Conserving groundwater: Role of women crucial in bringing about significant change 

Women who have no decision-making role in building wells, bear the brunt of the ensuing water crisis

By KAS Mani
Published: Monday 30 August 2021
Conserving groundwater: Women's activism crucial in bringing significant change 
Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Have we ever wondered why images of women are used in awareness posters on India’s water crisis or scultures of women and goddesses adorn stepwells? 

Every time a small farmer invests in irrigation well, it adds variety to our food basket. Around 70 per cent of food production is done with the help of irrigation wells. This information remains in fine print so that profits from large irrigation projects never get questioned.

India is entirely dependent on groundwater and is pumping out the lion’s share of the global volume, through step wells in ancient times to large-volume open wells today. 

The tens of millions of wells dotting India’s countryside have been constructed by the investment of small farmers over the last five decades. The central government spends hundreds of millions on irrigation projects but groundwater wells are a fraction of the same but twice as beneficial. 

Unlike other parts of the world, construction of irrigation wells does not require any clearance and no records are maintained of abandoned wells (until a child falls in it and gets trapped).

Several hundred wells are constructed in India every day and even more are abandoned when they run dry. The number of orphaned wells, drinking water shortage, indebtedness, out migration and farmer suicides can help gauge the groundwater crisis facing the country

Governments feign ignorance and remain in complete denial of the crisis, claiming they have no role in creating it. 

Women bear the brunt

Women, who have no decision-making role in investments on such wells, are forced by authorities to take over the liabilities. Thus, they are the first respondents to the crisis and are responsible for repayment, overcoming drinking water shortages, finding alternative livelihoods and running the farm and family. 

Women form the bulk of the farm labour force in irrigated agriculture. Yet, despite their central role, right to land, natural resource, access to banks and role in decision-making, they do not have the required legal support to fight this injustice.

The contribution of groundwater to national gross domestic product is never measured, which is a shame as this belittle’s the contributions of all those small and marginalised and the worst affected who have built the food buffer.

‘Innovation’ on groundwater management, specifically by women, refutes the notion of need for more water and high-risk exposure. Instead, the alternative approach takes inspiration from nature in search of better scales of economy, efficiency, environment and sustainability.

Read more: Irrigation does more than deplete groundwater, it changes climate too

Their preference is for crops with a lower water footprint, farming integrated with animals, easy market access for vegetables / flowers / fruits, penchant for use of green water (rainwater that collects in soil) over blue water and building soil zones into a reservoir of moisture.    

Stories emanating from different parts of the country have demonstrated the enterprise of women collectives on demand-side management. 

Benefits of women’s participation

Women’s judgement on crop plans, water demand and footprint of crops is different from that of men. The contrasting values of women and men were demonstrated during the Chipko movement. Women settled for nothing short of a complete ban on the felling of trees to help protect the environment, while their male counterparts conceded to controlled logging in exchange for livelihood. 

The scope of reducing irrigation is immense when Gram Panchayat-level governance seriously acknowledges recommendations by women.

Chipko movement galvanised women groups to speak out and confront the system / authorities on everyday concerns linked to social justice, education, health, crime against women and other local issues.

Any solution to groundwater distress is frequently derailed for lopsided technological solutions. Before policymakers succumb to such arguments, it is time for women collectives and non-profits to step in again and bring forth alternative models that are based on: 

  • regulated pumping  
  • enforcement of  local governance and
  • adoption of  sustainable cropping systems.

Women activism comes with no baggage of the past, making it easy to undo the historical wrongs. However, time is now to shift from flawed push-button groundwater pumping to regulated use, based on available reserves.

In a market economy where the gap between rich and poor is widening, injustice to women is a pass unless solutions have a business model. All the forces that played a patriarchial role stifled opportunities and restricted free thinking will come around and adopt the new design, albeit for profits.

A successful approach needs to be marketed as an enterprise involving:

  • Organising small farmers in villages into registered bodies, federated at the district  with equal participation of women responsible for managing the entire value chain
  • Technical tools and skills for women to monitor distress 
  • Displaying daily technical data at the village centre, bringing value to data through sales to government as well as commercial agencies
  • Creating barefoot groundwater experts with a diploma through year-long farmer water schools  
  • Conducting annual groundwater audits at different units scaled up to river basin
  • Capping groundwater pumping for each farm based on approved crop plan 
  • Imposing local governance through Gram Panchayat, with penalties for offenders
  • Linking crop outputs to markets through dedicated marketing channels

Women's greater participation will shift the goal-post from technology to governance, demand management, efficiency, improved crop choices and enhancing soil moisture. 

Ensuring success

The yardstick of success will be the volume safeguarded within the aquifer, instead of what is pumped out. Appropriate incentivisation on water savings will accrue to the collectives.

Economic growth through markets will be the incentive for large-scale adoption.

Strengthened local institutions, the emergence of social pressure groups and water savings audits will redefine groundwater restoration. 

The significant spinoff shall be reinventing grass-root democracy, strengthening local institutions and exercising local governance on natural resources. Capping well pumping and incentives for safeguarding water within the ground will extend water availability to future generations.  

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for getting around groundwater distress. The circumstances affecting each hydrogeological environment are varied. Several designs have been tested across  Andhra Pradesh, Gujarath, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. 

Replication of one or many success stories within an area is a possibility. However, these success stories need limited gestation time as skilled human resources are available with training manuals and elaborate supply chain linkages.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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