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Collective Water Management Through Water Banks

Agro-scientist Arun Deshpande has converted a dry watershed into a water bank that stores five crore litres of water at Ankoli village in the district of Solapur, Maharashtra. Water audit played a major role in this transformation.

It was just sunshine, barren land, a little bit of water and no finance that a few villagers of Ankoli began with in 2002. But, eight years later, they have a water bank of 500m circumference with a lush green plantation on its sides in a district considered one of the driest in Solapur, Maharashtra. The success of this experiment has led to the sanction of 25 more such water banks by the government in the surrounding areas. The agro-scientist who penned this success story is Arun Deshpande, ably supported by his wife, Sumangala, a Science communicator.

After having witnessed the “death like insects” of Bhopal gas victims as the head of People for Science movement, he, and thousands of other Indian scientists, decided to stop aiding multinational companies and begin using their knowledge management for the benefit of their own country. “Bhopal was the turning point in my life,” he says.

So, when Deshpande decided to return to his native village Ankoli in 1986, he was shocked to see that the bavdi (well) he used to dive in for a swim during his childhood had lost all its water. All the wells were dry, even if they were dug 300ft down. The villagers were dependent on the government tankers for their daily supply of water. The plants refused to take root in the soil. Over two decades of use of bore wells and hazardous submersible pumps had pumped the village dry.

Deshpande along with family, neighbours and engineers went in for scientific plantation using every principle and technology developed in the world that they could learn of. The first step was to stop the winds from the Western side that were drying up the water in the watershed. By using every drop of water they could save and manage, they began planting drought-resistant trees – Babul, Neem, Ber and Subabul (Hawaiian Giant) – on the western side. The trees grew in five years. This thick plantation stopped hot desiccating winds from the western side of the watershed and gave it protection. Now, whatever water was conserved from the rain remained in the well. “We utilised every drop carefully.”

The entire process of such plantation has a snowballing effect. The leaves of the plants that fall on the earth form a layer called the mulch. This insulating layer saves the soil from the sun and keeps its temperature below 30OC, thus stopping water from evaporating. Gradually, inch by inch, the entire area was covered with plantation which protected the water. But, a drought in 1998 changed all that. It ruined the efforts of all those years. With not a drop for drinking, 900 able-bodied people of a total population of 5000 left the village for cities. The plantation dried up. Many of the animals that were shifted to cattle camps, died.

“We began rethinking on water audit. And that is when the inconvenient truth evolved,” says Deshpande. “By exporting the crops and selling them in the market, we were actually exporting the virtual water content in the products to the cities.” Their audit showed that when they exported one litre of milk to the cities, they were exporting 10,000lt of water with it as water was used for cattle, fodder, etc. The export of one egg meant 600lt of water, one kilogramme of mutton – 35,000lt of water, one kg of sugar – 4000lt, one kg of wheat 6000lt, one kg of rice – 11,000lt, one kg of paper – 35000lt and 1.5kg of beef meant 50 tonnes of water. That was shocking news for them.

“One upper middle class family in a city spends 1.5 crore litres of water every day – directly or indirectly – and much of it comes from the villages. We decided to go on a non co-operation strike with the market and stop export of every drop of water by not selling anything to the city. To earn a net income of one rupee, a farmer has to spend 1,500lt of water. And in order to be above poverty line (for which one needs an income of Rs36,000pa), he has to spend 36,000 kilo litre of water i.e. 3,60,00,000lt of water,” informs Deshpande.

It was in 2002 that the idea of the water bank struck Deshpande. After digging his water shed 26ft down from its original position, he lined it with a special plastic – “Geo membrane” of Ecoplast that has multi-layered thermal lining and costs Rs700,000. Nearly one to two lakh sqft plastic is used in the oval-shaped nano water bank. The plantation of drought-resistant trees was attempted again. Mulch and further plantation followed which would act as the protector of water. “With the plantation, we have changed the velocity of the winds. Evaporation is directly proportional to the cube of wind velocity i.e. if velocity is three times, evaporation goes in proportion of 27 times.”

As the water shed is owned by 22 members of five families (the joint family of Deshpande) and was to be further sub divided into 22 narrow strips 600m long and 15m wide – it would have lost out a large quantity of water to erosion. It took Deshpande six years of convincing all of them to go in for a single water bank. By opting for Continuous Contour Trenches (CCTs), he could trench the watershed correctly on contour, plant trees and bund small streams. Every inch of water they could manage, was collected in the water shed. “Collective water and soil management has its own benefits,” he says.

People deposited water in this water bank and withdrew from it. The bank works on the simple formula of any bank – deposit water and withdraw from it. But, there is no overdraft facility here. Nobody can withdraw more than he/she has deposited. “My dream was to convert it into a sponge that would absorb all the water. It is now fulfilled.”

The nano watershed, on an eroded ridge of Bhima-Seena river basin, measures 50 acres – five metres above ground and three metres below the ground. The water bank, with a capacity of five crore litres of water, is situated in the water shed’s depression – which is around five acres – and is surrounded by plantation. Average rainfall in the area is 500mm but the total evaporation is 2500mm. In the rainy season, the water remains in the wells for two-three months. At least 10% of that water is saved/deposited. Thirty crore litres of water is taken as deposit from all the families from their wells throughout the year and then disbursed daily and occasionally. The members deposit water by using their own pumps and pipelines. One main pipeline comes from the common lift irrigation system.

Artificial aeration is used to keep the water clean. The water is allowed to fall into the shed from a height so that it carries air with it. Then, there is ample sunshine too. Apart from that, a friend of Deshpande makes Evaloc chemical spray which is sprayed on the water surface to stop the evaporation of water. An organic product of mustard oil, Evaloc is not hazardous and is eaten with food too. Every drop of the water is measured. It is computerised and people have been trained to work out the figures.

This water is not for export, it is reserved for self sustenance – for family gardens, animals and domestic consumption. Whatever is left after consumption is saved/deposited.

Now, 25 water banks are sanctioned by the government and banks. The proposal has been accepted. Ten women can come in together and form a paani panchayat. They can get loan from nationalised banks while the government’s agriculture department will give them subsidies. While plastic required for lining the water bank will get 100% subsidy, the banks will also give subsidies for family gardens. But then, there is one condition: These water banks are meant only for Reverse Migration. They are meant for farm house societies (RUrban habitats) of working class that stays in slums in the cities as unorganised labour and wants to return to the village. This water will not be allowed to be exported or used for organic farming or producing anything for the cities.

“I am very serious about pulling villagers back from cities i.e. reverse migration. My farm can support 100 families returning to the village with a RUrban (Rural+Urban on the knowledge based synthesis) lifestyle. We won’t be dependent on the market, we will be self-sustained. We grow our houses. We produce our own electricity by bicycle dynamo generator. For a family of one, one hour of cycling is sufficient for lighting, electrification and even computerisation,” avers Deshpande.

He has one request to make via CIJ: “Anyone who wants to see these 25 water banks come up in Solapur and is willing, should come forward and stand guarantor to one such woman. Banks doubt the credit standing of these villagers and want guarantors to release loans for the water banks.” Can you do it?

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