How A Bit Of Imagination And Community Support Can Solve Maharashtra’s Water Problem

How dam desilting is transforming the most drought-prone areas in Maharashtra.

Water commuters fill containers at a groundwater source in Latur, Maharashtra, India, on April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Water commuters fill containers at a groundwater source in Latur, Maharashtra, India, on April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Over the last few months, we seem to have suddenly woken to the prospects of an imminent and severe water crisis across the country. International and national news headlines are, with increasing frequency, beginning to scream about the potential of it disrupting hundreds of millions of lives in a very scary way. Experts will tell you this problem has crept on us and its signs have been visible for decades – yet we have been able to do very little about it. We have certainly paid the price – in fact, we have probably spent lakhs of crores of rupees (directly and indirectly) fighting the after-effects of drought and making a feeble attempt at water sustainability – whether it be through – drought relief, loan waivers, cattle camps, running water tankers, and incomplete irrigation schemes. Unfortunately, it is not just the central and state governments that have borne the burden (and therefore taxpayers). The poorest farmers have had to pay the biggest price for this.

It is our contention that dealing with this crisis requires both imagination and political/administrative will. It does not necessarily always require capital-intensive schemes that are difficult to implement and have very long-term pay-back periods for the state. If different stakeholders come together to work innovatively, it has been our experience that, in fact, age-old solutions can be scaled up to address the most sticky and scary problems that constitute this crisis.

A scale measures the water level of the dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, India, on April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A scale measures the water level of the dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, India, on April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
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Telangana, under Mission Kakatiya, aims to rejuvenate around 46,000 old tanks. Maharashtra, under Jalyukt Shivar, aims to build rain water-shed structures by working with organisations like Paani Foundation and Bharatiya Jain Sangathana. Elsewhere, in many other states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Gujarat, either the governments or people themselves—or organisations like the Tata Trusts, Aakar Trust, Art of Living Foundation, and Deshpande Foundation—are working with farmers to helping build rainwater sheds, farm ponds, or desilt existing water bodies. All of these are very effective templates to drive long-term solutions for water sustainability.

In this article, we want to highlight one of these initiatives – dam desilting across Maharashtra – which has involved the coming together of different stakeholders, at scale, to address this problem, and has the potential to move the needle at the state level.

In May 2017, the Maharashtra government launched Gaalmukt Dharan Gaalyukt Shivar (desilt dams, enrich farms with silt) under Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, its water conservation programme.

It is an initiative that, in its first full year of implementation, has resulted in 3,000 dams and 4,500 surrounding villages being de-silted across the state.

This resulted in an excavation of around 2.2 crore cubic metres of silt, which has potentially created direct water storage capacity of 2,200 crore litres.
How A Bit Of Imagination And Community Support Can Solve Maharashtra’s Water Problem
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Additionally, a conservative multiple of this number (2-3x) is estimated to percolate into the water table. Just to put this in perspective, the base number itself is equivalent to water transported by 22 lakh water tankers, which would have charged around around Rs 330 crore for doing so in a year of drought. In Maharashtra over recent decades, these have unfortunately occurred nearly two out of every five years in many districts. After the monsoon, many of these dams will immediately start helping provide greater water sustainability to these 4,500 villages, mostly in some of the most drought-prone areas of the state.

The silt, spread over the fields, will start transforming the lives of around 32,000 farmers, as it boosts their net income by as much as two to four times.

An ICRISAT study shows that yields go up due to the enrichment of the soil condition. In addition, fertiliser consumption goes down, and there’s better cropping and animal husbandry on account of water availability. All this will happen in a highly cost/time efficient manner while preserving the environment and causing no displacement, unlike other water projects.

While the numbers are still being counted, it is likely that the state would have spent less than Rs 25 crore on desilting these dams.

One year’s savings on water capacity created alone would be worth more than ten times that amount, leave aside the savings from other potential drought relief measures like loan waivers, cattle camps, and insurance.

Why and how does this concept work? What is its potential in states like Maharashtra?

Template For Change

Akoladev in Jalna, Marathwada was experiencing a severe drought in 2013 when we first visited it. Its villagers and those from the seven villages surrounding the Jeevrekha Dam there were facing such acute distress that they cumulatively did not have Rs 50,000 to lay a water pipe from the dam to the village. Working with Nimesh Sumati of Caring Friends (a Mumbai-based philanthropic network), we donated to help the farmers desilt the dam via Dilasa Sanstha, an NGO active in Marathwada and Vidarbha.

A similar initiative was underway closeby at a dam called Ghanewadi, supported by local businessmen who were moved by the plight of both farmers and the city of Jalna, which was getting water just once a month from the dam. Unfortunately, Marathwada continued to face severe drought-like conditions over the next three years, and so we continued supporting the farmers’ efforts for desilting of the dam. However, over time, Akoladev and its surrounding seven villages were transformed into a green zone, with many of its farmers harvesting 2-3 crops due to higher water availability, witnessing a massive increase in yields, cut in fertiliser consumption, and boost in other income. Both the dam and surrounding water bodies saw a dramatic rise in levels during this time.

During the drought of 2016, when water trains were being sent to Latur, it was observed that wells linked to the Jeevrekha dam were pumping 11 lakh liters of water per day and supplying it to the surrounding 7 villages! 

Clearly, something special had happened in the area over the past few years.

(Image Source: Authors)
(Image Source: Authors)

Dealing With Water Sustainability

Maharashtra is blessed with around 85,000 water bodies (small and big dams; and various kinds of tanks) the cumulatively capacity of which is several times that of Bhakra-Nangal Dam. Yet, Maharashtra, for decades has been one of the most drought-prone regions of the country.

Maharashtra should be water sustainable if it does a good job of managing its water resources – both above and below the ground – properly. But, what is the problem with its dams and tanks and why is it not able to manage its rainfall better? Let’s just deal with dams in this article – they are typically in low-lying areas, with very few gravity dams (at higher levels) like Koyna. Soil eroded from the forests and fields flows to dams and nullahs via the streams and rivers, ultimately clogging them.

Over a couple of decades, the storage capacity of many of Maharashtra’s dams is believed to have eroded by as much as 25-75 percent!
Cracked earth sits at the bottom of the dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, India, on  April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Cracked earth sits at the bottom of the dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, India, on April 16, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
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A dam doesn’t just store water in that location. It connects, at its bottom, to a network of aquifers which, in turn, help build the water table. This happens because percolation of water depends directly on the geophysical characteristics of the region. The ratio is anything between one to six times the volume of the silt excavated from the dam.

The moment silt accumulates at the bottom of a dam, its ability to recharge groundwater gets massively diminished. 

Think of a cardiac patient with cholesterol in her arteries not being able to charge blood through the body. Likewise, the flow of water to village wells, which are a few kilometres away from the dam, gets restricted and farmers are forced to pump water from deeper levels.

What is being done via the Maharashtra Government’s Gaalmukt Dharan, Gaalyukt Shivar scheme is somewhat simple – philanthropists or companies’ corporate social responsibility teams working with NGOs or in many cases villagers, come together via gram panchayats to provide funding for hiring excavators to help desilt dams. This is supplemented by a subsidy the state provides for the diesel for operating these machines.

The silt that is removed is carted away by farmers, at their cost, in tractors, to their fields, and typically four inches of it is spread on it by them to enrich it.
(Image Source: Authors)
(Image Source: Authors)

Even farmers and other villagers who do not participate in the scheme benefit from the water security created in their local water body, and so the actual number of beneficiaries needs to be assessed based on the number of villages and population reached.

With over 4,500 villages covered via the efforts this year, the total direct and indirect beneficiaries could well run into a few million!

The third problem is one of poor soil quality and increased fertiliser usage. The most fertile part of soil is the top four inches. Every year, if farmers are losing part of the top-soil into dams or nallahs, this is natural. Spreading the silt back onto the field addresses this problem, and converts the cost-aspect of transporting silt away from the dam into an opportunity. The additional silt layer continues to give productivity benefits to the farmer for a span of more than 5-7 years.

When you desilt a dam, you incur two kinds of costs, the first being the cost of desilting and the other the cost of carting the silt itself. While donors were willing to help farmers bear the first cost to help deal with drought or agrarian distress, a robust solution was reached for the transportation cost, where the community itself stepped in to bear their own costs. A strong partnership was formed between various stakeholders wanting to address a long-standing and highly distressing issue in a very innovative and capital efficient manner!

Farmers carted their own silt back to their own fields at their own cost.
(Image Source: Authors)
(Image Source: Authors)

The silt, when spread on their fields, helped boost the productivity of their fields significantly and significantly cut usage of fertiliser. As water capacity increased in these areas, even those who weren’t able to cart silt were beneficiaries of greater water availability in the villages that underwent desilting. Entire village ecosystems got positively impacted because of greater water availability and consequent socio-economic benefits were well evident. Documented case studies of changes showed a dramatic transformation in the lives of farmers over two-three seasons after desilting, encouraging us to continue enhancing the scale of our intervention.

How A Bit Of Imagination And Community Support Can Solve Maharashtra’s Water Problem

What happened in Akoladev was not an exception. A similar transformation, at an even greater scale, was visible in one of the most drought-prone districts - Beed. The NGO Manavlok worked with thousands of farmers over the last few years to desilt six dams there and helped create an oasis right next to Latur, which has faced a terrible crisis.

The Way Forward

This year, over 4,500 villages will take a big leap forward towards water sustainability, thanks to delisting. Another interesting initiative, the Water Cup, run by the Paani Foundation and backed by Bhartiya Jain Foundation is believed to also have made a significant impact in thousands of villages, final details of which are awaited.

All this will happen with relatively low capital expenditure, high community participation, no displacement of communities, and quick implementation, compared to any scheme involving building fresh c