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How Community participation can save groundwater depletion in India: The Telugu States’ Experience

As a groundwater economy, India is the highest groundwater-using country in the world, extracting 25% of all groundwater available on planet Earth. At a moment when groundwater levels are fast depleting,  nearly 2.5 billion people across the world depend on it for survival. 
 
The groundwater revolution in India has largely contributed to relieving poverty. However, groundwater management has followed a pattern seen in most developing countries — rapid development followed by over exploitation of the country’s diverse aquifers. This accompanied by a myopic view of groundwater availability has further aggravated the crisis.
 
With climate change being an imminent threat, increasing water demand to meet future agriculture production, decreasing crop output, depleting natural resources and decrease in aquifer recharge will impact developing countries significantly. 
 
According to the UNFCCC, Africa and South Asia will be most vulnerable to climate change, causing massive food insecurity. “The poor existing levels of food security in Africa and the low level of economic development conspire with high levels of climatic risk, whereas large populations, heavily exploited natural resources and climate risk threaten South Asia’s poor,” reveals a Food and Agriculture Organisation Report
 
Moreover, scientists have estimated that northern India, which includes the nation’s breadbasket of wheat and rice production, is witnessing a rapid depletion in groundwater at a rate of 54 billion cubic meters per year. Such exploitation of groundwater resources is threatening the livelihoods of rural as well as urban population. As a result, food insecurity due to climate variability has become a major risk. 
 
Challenges in monitoring water supply
 
Population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and increases in production and consumption have all generated ever-increasing demands for freshwater resources.  By 2030, the world is projected to face a 40% global water deficit under the business-as-usual climate scenario.
 
In terms of human well-being, much of the focus has been on monitoring access to safe water supply and sanitation services, states the UN World Water Development Report 2015. “Most countries do not report on the quantity available, possible security threats such as risks on the journey to fetch water, frequency and duration of access or supply, and water’s potentially prohibitive cost,” it adds. 
 
Enhancing water security in Telugu States
 
To create resilience and enhance water security and sustainability, it is important to understand the impact of climate change on available water resources, on agriculture systems, land use and investments made along with related policies. 
 
There is a dire need for practical improvements as there is no simple blueprint for action due to the inherent variability of groundwater systems and diverse socio-economic situations. While macro-policy interventions are one part of the solution, large-scale community participation plays a major role in using water sustainably. 
 
As part of participatory groundwater management, APWELL project (in 7 drought-prone districts of Mahbubnagar, Kurnool, Anantapur, Prakasam, Nalgonda, Chittoor and Kadapa in United Andhra Pradesh) ensured that farmers owned and maintained the groundwater borewell irrigation systems. They formed water user groups (WUGs) for construction, operation, and maintenance of the borewell systems. Women WUG members formed self-help groups (SHGs) for credit activities and gradually initiated land and water-based agricultural and other income-generating activities. 
 
Additionally, to motivate communities to regulate groundwater usage, the concept of Participatory Hydrological Monitoring (PHM) under the APWELL Project was introduced in communities. It later evolved into a solution to regulate water usage annually.
 
For instance: In Nalgonda district, a sub-project looked at the groundwater potential village-wise and suggested means for local water resource management. Experts say that PHM approaches the problem of groundwater depletion from the demand side, while legislation is supposed to manage the supply side. 
 
An offshoot of the APWELL project was the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems (APFaMGS). This included analysis of 900 farmers; remote-sensing of cropping patterns, and water-pumping behaviour of farmers. Under this, water use was brought in line with groundwater availability, which includes reduction in groundwater abstractions in the years when the recharge is low. 
 
Similarly, AP Community-based Tank Management Project helped train groundwater users to collect hydrological data necessary for crop-water budgeting, foster social regulations, promote social equity and improve water use efficiency and productivity.
 
Other successful community-based groundwater management experiences from different states like Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan must also be studied. These best practices indicate that collaboration, combination of ideas and community partnerships hold the key to successful groundwater management in India. 
 
The fact is there is enough water to meet the world’s growing needs, but not without dramatically changing the way water is used, managed and shared. Hence, a shift from source-based approach to a resource-based one is required for successful groundwater management in India.

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