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Participatory water management requires the involvement of millions

By Mohan Dharia

Vanarai Bunds, erected at virtually no cost by using empty cement bags across nullahs and rivulets, have proved most effective in watershed management, writes Mohan Dharia. Around 36,000 such bunds have been constructed in Maharashtra by local communities since the monsoons of 2002

Villagers arranging sandbags to construct a Vanarai bund

The development target set by the UN Millennium Assembly and also by the recent Johannesburg Summit is to halve by 2015 the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, suffering from hunger or unable to reach or afford safe drinking water. It will not be possible to achieve these goals unless governments realise that water is fundamental to almost any kind of development and human activity and that it is not water that should be managed, but in fact the people who depend on and make decisions about freshwater. Water is not an issue for experts. Water is everybody's business.

If the wars of the future are indeed going to be fought over water, the conservation of every drop and its judicious use is essential and urgent. Several states in the country have been facing drought virtually every year. Though it appears to be a natural calamity, to a great extent drought is a man-made calamity.

Since Independence, our country has emphasised major irrigation projects and big dams to conserve water. After investing thousands of crores of rupees, hardly 32% of our land is perennially irrigated through various reservoirs. In spite of all efforts not even 70% of the lands in command areas have so far received irrigation facilities. Besides, over 20 million hectares of irrigated lands have become saline or waterlogged in several parts of the country. Even additional investments will only make it possible to perennially irrigate 40-45% of the total area through canal irrigation. Thus 55-60% of India will always be dependent on rains. Scientific micro-watershed development to conserve every drop of water, wherever and whenever it falls, and preventing soil erosion are the only solutions. Besides it may be possible to provide water for seasonal crops, horticulture, agro-forestry etc or to save kharif crops whenever rainfall is erratic. This approach must also be applied in all catchment areas of big dams to prevent soil erosion and save water reservoirs from further siltation.

It will never be possible to introduce watershed development programmes all over the country without the involvement of millions of people and without participatory watershed development with effective management. The recent guidelines of the Government of India have made it very clear that the watershed development programme will be a people's programme and not a government programme and that state governments will work only as facilitators to implement this programme.

Conserving every drop of water and its further management should be the responsibility of the local people. By and large a village or cluster of villages forms a watershed unit covering 400 to 700 hectares. The Gram Sabhas of these villages, according to Schedule 11 of the Indian Constitution, are responsible for watershed management. According to the 73rd Amendment and the 11th Schedule, 29 programmes including soil and water conservation and water management have been transferred to the Gram Sabha. Thus it is the constitutional responsibility of each Gram Sabha to implement this programme by involving the local people.

In view of the scarcity of water faced by various villages and drought conditions in several parts of the country, a massive programme to conserve water with low-cost technology is unavoidable. Especially when state governments don't have adequate funds, emphasis should be laid on low-cost technologies prevalent in the country for hundreds of years. Temporary bunds on nullahs, rivulets or small rivers erected by using empty cement bags, popularly known as Vanarai Bunds, have proved most effective. At minimum or virtually no cost, they have been yielding maximum results. In Maharashtra, after the 2002 monsoons, more than 36,000 Vanarai Bunds were erected by local communities, administrations and college students. Commendable initiatives were made by the CEOs and Collectors of several districts. This has helped in solving the problem of drinking water, bringing some lands under rabi crops and generating employment opportunities.

Vanarai bunds are low cost structures which are useful in checking and retaining the run-off rainwater towards the end of the monsoon season. They are also extremely simple to construct - empty cement sacks are filled with locally available soil and are arranged in a row to form a small bund. On an average 200-300 empty cement sacks are used to build a single bund. The average life span of a Vanarai bund is slightly more than a year.

In Maharashtra 36,000 such bunds have been constructed by local communities since the monsoons of 2002. Out of these, 2125 were built in Raigad, 1030 in Wardha, 1701 Buldhana and 1414 Thane district.Voluntary labour worth Rs 250 crore has been utilised in the construction of these bunds.

Along with conservation of water, scientific and judicious use of water is equally important. The existing system of providing unlimited water to lands has created serious problems of salination and waterlogging. Besides, the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides has affected soil texture. Those who use surface or underground water to irrigate crops should use sprinkler or drip irrigation systems in their fields. Crops that require considerably greater amounts of water should be discouraged. R & D centres should be established to bring down the use of water in all sectors in co-operation with the existing National Laboratories and Agricultural Universities. Similar restrictions should be placed on industries and municipal bodies.

India has not so far paid adequate attention to the recycling of water for domestic or agricultural purposes. Similarly there is no compulsion to treat the water polluted by industries or by municipal bodies. Treating polluted water and recycling used water whenever possible should be made obligatory.

To ensure that every drop of water is properly utilised, beneficiaries in rural or urban areas should be reasonably charged on the basis of the quantity used. Cooperatives or participatory associations of the beneficiaries of water should be encouraged all over the country.

Pumping out water without recharging aquifers is perilous. After scientifically assessing the underground level of water the permissible number of borewells or wells in a watershed unit should be prescribed with necessary restrictions. The Gram Sabha of a village should be authorised to lay down such restrictions and introduce efficient water management.

Evaporation of water is a challenge for all the countries in the world. Scientists have invented appropriate technologies to cover water reservoirs and to save the evaporation losses. Though costly, it has become essential to use new methods to prevent the losses of water from evaporation.

(Mohan Dharia is president of Vanarai and a former minister of the union government.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2003