In the 1990s, non-profits and farmers themselves built check dams; today, the government does it, without proper research or site selection
Fifty-four-year old Dineshbhai Babariya has just harvested a 20 quintal cotton crop, his second harvest in the last one year in his four bigha (1.6 acre) farm in the Jasapar village of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region.
August 2018 was the last time the village in Rajkot district received around 228 mm (nine inch) rainfall and thanks to a check dam constructed under a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) funded project in 2017, Babariya could cultivate his crop even in April.
Small water conservation structures like check dams essentially catch rain water and keep it at the source itself. A check dam prevents water from flowing away during the monsoon and it can be pumped to irrigate fields. A drainage line makes way for more areas where water can be stored. The process also re-charges groundwater, which can then be utilised through hand pumps and wells.
“If rainfall is not adequate, water in check dam lasts through the next monsoon and helps me get through at least one cropping season,” says Babariya.
Except rainfall, there is no other irrigation source for the 400 farmers of this village, which is located upstream of the dam built on the Fofal river. Rainwater from here flows to the river and benefits the downstream villages. The villages’ drinking water needs are met from the dam and the underground tanks people have made in their homes to store water.
Water conservation structures like check dams, percolation tanks and farm ponds have played a key role in turning around Saurashtra’s drought conditions by increasing groundwater levels and adding to the agricultural growth in the area.
Babariya says though he doesn’t expect any profit on his cash crop, he is assured and relieved that he won’t incur any loss either in the drought-like conditions of Saurashtra.
However, not all farmers in Saurashtra are as reassured.
Check dams gained momentum in the early 1990s through community-led initiatives in the Saurashtra region and the government provided help with its watershed scheme, through which the state would bear 60 per cent of the cost of building a check dam and farmers as well as non-profits would pitch in the rest.
But the agricultural growth story of Saurashtra has suffered a serious setback in recent times with little attention being paid to water conservation projects and the government taking these away from the control of non-profits or communities that used to build structures under the watershed scheme and instead constructing such structures on its own through contractors.
In Nana Madhad village in Surendranagar district, some 110 km from Rajkot, 40-year-old Janakbhai Gadhvi says that this is the third consecutive year in which he has incurred a loss on his cotton crop.
On his four acre (10 bigha) land, he suffered a loss of Rs 32,000 this time. “It’s like the more I will cultivate, the more I will be in loss,” he says.
Only 40 per cent of the total agricultural land of 1,200 acres in this village is irrigated. The village received 101 mm rainfall in the last monsoon season and does not boast of any water conservation measures, either government or community-driven. Villagers recount one or two check dams made by the government in the last few years under the Sujalam Suphalam scheme for water-deficit areas but they failed as they weren’t maintained well.
There is a single pond for around 100 farmers of this village, which is dry at the moment, awaiting the monsoon.
Karsanbhai Gadhvi, working with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the region, says that the check dam model can be replicated here but the community has no government support.
“Drought cannot be avoided but it can be better managed,” he says.
Under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) work status report, the Gujarat Watershed Management Agency’s website shows zero structures built or planned for future under the watershed scheme in Madhad village by the government.
In the earlier community-driven initiative, the non-governmental organisations built such structures after consulting with farmers and taking them into confidence.
Explaining this, Limeshbhai Patel of Vruksha Premseva Trust, pioneers in water conservation measures in the region, says in the earlier model, the structures were constructed by the farmers themselves.
“In addition to the government grants, we used to get under IWMP, we also used to take a 33 per cent contribution from the farmers in the form of money, cement or other building material to give them a sense of belonging so that after constructing it, they have an incentive to maintain it. Those grant distributions to NGOs have stopped since 2004-05 and since then, the check dams are being built by the government itself through private contractors,” he said.
This, the farmers point out, is the main problem as the pace of building these structures which had picked up in 1990s, has gone down, and they are being built without proper research or site selection and requirement.
“The farmer knows his farm so he must be consulted on where maximum water will stop and which is the best place to build a check dam," says Girdharbhai, a farmer in Boriya village in Jamkandorna taluka.
The IWMP work status shows “zero” watershed development projects here by government though farmers say "one or two" might have come up but have not done very well.
On the contrary, between 1999-2005, the Vruksha Premseva Trust built 3,000 such check dams in 42 villages of Saurashtra, mainly in the Rajkot district, which are still running and being maintained by farmers. After the policy change, the trust has been able to build just five dams from funding by the UNDP.
The way ahead
The monsoon has not been good in the last three years in Gujarat but the farmers in areas where water conservation measures have been taken, are less worried as whenever the rain comes, they can tap it.
An earlier report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) had said Gujarat was the only state in the country where groundwater balance had turned positive and this was primarily due to rising groundwater levels in Saurashtra.
In 2001, groundwater levels had recorded a decline across 27,600 sq km in Gujarat. The decline was limited to just 4,400 sq km in 2006. The trend reversal was mostly reported in Saurashtra and parts of northern Gujarat that account for a large chunk of water conservation works.
However, a 2016 report from CGWB, highlighting the alarming decline in groundwater levels of the Central Gujarat plains and in Saurashtra, said in terms of decadal average of January 2006-2016 in the Saurashtra region, about 73 per cent of wells observed a fall in water level and 33 per cent wells showed a rise in the range of only 0 to 2 metres. A fall of more than 4 metres in water levels was experienced in 24 per cent of the total wells in the region as isolated patches.
“Every farm can have its own check dam if the government takes this up seriously. That is a simple solution to conserve water in rain-deficit areas. Catch every raindrop you get. Keep the water at the source itself,” says Patel.
This is the first of a two-part series on drought in Saurashtra
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