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Building resilience and managing water resources in semi-arid regions

Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

Sehgal Foundation’s efforts in managing and conserving water resources are continuing for over two decades. Foundation’s work primarily started in district Nuh, which is an aspirational district, and now extends to 980 villages across eight states of India, including Karauli district in Rajasthan and southern regions such as Anantapur and Kolar in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka respectively. In most of the geographies where we work, low availability of water is caused either by the topography or over extraction of water with reducing rainfall over the years leading to dipping water table in some cases and increase in water salinity in others. We work on soil moisture retention, augmenting surface and groundwater, efficient irrigation techniques, besides potable water. With better crop quality and water availability for irrigation farmers can sow cash crops and vegetables, which improves their income and positively affects other aspects of a farmer’s life. Our journey is special in many ways; it focuses on community-led water management and building climate resilience; since freshwater resources are scarce, the foundation team has created innovative technologies that help create freshwater resources in saline water aquifers through high pressure recharge wells and help increase access to household level drinking water technologies.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

Together with the communities, Sehgal Foundation’s integrated approach to water management starts with involving the community right at the beginning, water committees are made, and blueprint of the intervention is discussed, blending the traditional knowledge with scientific principles. Our team has always believed in ‘learning by doing’ and engaging in partnerships to scale up impact. These beliefs have shaped the way we work with our partners, but has also led to several innovations, including integration of silt traps in check dams structures, creating freshwater pockets within saline aquifers, rainwater harvesting systems with storage tanks, and a stainless steel biosand filter model, recognized by industry experts, national and international organizations. The biosand filter technology (JalKalp) developed by the foundation to address biological, arsenic, iron, manganese contamination, and turbidity in water effectively aims at the ground conditions of north eastern part of India. The technology was adapted from the precast cement filters developed by CAWST, Canada, to suit local conditions and is successfully working in rural households. Sehgal Foundation also promotes ceramic pot filter technology (MatiKalp) considering the affordability of poorest of poor and at the same time giving livelihoods to village potters. Our model of demand creation revolves around empowering the communities through sensitization and awareness building. In the HWTS field, we see great potential opportunities in entrepreneurship model and microfinance support. Focus on centralized schemes and expensive HWTS products available in market act as barriers, however effective awareness building, tangible results, user’s training and monitoring remain the key to success.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

In Nuh district in Haryana, the water sources and soils both are affected by increased salinity. Only water sources at the foothills of Aravallis have freshwater. Our interventions are based on integrated approach to arrest the salinity issues. Groundwater levels are augmented through check dams, contour trenches, dug well recharging, pressurized recharge wells, and others meeting the agricultural needs of the farmers. The impact of climate change hits the farmers most. As number of rainy days have reduced and rain comes in more intensive spells, it results in lesser percolation of water into the ground and most of it flows as surface runoff without benefitting local lands. Water conservation structures act as a barrier and provide sufficient time for water to percolate and help in increasing the groundwater and surface water helping in achieving water security and food security. Thus, building farmer’s resilience for climate change.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

Nuh district has highly saline groundwater. Overexploitation causes fast depletion of fresh groundwater resources leading to encroachment by surrounding saline groundwater. In order to harvest and use rainwater, foundation team’s first trials attempted to harvest rainwater and store it in concrete tanks for use throughout the year. This was appreciated by the villagers, but the high cost of constructing a concrete tank large enough to store water throughout the year proved to be a stumbling block. Where cost is a consideration, recharging the groundwater by directing harvested rainwater into a recharge well is a popular solution. In areas like Nuh where the groundwater is highly saline, this method does not work. In a conventional recharge well rainwater floats over the saline groundwater. In order to maintain hydraulic equilibrium this freshwater layer gradually spreads over a large area and ultimately forms a thin layer. This thin layer is difficult to extract as any attempt at pumping it out causes an influx of saline groundwater. The innovative model of recharge well is designed in a way to form a sizeable pocket of freshwater within the saline aquifer which can be exploited without getting it mixed with surrounding saline water.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

Sehgal Foundation’s water interventions have been designed and implemented in semi-arid and arid areas that face over-exploitation with minimal recharging and augmentation of underground water resources. These areas are hotspots of climate change and drought vulnerabilities that are inherent. The communities are primarily dependent on groundwater for daily consumption. This grave situation presented a huge challenge in front of us, which needed sensitization on how it is affecting water resources and agriculture, capacity building on coping mechanisms, and taking the community along. Trust building was key to overcome these challenges, explain its effects to the community so they are encouraged to sustain and maintain these interventions.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

The social and physical capital, both need to be taken forward to ensure sustainability. Change can continue with empowered communities. Sehgal Foundation forms Water Management Committees (WMC), Tank User Groups (TUG), Village Development Committees (VDCs). Since community ownership is critical to the sustainability of village improvements and infrastructure, the Sehgal Foundation team organizes WMCs/TUGs/VDCs that operate, manage, and assist with all the work to assure that improvements are maintained and that citizens are engaged. Sehgal Foundation creates a small corpus ranging from 5-25,000₹ raised through community contribution that is deposited in a joint bank account managed and operated by community representatives. The VDCs generally have representation from all religions, caste, and socially diverse groups. We consider cost sharing as an effective first step towards sustainability and an essential tool for building accountability in participation and quality into interventions.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

The entire initiative journey has been full of experiential learning, the biggest being the use local hydrological knowledge blended with scientific evidences. Our linkages and partnerships with organizations, government, and consortiums such as GWP, SaciWaters, UNICEF, and NIRDPR have helped us invest grassroots knowledge in replicable innovative models, also shared at the United Nations. Our partnerships with IITs and with CAWST are perfect examples to show the partnership impact. HWTS model ‘Jalkalp’ has been listed as a technology to look upto by DST, GoI; we now train practitioners on HWTS technologies. The more affordable model of ‘Matikalp’ is being taken up for testing and deployment by IITs and Potters for Peace. The details of our innovative models are shared through research papers, NGOs trainings, expert talks on community radio and toll free number. Upscaling and large scale replication of tested models is possible through partnerships only including People-Public-Private.