Water management: Not just the government’s job
On December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the operational guidelines of the Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to provide drinking water to 14.6 crore rural households. Keeping in line with the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, the gram panchayats are expected to take the lead in the implementation of the programme. This, the government feels, will instil a “sense of ownership” of the programme among the local community, create an environment of trust, and bring transparency in the planning, implementation, management, and the operation and maintenance of water supply systems in the rural areas.
The renewed focus on the involvement of the local community in managing water is a welcome step. If implemented properly, it can work wonders. Take, for instance, the case of Chureddhar village (6,693 feet) in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal district. Like most mountain villages, the residents of Chureddhar were dependent on natural springs (opening at or near the surface of the earth for the discharge of underground water), which are known as dhara, mool, kuan in the central and eastern Himalayas and chashma and naula in the western Himlayas, for their domestic and livelihood-related water needs. A report of the ministry of Jal Shakti — Spring Rejuvenation — says that nearly 200 million Indians are dependent on spring water across the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, and Aravallis.
But by the summer of 2002, the village, which has around 400 residents, was in the throes of a debilitating water crisis: Their only handpump had dried up, and so did many springs due to increased water demand, years of ecological degradation, and climate change-induced erratic trends in precipitation. This adversely affected life, livelihoods, irrigation and drinking water supply of the residents.
To understand the importance of springs for a Himalayan village, Guddi Devi, a resident of Chureddhar, told me, one needs to understand the age-old relationship that existed between them and the communities. “After a wedding, the newlywed would pray at a spring, fill a container of that water and get it home,” she explained. “But then as development became infrastructure-centric [the village relocated near a road] instead of resource-centric, everyone forgot to take care of the springs and their catchment areas, leading to water crisis”.
In 2009, a team of hydrologists and geologists of the Himotthan Society, a local NGO incubated by Tata Trusts, one of the oldest philanthropic institutions in India, started working with the community to solve their water problem. They explained to the villagers, especially women — since they and the children travelled extra distances to get water for their families — the science behind springs, and how to revive them. Once the community came on board, the next set of work — building groundwater recharge ponds and pits, and increasing green cover (springshed management) — was started.
In a few years, their hard work paid off. There was a reduction in the number of water tankers that came to the village during the lean season (April to July). The water demand of the village in 2002, when the project started, was 2,993 cubic metres and availability was 1,496 cubic metres. Today, it is 5,019 and 6,307 respectively, making Chureddhar a water-positive village.
Along with reviving the springs, and managing their recharge zones, the residents have also done rainwater harvesting. The per capita availability of water in 2012 was 12 litre per capita per day (lpcd); today it is 55 lpcd, which matches the government norm. The post-implementation phase is also critical, and so each household pays ~50 per month to take care of the work done. Today, the Himotthan Society is also working in 450 other villages across nine districts in Uttarakhand to solve drinking water problems.
The successful implementation of the programme and the socio-economic impact of the project (women and children have more time for other activities and there is an improvement in agricultural output) shows that there is an urgent need for a comprehensive mapping of springs, setting up of data monitoring systems, understanding socio-economic benefits and governance systems of springs. What is also needed is the transfer of knowledge to local communities about springshed management. The list is long but must be completed. “Without water, these villages, where we have been living for many generations, will become ghost villages, and people will be forced to migrate,” Guddi Devi said, ominously.
The views expressed are personal