 'surface' or 'ground' water and the former could be further classified as major, medium and minor. This will enable groundwater statistics to be shown separately and make it possible to highlight the failure of the minor surface irrigation sector.

It is time we rework our strategies and consider the options offered by traditional methods of storing water in the form of soil moisture and groundwater, rather than on the surface. Such an approach is both cheaper and does not employ highly sophisticated technology. It has been a great success wherever it has been adopted. Basically, the run-off of rain water to the sea is reduced by creating biotic as well as engineering impediments to the free flow of water along slopes. By doing so, the rate at which water percolates into the soil gets boosted. The restoration of vegetation in denuded areas and the construction of innumerable small weirs, check-dams and small tanks across drainage lines in micro-catchments and the treatment of erosion-prone agricultural lands for the conservation of both soil and water constitute the key elements of this alternative strategy. Such an approach should be seriously considered because around 150 mha suffers from soil erosion.

Sound water management also involves the optimal use of water and for this the irrigation potential generated by the major and medium sector ought to be utilised to the fullest extent. The total additional potential created between 1985 and 1990 was 20.2 mha of which only 15.8 mha had been utilised by 1990. Thus, there lay an unutilised potential of 4.4 mha. However, other figures suggest that the potential actually utilised by 1990 was not more than 11.2 mha, which means that the unutilised gap was as big as nine mha. It is obviously necessary that water has been impounded at such high cost to the community, which should be actually used as a matter of high priority.

The optimal use of water also demands that it be utilised economically. It has been observed that farmers who depend on groundwater are careful in its use as they have to pay for every litre they pump up. In contrast, canal water is used much more generously not only because the charges for using the same are ridiculously low but also because the farmers are not sure as to when the next supply will materialise.

Some useful lessons in this regard are rendered by Israel, where water is meticulously metred and priced realistically. Water in Israel is recycled and attractive incentives are offered for its sparing use and equally powerful disincentives are imposed for wasting it. In the case of India too, a comprehensive water policy must be developed to ensure that the resource does not damage non-renewable resources like land.

B B Vohra is a member of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, a New Delhi-based NGO.

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