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Encouraging sustainable practices in India's river basin

Feb 18, 2010

Tribal women of a catchment area in central India are mobilising villagers to improve soil depth and increase water recharge. The Man River basin faces a serious problem of over extraction of groundwater due to the mismanagement of dam irrigation that is also increasing social inequities.

Dhar District, Madhya Pradesh: "Water has now become scarce both for drinking and irrigation. Earlier we used to have water in our dugwells. Then people starting boring tubewells and the dugwells dried up. Then more tubewells were bored to greater and greater depths, the more the older tubewells and the drinking water handpumps dried up," laments Devkibai, a Bhilala tribal woman of Bagria village, on the Malwa plateau in the catchment of the dam built on the Man River.


Home to a significant tribal population, the Man River basin is a sub-basin of the Narmada River basin in Madhya Pradesh's Dhar district. It spans three distinct agro-ecological zones: the Malwa plateau, the Vindhya hills and the Nimar plains.

However, the river basin faces a serious problem of over extraction of groundwater. Further, the large dam in the basin that Devkibai refers to, built on the river midway through its course, has also affected local water management drastically.

Elaborating on the crisis facing the people, Veena Tadavla, another Bhilala tribal woman who has been mobilising villagers in the region for communitarian watershed development, where the whole village works together on soil and water conservation to improve soil depth and increase water recharge, says, "Reduced availability of drinking water means either that women have to pump harder to get water from greater depths or walk longer distances to water sources. Lesser water for irrigation means lower yields, which in turn force whole families to migrate seasonally for work. The women suffer the most from all this."

Says an angry Revlibai, a Bhilala tribal woman of Temria village downstream of the dam in the command area, "The canal leaks like a broken pitcher and all the water seeps into our farmland rendering it useless for cultivation. Instead of increasing our earnings, this dam and its canals have made us into paupers. The rich farmers have benefited and are also selling water but we have lost all our land."

Problems arising out of the mismanagement of dam irrigation and the consequent over-dependence on groundwater is not a problem confined to Madhya Pradesh alone. In fact there is a serious crisis of over-exploitation of groundwater and waterlogging in many parts of India. It has led to an increasing inequity in water usage among the rich and the poor, arising from the creation of water markets, as the words of these women have indicated.

It was to address this crisis that the concept of participatory integrated water resource management (IWRM) emerged. The idea was to empower the poor and  manage water resources in a sustainable manner. Following the World Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the concept of river basin management through IWRM came into prominence.

The first step in this direction is to undertake a rigorous estimation of the status of water resources, the sustainability of their use and the causes that have led to the present situation in the river basin. Water availability and use are linked closely with other constituents of the ecosystem and the general socio-economic structure of an area.

Therefore a detailed study of the status of water availability and use also involves a study of the whole eco-system and socio-economic system of the area. The Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra - a local NGO - had in (2008-09) carried out such a study of the Man River basin and the results are quite striking.

An estimation of the rabi season water demand using an empirical relationship dependent on the crop evapo-transpiration and the area under each crop being cultivated, revealed that the total water demand was 1321 million cubic meters in 2008. This water demand has to be compared with the average annual rainfall on the total geographical area, which is about 3,000 million cubic meters. Thus, the water demand for irrigation in 2008 was 44% of the total annual precipitation and was mostly met from groundwater.

Estimations done in hard rock areas show that natural recharge is never more than 11% of the total annual rainfall. Thus, the current level of extraction is about four times higher than sustainable levels. That is why groundwater aquifers in the region have become over-exploited, contributing to the woes of people like Devkibai. Since the surface storages, too, are not capable of meeting this demand, water stress develops, leading to lower crop yields. In fact that has been the trend in the Man River basin area, with perceptible declines in the rabi harvests (winter crop harvested in March and dependent on irrigated water and not the monsoon).

On the surface water utilisation front, too, there are problems in the basin. The construction of the canals is very poor and, in many stretches, the proper trapezoidal section and dimensions as per the designs have not been adopted, even for the main canal. The canals are only partially lined. This has led to the main canals being unable to take the designed flow and, consequently, the actual flow in the canals is half the design flow.

With only a small part of the main canals having been lined, huge seepage losses are also taking place. So great are these losses, that as soon as the main canals are charged, the drainage nullahs begin to flow with seepage water and they continue to do so throughout the irrigation season. Thus a huge amount of water reaches the Man river unutilised downstream of the dam.

The incompleteness of the canal network and the meagre flow in the main canal itself, depleted by seepage, has led to the farmers using their own means to lift water from the canals quite audaciously. The seepage has another extremely negative fall-out. It has led to waterlogging affecting 30.1% of the farmers in the area, who have had to either abandon their land or construct drainage channels to divert the water seeping in. At least 500 hectares of land has been thus affected.

Approximately 60% of the command area consists of land that is unsuitable for flood irrigation without extensive land levelling and bunding work. Yet, the project was sanctioned without any provision in the budget for such levelling work. In fact, in addition to this, a considerable length of drainage channels also needs to be built.

Afforestation and soil conservation in the catchment have been ignored and the dam's oustees have been denied proper rehabilitation. All these omissions have added to the problems of the dam as the silt load has gone up and the oustees have remained in the submergence area to practice drawdown agriculture. Given these hardships, many of them have engaged in agitation and litigation under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The final cost of the Man Project in 2004 was Rs 176.75 crore (US$1 = Rs 45.6). Since the irrigation achieved is negative because earlier 7,000 hectares were already being irrigated with groundwater and the project has led to a loss of 1,000 hectares through submergence and waterlogging, the project in fact has proved to be a colossal waste.

Veenabai may not have studied engineering, but she suggests a cost-effective alternative, "Soil and water conservation methods should be applied to the whole basin by interlinking the watershed regions to ensure the most sustainable and equitable use of available water. Only this can ensure soil moisture for the rabi cultivation. The cost for all this would be just Rs 12,000 per hectare."

The moral, clearly, is that if local communities are put in charge of soil, forest and water conservation, it could transform the local environmental and social landscape. In the process, they would have made a tremendous contribution towards mitigating climate change.

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