August 2011 | Sangeeta Menon

Wealth in water

The Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust have made life easier in Gujarat’s coastal villages through initiatives that improve the quality of drinking water and groundwater

Sixty-five-year old Jadhav Meraman is a happy man. His furrowed face lights up as he talks about the nice things that have been happening to him in recent months: the constant stomach ache that he was somehow resigned to live with, now troubles him much less; with his health improving dramatically, he is able to go to work in his fields more often; the money that he used to spend on medicines now goes into his modest savings kitty; and the water he drinks these days is the sweetest he has tasted in a very long time.

For the 400-odd households in Mul Madhavpur village of Gujarat’s Porbandar district, the past few months have been about similarly happy situations. Young mother Nimuben no longer leaves her infant daughter at home to go and fetch drinking water from the village hand-pump; sweet, safe drinking water is available barely a hundred metres from her home. Rameshbhai’s family of 12 now stores enough drinking water at their home to last a week — no more trudging every day from their farmland home, located far away from the village, to buy poor quality water from local vendors.

Elsewhere, in Divrana village of Gujarat’s Junagadh district, fewer residents now complain of joint pains, a common problem associated with the high fluoride content in the water around this area. In nearby Shil, the largest village in Junagadh’s Mangrol taluka, villagers have seen a drop in the number of cases of kidney stones, and per capita medical expenses, which used to be as high as Rs5,000 a year ago, have now dipped significantly.

In each of these villages, the source of happiness — other than the sweet taste of water, of course — is a reverse osmosis (RO) plant, which purifies the saline water in these coastal areas, making it potable and safe. These are among the 10 villages identified for the Rs114.13 million Tata-GE Special Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Project. The Sir Ratan Tata Trust and Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust, in collaboration with the GE Foundation, support the project under the ‘Kharash Vistarotthan Yojana’ (KVY), an initiative set up by the Trusts in 2002 to combat the myriad problems posed by rising salinity in ground water in the coastal districts of Gujarat. The Trusts are contributing Rs61.65 million to the project, while the GE Foundation has committed Rs22.56 million in equipment support; the community contribution is to the tune of Rs29.75 million.

“The first of the 10 RO plants planned became operational in July 2010 in Miyani village in Porbandar district. Since then, five more plants have gone live, the latest being the one in Mul Madhavpur, the largest so far,” says Divyang Waghela, who is in charge of the Trusts’ coastal water interventions in Gujarat. These plants bring pure water and fresh hope to villagers spread across some of the most saline areas of coastal Gujarat.

Villagers in these as well as neighbouring villages, which fall into one of three categories of salinity — fully saline, partially saline or prone to salinity — are now enjoying the benefits of clean drinking water: a decline in cases of water-related diseases, lower medical expenses, higher productivity owing to better health and a substantial reduction in the drudgery and time spent on fetching domestic water. Whereas they earlier spent good money to buy bad water (with total dissolved solids, or TDS, which is a measure of salinity, often as high as 5,000 as against the permissible limit of 500!) from local vendors, they now have to shell out as little as 15 paise for a litre of safe drinking water.

When the project is completed, it will cover some 5,000 households, or 25,000 individuals (40 per cent of whom live below the poverty line), across the coastal belt of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region.

Understanding and tackling salinity
Salinity is a growing global phenomenon, exacerbated by rampant development and now, global warming and climate change. Among all India’s states, Gujarat has the longest coastline (1,669km) and is among the most affected by salinity. Salinity affects the lives and livelihoods of nearly one-fifth of Gujarat’s population, or up to 10 million people in about 1,500 villages.

Saurashtra’s 924km-long coastline faces the most serious problems, including decreasing crop yield, non-availability or little safe drinking water, large-scale migration out of the region, soil deterioration, loss of vegetation cover, and the impact of these on health and the economy.

A host of factors are to blame for this:

  • There’s been rapid sea-water ingress along the coastal areas of Gujarat over the last two decades, mainly due to large-scale extraction of groundwater for agriculture and industrial purposes combined with large-scale mining activity.
  • Salinity ingress has adversely affected underground water aquifers, making it unfit for human consumption.
  • Use of saline water for irrigation has led to decline in agricultural and horticulture productivity and soil fertility, thus rendering land unsuitable for future cultivation.

KVY aims to tackle salinity through an integrated approach that acknowledges the multi-dimensional nature of the problem. Given the complexity and extent of the problem, KVY realised that joint efforts of both government and civil society organisations would be required to achieve the necessary scale and impact. This led to the formation of the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC, co-promoted by the Trusts, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) India, and Ambuja Cement Foundation) to co-ordinate and provide technical inputs to salinity projects in the state and develop innovative programmes and initiatives to combat salinity.

The intense involvement of the community has been one of the biggest achievements of the Trusts’ efforts in tackling the problem of salinity. Working with local voluntary not-for-profit organisations, the projects reached out to the residents of the affected regions, engaging them in a process of dialogue, education and empowerment. From delivering awareness programmes in the local language and folk forms to conducting workshops, health camps, involving the panchayats and gram sabhas (local authorities) and even creating pani samitis or water committees to run and manage the RO plants and their own water supply systems, the community is involved at every stage of the fight against salinity. “In fact, one third of the membership in pani samitis is reserved for women,” says Mr Waghela.

Safe and clean
Poor sanitation and personal hygiene, undesired consequences of water scarcity and high illiteracy levels in the region, is also another focus area of the Trusts-GE Foundation project. So, even as villagers gain access to clean drinking water, they are also made aware of the need to adopt safe sanitation and efficient solid waste management practices. Along with continuous sensitisation of the community, the project also encourages local communities to build individual toilets; the Trusts bear 90 per cent of the cost of each sanitation unit, while the community contributes the remaining 10 per cent. So far, the project has provided 810 toilets in the Porbandar and Junagadh districts.

Since the success of the sanitation project depends on the availability of water, the Trusts and their programme partners support various innovative and cost-effective initiatives to enhance and manage water resources. One such effort is providing roof-top rainwater harvesting systems (RRWHS), which allow local inhabitants to collect rainwater using a simple mechanism; the water thus collected is stored in tanks, where it remains for months after the monsoon. The Trusts bear up to 70 per cent of the cost, while the community pitches in with the rest.

To ensure that the stored water does not get contaminated, the locals — in most cases, the women of the household — are trained to purify the water using chlorine tablets. They are also supplied testing kits to monitor the quality of the water. “It is important to use the right number of chlorine tablets, neither more nor less than required. Once a woman receives training on chlorination and testing, she is eager to pass on the knowledge to other women in the villages because they know how important this is for the good health of our children and our families,” says Rajanben Modassia of village Bamanwada, where the Trusts and AKRSP have actively involved women in the water management efforts.

Acknowledging the importance of women in enabling change in communities and the need to empower them, the project insists that every subsidised RRWHS unit is sanctioned in the name of a woman in the family. For many women, this is the only tangible economic asset they have ever owned, which gives them a sense of immense pride and ownership, which, in turn, contributes to the success and proliferation of the effort.

Alternative thinking
Roof-top rainwater harvesting systems and other alternative ways of managing scarce water resources are also being used to create more efficient, less water-intensive agricultural models. While drip irrigation and sprinklers are one part of the solution, the Trusts and their partners are actively involved in encouraging the use of new varieties of seeds that require less water and have higher resistance to pest attacks.

Taking this a few steps further, KVY is engaged in a pilot project that seeks to persuade farmers to look beyond the traditional crops grown in the region — mainly groundnuts — and switch to other crops that require less water and achieve higher yields. Alternative crop rotation models are also being suggested to reduce the stress on soil and groundwater. So far, more than 1,000 farmers have joined the effort and are reaping rich benefits.

Govindbhai, a farmer from Goraj village in Junagadh district, is one of them. For years, he used to grow groundnuts on his two-acre farmland, earning Rs10,000-12,000 per acre every six months. Then he decided to experiment with the alternative model using a half-acre plot to grow creeper vegetables like gourds. The KVY-AKRSP teams provided him with guidance and also set up the structures required to grow the creepers, on a subsidised basis.

The half-acre plot yielded close to Rs10,000 in the first three months of the experiment, and he expects to earn another Rs6,000 in the remaining three months of the season. He has also made considerable cost savings as the creepers need far less fertiliser than groundnuts and require no pesticide, which in turn, leads to rejuvenation of the soil as well. “The results have been excellent, despite the fall in vegetable prices this year. When prices rise, I will make even more profit,” says the father of two. “I will use the additional earnings to repair my house and support my daughter’s education.”

With positive feedback from the farmers involved in the pilot, KVY plans to seek the state government’s support to scale up the project and replicate the model in more regions affected by salinity. “We can achieve the kind of scale needed to make a significant impact only with the help of the government and the community,” points out Mr Waghela. “One such collaboration with the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation, Gujarat, has resulted in a Rs600 million drinking water and sanitation project covering 300 villages of nine districts in the state.”

A ear to the ground
In addition to over-exploitation of groundwater, unscientific management of water resources, deforestation and mining activity, one of the major reasons for salinity in the coastal area is the ingress of sea water (often aggravated because of the over-exploitation of groundwater) and the transportation of wind-blown saline coastal sands. Groundwater management assumes huge significance in such a scenario. “Effective management of groundwater not only helps alleviate water scarcity and enhance the quality of the water, but also helps resist sea-water ingress,” explains Mr Waghela, adding, “controlled recharge and sub-surface storage of water in aquifers alleviates the intrusion of salt water from the sea into coastal aquifers.”

The Trusts, through KVY, work with partner organisations and the community in a range of activities aimed at recharging ground water and aquifers. The Netravati river treatment project in Goraj is one such instance. The river — which usually fills up only during the monsoon (July-August) and dries up by March — has managed to retain water through the summer months (April-June) and right into July this year, as a result of a combination of activities, including deepening and widening of the river basin, and construction of small bunds along the river’s course.

“These efforts not only helped the river retain and store more water but also recharged the wells in the surrounding areas during the hot summer months,” says Ramseem, sarpanch of Goraj village. “This year, even the coconut palms in the neighbourhood have borne larger, better quality fruit as a result of the enhanced groundwater.”

Adds Bhagwanbhai, who lives further upstream at Karamdi: “Several villages in the surrounding areas have benefited from the Netravati project; many of our wells have retained water throughout this summer.” The Rs5 million project saw the Trusts contribute Rs3.5 million in cash and kind, while the community pitched in with Rs1.5 million.

In a country surrounded by the sea on three sides and with salinity problems looming large over states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Kerala, among others, the Trusts’ initiatives in Saurashtra have the potential to make a huge impact. Its simple and sustainable models of coping with the issue at hand can be easily replicated. All it takes is commitment and will and the belief, within the community, that they can make the change happen.

Sisterhood against salinity

Women in the Mangrol block of Junagadh have found a smart way to manage water without compromising traditional hospitality: as is the norm in most Indian homes, they always welcome guests with a glass of water, albeit a very small glass; in order to prevent wastage of drinking water, they have switched large tumblers with much smaller ones!

Acutely aware of the problem of salinity, these women — who belong to the weaker sections of the community with no land holding — are pitching in with their own efforts to combat it. From operating their rooftop rain water harvesting systems, to testing and chlorinating water and spreading awareness of the need to cultivate safe sanitation habits, they are participating enthusiastically in all of it.

With support from the Trusts’ Kharash Vistarotthan Yojana (KVY) and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) India, they have also formed small self-help groups (SHGs) that aim to increase women’s participation in social change by empowering them and making them self-reliant. Today the movement has spread to 52 villages in the region, with groups affiliated to a larger federation of around 109 SHGs.

It was only a matter of time before the women started creating a common pool of funds to support their various financial needs. The 12 members in the SHG in Mangrol’s Goraj village, for example, started contributing Rs10 each, every month, in 2006; today they contribute Rs50 each. The amount raised is saved in a common bank account — the first time they have ever had a bank account, a passbook and a cheque book!

Members are allowed to borrow a maximum of Rs10,000 from this amount to meet various needs. Hansaben borrowed Rs2000 to buy drilling equipment for her mason husband, Madhuben borrowed Rs2000 to start a beauty parlour for her daughter-in-law. The interest rate is a reasonable 1.5 per cent and the repayment period is 10 months. And the women never default on payments because they realise it’s their own money. What about borrowing from a bank? “No, when we borrow from our group, the interest comes back to us and increases our earnings. Why give this to a bank?” asks Rajanben.

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