Villagers adapting groundwater management during COVID-19

Groundwater levels across India have been falling rapidly, affecting the livelihoods and wellbeing of village communities. The MARVI project (Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention) aims to tackle this issue by adopting a participatory approach for measuring groundwater levels and improving groundwater productivity and sustainability.

The Australian Water Partnership (AWP) supported the initial MARVI pilot and is now supporting Western Sydney University to assist the Government of India’s Ministry of Jal Shakti in adapting the MARVI approach in the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABHY) project—the US$1 billion GoI-World Bank national groundwater management program launched in December 2019. The ABHY project is to be implemented across the water-stressed states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh and will cover over 20,000 villages.

Village communities in the study area are currently under enormous economic pressure due to the COVID-19 lockdown. A survey was conducted in Rajasthan and Gujarat to understand how COVID-19 has impacted on handwashing by different age groups. The study indicated that water use has increased and there is a need for more guidance on WASH activities to cope with the pandemic.

Poor water quality also needs to be addressed. The groundwater in open dug wells often gets contaminated with animal faecal matter and other pollutants with dangerous levels of E. coli bacteria, which leaves communities potentially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The MARVI partners—in collaboration with the Watershed Development and Soil Conservation Department of Government of Rajasthan—initiated pilot field activities to increase groundwater recharge at the individual farm level. As part of the pilot study, selected wells are being covered with shade cloth and are being monitored to assess the impact this solution has on improving well water quality.

Based on the results of the pilot, recommendations will be made to Village Councils and drinking water supply authorities. The data monitored will also help evaluate the performance of local level recharge structures and provide recommendations for its wider adoption in the ABHY project. A total of 30 farmers are collaborating in this pilot which is expected to improve water availability for the post-monsoon crops.

Evaluation of shade cloth covering to protect drinking water quality (credit: WSU)
Pit recharge structures (credit: WSU)

The project has involved collaboration between NGOs, universities, research institutes, village communities, local schools, and the State Watershed Development Departments.

“Working with grassroots organisations has been the key to MARVI’s success,” said project leader Professor Basant Maheshwari, Western Sydney University.

Also key to MARVI’s success is the training and nurturing of farmer volunteers, called Bhujal Jaankaars (a Hindi word meaning ‘groundwater informed’). A capacity development program (totalling 45 days) involved mapping, land and water resource analysis, geohydrology, water balance analysis, and groundwater management strategies at the village level.

Prof Maheshwari explained that Bhujal Jaankaars are an important interface between researchers and village communities.

“This project demonstrated that with effective training and facilitation support, they can collect reliable scientific data and develop understanding to bring change in their water management practices through their scientific measurement and communication.”

“There is a strong indication that farmers have begun to understand their local groundwater system, and accept that groundwater is limited and that the falling water table is a village-level issue which needs to be tackled at the village scale,” said Prof Maheshwari.

One of the community workshops held in Meghraj watershed in Gujarat, India, to start a dialogue among farmers about the local groundwater situation (credit: WSU)

Due to a gender divide in literacy levels most of the farmer-researchers are men, but women in the communities—who manage water at home—have displayed a keen interest in becoming Bhujal Jaankars. The project seeks to include more women as it expands to other parts of the country, by providing training resources that account for limited literacy skills (translated to the local language) and focus on practical knowledge.

“We plan for new ways of recruiting women as Bhujal Jaankaars, nurturing and mentoring their participation, supporting their development, and providing suitable incentives for their participation,” says Prof Maheshwari, who explains that women’s participation is critical for groundwater management in India.

“Women bring in new perspectives to the challenges of groundwater management—they can moderate the attitudes, behaviours, and actions of men for effective and positive groundwater management outcomes and they can help in much wider involvement of the community for change in groundwater management at the village level.”

The project is now developing the current MARVI Project Sites as ‘living laboratories’ for demonstration and training in ABHY; an operation manual and field kit for participatory groundwater monitoring; and practical actions to help improve access to clean and safe drinking water and increase the availability of irrigation water for food production in village communities. The latter is a vital response to assist vulnerable communities in coping with the impacts of COVID-19.

Feature image: A woman fills up water jugs in Hinta Village, which has about 750 families with a population of 3680 (credit: Western Sydney University / Michael Chew)
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