Debating India

WATER RESOURCES

A monsoon dream

Atul Deulgaonkar

Friday 16 July 2004, by DEULGAONKAR*Atul

A novel plan to harvest the excess rainwater on the Konkan side of the Sahyadri and take it across the hills to benefit the drought-prone central Maharashtra attracts attention.

THE Konkan region, which falls on the Sahyadri range, is the Cherrapunji of Maharashtra. It occupies a mere 10 per cent of the State’s total area but receives an annual rainfall of 4,000 mm. On the other side of the Sahyadri is central Maharashtra, which is in the rain shadow area and gets only 400 to 800 mm of rain annually. As per the report of the Maharashtra Water Commission, about 1,680 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of excess rainwater received in the Konkan flows into the sea, while adjoining areas experience drought-like conditions.

This disparity prompted the take-off of a watershed development movement in Maharashtra in the 1970s. Anna Hazare and the late Vilasrao Salunke showed the way as far as rainwater harvesting was concerned and and thereby inculcated water literacy in the State.

The principles enunciated by Anna Hazare and the technology of CCT (continuous contour trenches) is gaining acceptance in Ahmednagar district. Both non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government agencies are promoting them. As many as 23 million trees have been planted over 25,000 km of contours in Ahmednagar and Dhule districts.

Hiware Bazaar, a small village in Ahmednagar district, is the talk of the State now. Until 1989, Hiware Bazaar was infamous for crimes and infighting. Land was barren and migration was on the rise. But after Popat Pawar, a post-graduate in commerce, became the head of the village pancahayat, things started changing. He motivated the youth and told them: "If Ralegan, a village in our own district, has risen to an ideal level it is because of its residents. We too can move on the path of prosperity. The choice is ours." Inspired youth collectively decided to ban free grazing, felling of trees and liquor vending. With the help of the State Agriculture and Forest Departments, a massive CCT programme was undertaken on 450 hectares. The government grant was Rs.66 lakhs while the contribution from the villagers in the form of shramadan (voluntary labour) was Rs.21 lakhs. As many as seven lakh trees were planted. Life in the village blossomed once soil erosion and water runoff were arrested.

As per a government survey made in 2003, more than a decade ago Hiware Bazaar had 168 of its 180 families living below the poverty line. Now not one of its 210 families faces poverty. Hiware Bazaar has all the characteristics of an ideal village - active self-help groups, biogas plants, dairy development and community farming. Many awards have been showered on Hiware Bazaar. In 1997, it won the National Productivity Award for dryland farming. The Maharashtra government honoured it with the best village award for cleanliness and sanitation in 2001. Popat Pawar was felicitated on a number of occasions for his innovative leadership. He was chosen to attend the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

"We have been able to use every drop of rainwater because of CCT. It is a very low-cost and efficient method of rainwater harvesting and does not require any steel or cement, construction or structure. Studies have shown that with CCT 60-80 per cent of the total rainwater received will percolate. We decided that this rainwater is public property and that nobody should overuse it. You can dig wells but borewells are prohibited. That is why we were self-sufficient in water in 2002-03 when we received only a 200 mm rainfall. Any handpump here would give you water. We live a community life and that is the reason why we are all happy," says Popat Pawar.

TEN years ago, Pandurang Todkar, a Sectional Engineer in the State Irrigation Department, came up with a novel idea to divert excess rainwater off the Sahyadri hills along a continuous contour canal in the eastward direction. This canal, 6 metres wide and 5 m deep and 1,000 km long and situated on the western side of Sahyadri at a height between 550 and 600 m (from mean sea level) could store a day’s rainwater in a 5,000 sq km catchment area (where the average rainfall is 4,000 mm in 120 rainy days). Todkar’s plan also considers the fact that the levels of eastern rivers originating from the Sahyadri are in that range. So it need not store water for more than 24 hours. The water stored in the canal would be discharged to eastern rivers through tunnels and canals along natural contours. In this way the eastern rivers originating from the Sahyadri can be interlinked by continuous contours. As water flows with gravity, about 500 tmcft water will be available to acutely water-short Maharashtra. Major dams in the State - such as Jayakwadi near Paithan, with a capacity of 102 tmcft and Bhima near Indapur, with a capacity of 110 tmcft - can be used to full capacity. A proper gradient between the canal and the tunnel would enable the production of hydroelectric power. The project would irrigate an additional 30 million ha of land (1 tmcft irrigates 6,000 ha).

Bringing excess water from the Konkan region to the rest of Maharashtra has always been on the agenda of water experts. One idea mooted was to reduce the height of the Sahyadri hills, which arrests rain clouds from entering the rest of Maharashtra from the Konkan. The minimum and maximum widths of the Sahyadri are 0.5 km and 40 km, while the minimum and maximum heights are 600 m and 1,646 m respectively. The total length of the Sahyadri is 700 km. A reduction of height by one metre means brutal deforestation and tremendous excavation. Another dam on such steep terrain means yet another Sardar Sarovar project.

Hence the Todkar option of a 1,000-km long canal on the Sahyadri, a 400-500 km long canal for joining rivers, and four or five tunnels 1,500 to 5,000 m long is much simpler. The Sahyadri range is full of basalt rocks. The canal would control floods in the Konkan and also supply water to the water-deficient areas. Todkar estimates the total cost of the scheme to be around Rs.1,500 crores; and that it will require two to three years to complete it.

For the past 10 years Todkar has been explaining his `watering Maharashtra scheme’ to engineers, bureaucrats, politicians, and agricultural experts at all levels. Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and water expert Vijay Anna Borade, among others, have appreciated the scheme. Irrigation Minister Ajit Ghorpade was so impressed that he went to Nagpur this January with Todkar to check the technical feasibility of the concept with the help of remote sensing and GIS (geographical information systems). "Technically, it is an excellent idea. The financial aspects of the project are under scrutiny. The government is seriously considering it," said Ghorpade.

``I am convinced that this scheme would benefit the entire State. But top-level engineers seem hesitant to accept an idea coming from the junior level. So they initially ignored it, later they questioned the feasibility of the initiative. They hiked the project cost by eight to 10 times to prove that it was financially non-viable. The tendency here is to prefer billion-dollar projects, even if they cannot be completed, to low-cost and implementable ones,’’ regrets former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. He suggested working out a small demonstration project.

A simple water conservation scheme that Todkar designed and proposed involves a 5-km-long canal on natural contour near Latur. When one kilometre of the canal’s entire length was built at a cost of Rs.1.2 million, it helped conserve 60,000 cubic metres of water last year and irrigate 100 ha of drought-prone areas (as opposed to Rs.10 million to build percolation tanks to irrigate 100 ha). Enthusiastic people were rushing to see this novel type of dam, which raised the water level of wells and tanks in the area.

Agricultural scientist Prof. B.K. Dhonde, a national award winner for contour marker, who has trained forest officers in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, says: "Natural contour is the ideal method for river linking. Cement and steel consumption would be minimal. The Krishna and Godavari basin development projects have reached a standstill for want of huge financial resources. Small and yet very attractive contour canal is a fantastic alternative. It should be used everywhere in the country to collect water from hilly terrain - especially water going to the sea on the west coast can be diverted to southern India which is facing a severe water crisis."

Ghorpade has announced that the State government would arrange a scheme to divert excess water from the Konkan to the rest of the State. The ground reality is that four years of drought in the State has made people furious. They will feel good only when they become water-secure.

A serious debate on this method of rainwater harvesting at the national level is the need of the hour.

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