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In the seminal Hindi movie Lagaan, villagers eagerly await ‘Kale Megha’ (black clouds). The arrival of ‘Kale Megha’ is greeted by a song and dance to welcome the blessings that rains bring. This song is one of many cultural expressions of our connection and dependence on the monsoon, more so in rural areas.
Agriculture in India is largely rainfed, especially in regions away from rivers. With the dependence on monsoons, this has usually resulted in unpredictability and instability for farmers. Rains not only irrigate crops but also ensure refilling of aquifers and water bodies. Over time, particularly because of rapid urbanisation (concrete buildings, pavements, etc leave less surface area for water to percolate) and heavy use of groundwater in agriculture, industries, etc, this natural balance has been disturbed. In many parts of India, water is now being extracted at a much greater rate than its recharging rate in the monsoon season.
In the last few years, with rainfall getting increasingly unpredictable, and the impact of climate change, some places are witnessing significant changes in their mean rainfall pattern as well as the intensity and frequencies of extreme rainfall events.
One such city is Gwalior, which lies in the northern corner of the central state in India, and has a semi-arid climate as it falls in a rain shadow area. It is one of the hottest cities in India. It is also a historical city that houses the incredible Assi Khamba Ki Baori (80 pillared step well) for water storage built by Maharaja Man Singh Tomar (c. 1500 CE) and is home to a multitude of smaller rainwater harvesting structures (Ek patthar ki baoli, etc) across the city, most of which are no longer in use.
On average, Gwalior district receives an annual rainfall of 764.4 mm from the southwest monsoon in the months of June, July, August and September. 89.1% of the annual rainfall occurs in these months, with a few showers in the winters. Around 42.9% of the total area in the district is being used for agricultural purposes (as counted under the Net Sown area), out of which around 1,15,787 hectares is irrigated and 96,455 hectares remain rainfed. The rainfall it receives throughout the year has declined substantially in recent years in many parts of Gwalior increasing farmers’ dependence on groundwater.
Presently, most of the irrigation takes place through borewells i.e. groundwater, which leaves the district vulnerable to a water crisis with dwindling groundwater levels. This wasn’t always the case. Till 1960, farmers were dependent mostly on monsoon rainfall and very few dug wells existed to irrigate by a moat. The deep aquifers were totally unexploited till 1960, but after that, the groundwater development in the district progressed and till June 2012, the number of irrigation dug wells reached 15615 and tube wells/ bore wells reached 5778.
Borewells are now a common sight on most agricultural fields. The illusion created, with easy availability and access to water (and thereby increase in productivity), is that borewells will always be able to pump out water without drying up.
However, groundwater is a finite resource that accumulated over many years and needs to be replenished, especially the shallower aquifers from which water is used for agriculture. In some senses then, the independence of agriculture from monsoon is a short-lived one.
In some places in villages around Gwalior, borewell depth is now as much as 700 feet or more. Given that we depend on rains to replenish our groundwater, it then becomes crucial to evaluate the added risks that will come from changes in monsoon patterns and rainfall conditions due to climate change. It is also important to safeguard against such scenarios and invest in rainwater harvesting.
“Itne barish hote the ki kaddu ko hum tairakar le jate the sadak tak, uthane ke zaroorat nahi padte the (It used to rain so much that the fields would get flooded. We would float the pumpkins till the road instead of having to carry them),” says Bhagwandas Bhatham, a resident of Panihar village in Gwalior District.
His family once owned many acres of land but now work on around 0.27 acre land and on fields that they have taken on lease on an oral contractual basis. He clearly remembers that till around 10-12 years back, it used to rain heavily even if it was for a small number of days in the monsoon season.
Bhagwan Das’s experience is echoed by the Observed Rainfall Variability and Changes over Madhya Pradesh State report published by Climate Research and Services, India Meteorological Department, Ministry of Earth Sciences, Pune – there’s a significant decrease in heavy rainfall days over the monsoon season and throughout the year in Gwalior district over the last thirty years.
“Kabhi ek do saal nahi hote the barish, bahut barish hote hai (There used to be a year or two where it might not rain much, but generally it rained a lot).” He adds that their crops have changed over time from peas, water chestnuts and pumpkins in the past to wheat, peas, and bajra (pearl millet). “800 foot par pani hai yaha (Our borewell gives water at around 800 feet depth).”
In some places around his land, the depth of the borewells is even more. “Nehar hai peeche yaha magar sirf barish ke mausam me he paani aata hai usme kyuki talab bhi sookh jata hai garmi me (And even though there is an nehar (irrigation canal) near our field, it only has water in the monsoon season as the (Raipur) lake from where it starts also dries up in the summers)”.
On being asked the reason behind this change in rainfall, his wife says, “jangal kaat rahe hai magar usse gaon me vikas hota hai (They’re cutting down forests and that is affecting the rains, but we need it for development in the villages)”.
It is a reality that a water crisis is looming in the Gwalior region. According to the report by India Meteorological Department in Pune, the frequency of rainy days has decreased significantly over the monsoon and throughout the year in Gwalior in the last thirty years.
A report by Gwalior Municipal Corporation also recognizes how long term water level declines as a result of injudicious exploitation of groundwater resources have contributed to reduced well yields, low water level and leakage into the aquifer of highly mineralised water.
“In order to overcome these serious environmental implications the recharge potential of groundwater resources has to be given utmost importance. In Gwalior city, no importance has been given to groundwater recharge during the last decade. As a result, groundwater is deteriorating at a very fast pace. It is very important for all upcoming new developments to have rainwater harvesting measures. Even the government can improve the urban environment by providing recharge wells at suitable locations,” the report notes.
In the District Groundwater Information Booklet, published by the Central Ground Water Board (CBWB), an urgent need to recharge groundwater in the Gwalior district has been noted. It recommends proper usage of groundwater resources (and borewells) keeping in mind the long term trends (which show a declining water table in this region). Gwalior already has many water harvesting structures in place, which can be revived and used to store rainwater and replenish groundwater.
Additionally, as suggested by the CBWB, artificial recharge needs to be done through the creation of percolation tanks, check dams, etc.
In a region with historically low rainfall that’s further declining because of climate change, it’s of utmost importance to create awareness and provide aid to build water harvesting structures, especially in the agricultural fields where groundwater levels are also so low. Without water conservation, the city and the local food production systems face an existential threat.