Is ‘out of sight’ truly ‘out of mind’? That’s what many water experts in India believe when it comes to our groundwater. The fact is, as a country, we are greatly dependent on groundwater, being the largest users in the world. According to reports, at just over 260 cubic km per year, India uses 25 percent of all groundwater extracted globally, ahead of the US and China.Equally significant, 70 percent of the water used in agriculture today is groundwater.In fact, according to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2012, 90 per cent of rural water and 48 per cent of urban water supply is sourced from groundwater resources. Thus, it is evident that groundwater is a lifeline for the country. That said, there is little understanding of the importance of groundwater, in both the policy and public spheres.

Crucial Challenges

Some key issues need to be considered and brought to the fore. Foremost is depletion, with wells and springs drying up. This, consequently, leads to a deterioration in groundwater quality because of increase in contaminants like fluoride and arsenic. Contamination, then, often directly linked to depletion, is another serious concern. The twin environmental impact of depletion and contamination leads to a disconnect between groundwater and ecosystems—with a majority of groundwater being used for human needs, there has been a significant reduction in the contribution of aquifers (the underground rocks that are sources of groundwater) to river flows.

Unfortunately, while many remain intent on the development of ‘new’ groundwater resources, with wells being dig deeper and deeper as levels decline, scant thought is being given to the understanding of aquifers. The need of the hour is an integrated approach that deals with not just depletion but contamination and the need to reconnect groundwater to the larger ecosystem in a collaborative way that includes community participation.

To this end, experts believe we need to evolve micro-level customised solutions for areas with the help of practitioners who have worked on the ground; stronger public institutions dedicated to groundwater management for more institutional heft; more involvement and participation from communities, who are the true stakeholders; and more initiatives to promote collaborations and partnerships with the infusion of interdisciplinary science.

The PGWM approach

Earlier approaches to groundwater management focused on increasing supply rather than managing demand, leading to an unregulated supply of sources like wells and borewells, exacerbating the problem. That’s why participatory groundwater management (PWGM) is vital as it looks beyond the source to scientifically study aquifers as a sustainable resource, using the principles of hydrogeology.

Indeed, PGWM is unique as it identifies aquifers rather than sources as units of analysis for groundwater; looks at groundwater in aquifers as common pool resources; examines both groundwater quality and quantity; works towards a shift from supply to demand management; and, most significantly, encourages community participation, engagement and decision-making.

BRLF & PGWM

To counteract the overexploitation of groundwater and arrest the consequent deterioration in agricultural output, notably in the Central Indian tribal region, BRLF has partnered with the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM) and three other resource agencies—ACT, WASSAN and PSI—for a pilot project to implement PGWM in 20 locations from 14 districts of seven states. With support from Arghyam, 10 partners on ground and the resource agencies, BRLF endeavours to generate knowledge to develop a national-level strategy for groundwater management in India.

The project encompasses science-based aquifer mapping aided by field-level surveys and scientific analysis, along with building community decision-making for sustainable utilisation.Thus far, technical partners have visited the pilot locations to provide technical support; a water security planning workshop has been conducted; and an action plan submitted. As in March 2019, geological, hydrological and aquifer mapping, in-situ water quality testing, establishment of groundwater monitoring networks and socio-hydrogeological data generation were completed in all 20 locations.Groundwater balance has been calculated in 20 locations; water security plans have been completed for 18 locations; and crop water budgeting has been completed in 20 locations.

As of now around 400 lakhs mobilized for construction and augmentation of water harvesting structures (Open Dug well, Stop Dam, Farm Pond etc.) have been constructed through Government schemes as per Water Security Plan within PGWM project locations.

With the help of its partners, collaborators and the communities it serves, BRLF remains committed to augment, conserve, protect, restore and manage groundwater resources on a scientific, sustainable and inclusive basis.