The debate has intensified on whether nearly 2 million trees which are threatened by the Ken Betwa Link project in Bundelkhand region can be saved. In order to consider options, let us first remember that the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court of India had presented a strong critique of several aspects of this very expensive project, now estimated to cost around Rs. 35000 crore ( one crore=10 million) in August 2019.

Before and after this several independent experts, separately and in groups, have also criticized strongly the threat to many villagers as well as to nearly 10500 ha. of wild life habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve. In addition the lack of clear evidence that surplus water definitely still exists in the Ken to divert it to Betwa has been questioned. In popular discussion the project has been presented as a solution to Bundelkhand’s problems, but it may well aggravate the problems of people  here, particularly Panna (MP) and Banda (UP) districts.

In fact it is clear to many people who have been involved with water issues here that if the project funds are instead spent on small-scale water conservation and rainwater harvesting projects, apart  from repairing and improving existing traditional water systems, as well on increasing green cover in various ways, this will make a huge contribution to resolving the water crisis of Bundelkhand.

In the past also the water crisis in Bundelkhand has ben often attributed to deforestation as well as mismanagement and wrong priorities and not necessarily to inherent  water shortage..

 Bundelkhand normally receives about 900 to 1000 mm. annual rainfall.

 Bundelkhand has a network of seven major rivers – Chambal, Sind, Betwa, Dhansan, Ken, Tons, Yamuna, ten smaller rivers – Pahuj, Paisuni, Baghein, Sonar, Vyarma, Mahuar, Urmil, Lakheri, Jamni, Bina, and their numerous tributaries.

This region had also been rich in traditional water collection sources.

            A report titled ‘Problems and Potential of Bundelkhand with Special Reference to Water Resource base’ was prepared by the Centre for Rural Development and Technology (CRDT) and Vigyan Shiksha Kendra (VSK). This report (CRDT-VSK Report)  noted several special features of Bundelkhand. (Extracts) –

“The rainfall is capricious and erratic in amount, pattern, intensity and distribution. Extreme deviations from the normal are quite common. About 90 percent of the total rainfall is received during four months, July to September. The high intensity of rain hardly leaves any time for the water to infiltrate into the soil; and the deforestation has left little scope to capture the rainwater and transport it to ground-water levels.”

“Among the regions to the south of the Himalayan Foothills, Bundelkhand has a larger share of rocky formation with slopy terrain. Because of the Vindhyan plateaus flanked by high steep cliffs, this region has an unusually high rate of water run-off gushing towards the north, creating deep gorges and rapids. This has meant greater problems of water retention.”

Following this overview of the water situation in Bundelkhand we present here some effective, mostly low-cost solutions for water-scarcity in Bundelkhand.

(1)       Revival of Traditional Water Sources

In recent decades many traditional sources of water have suffered from neglect so that their potential for quenching the thirst of this region and its people is not being realized.

Adequate resources should be made available for repair, cleaning and maintenance of traditional water sources. As the CRDT-VSK Report says. “Notably, the reservoirs constructed at the foothills by the Chandelas between the ninth and thirteenth centuries and by the Bundelas later, are still existing, partially fulfilling the need for irrigation and even drinking water in their respective areas. All these reservoirs seem to have been scientifically designed with provision of spillways for surplus water. Some reservoirs are found to have been connected with canals which were used as recharging sources for the down-stream irrigation wells and/or for irrigating the fields directly. In addition, checkdams, weirs, barrages, wells, step-wells (bavdis) and artesian wells were constructed. Bundelkhand has, thus, a glorious tradition of reservoirs, tanks, ponds, wells, which have gone into disuse in certain parts of the region.” Adequate efforts should be made to protect the traditional water sources and their catchment areas, whenever this is possible.

Efforts should be made to understand how the traditional system works, particularly in the case of series of inter-linked water-sources, and renovation work should be carried out on the basis of this understanding. Local people should be closely involved not only in the actual work but also in the planning.

(ii)        New Water-Harvesting Work

             In addition, learning from the traditional well-constructed structures which have lasted for so long, new tanks, check dams, field-ponds, wells need to be created whenever feasible. In Patha or plateau areas, there is good scope for creating very low cost drinking water sources by tapping small natural springs and creating small well-like structures around them to keep water clean.

Some voluntary organizations have presented very good examples of water conservation . The work done at several places in Chitrakut distruct by the ABSSS is a good example of very useful small projects aimed more a providing relief to weaker sections and also making very good use of small budgets. The great acheievement of Mangal Singh, the well-known farmer scientist, in the form of Mangal Turbine is also very useful for promoting irrigation without using electricity and diesel. The NREGS has provided a good opportunity during the recent drought years for water-harvesting work on a significant scale, although frequently the work is marred by corruption.

In a paper titled ‘Solving water problems of Bundelkhand’, P.R. Pisharoty, well-known expert on water-related issues has made some specific recommendations,

  “Contour bunding on gently sloping terrain.

  Construction of a large number of water ponds three to four in each village, each of the ponds being at least 8 meters deep. The surface area of each pond can vary from a tenth of a hectare to one or two hactares. They should be so located that each has a catchment area fifty to hundred times its surface area. A depth of 8 meters at least is necessary, since the average evaporation over the Bundelkhand area is two to three meters of water per year. Water from some of these tanks can be pumped into deep wells as a method of recharging ground water.

Individual houses or housing complexes should have underground, cement lined “reservoirs” into which the rain water falling on the roofs of the buildings and the open spaces around them can be led through suitable closed pipes or channels.

  Shallow broad area percolation tanks. Due to the heaviness of our rainfall, it is less penetrating in proportion to quantity than in those countries where much of it falls in a state of fine division. The rate of penetration over Bundelkhand area is likely to be 10 to 15 percent of the monsoon rainfalls. Hence the need for special efforts to increase the ground water recharge.

It will be useful if water in the river courses are pumped into deep wells a kilometre or so away from the river channels. Small check dams across the river would provide small pools from which the water can be pumped.”

 

iii)        Need to Protect Forests, To Plant More Trees

             As forests of this region have been badly depleted in recent years, there is a clear need to protect whatever is left and to plant many more trees.

A massive effort for afforestation of the hills which can be successful only with the close involvement of people particularly the weaker sections is really needed. As afforestation is not easy on denuded hills, soil and water conservation efforts have to be made to first create conducive conditions for plants and trees to survive. Mixed indigenous species should be planted, trying to mimic natural local forests as much as possible. Regeneration of degraded areas should be taken up with the involvement of weaker sections, particularly tribal communities.

The CRDT-VSK Report emphasises the role of grasslands. “Development of grasslands, as sources of fodder for cattle is necessary to prevent cattle grazing in the hills slopes. Grasslands, apart from providing fodder and contributing to the success of afforestation of hills, will help soaking of the rain and recharging groundwater.”

iv) Need to Impose Restrictions on Practices which Increase Water Scarcity

             At least three such restrictions may be emphasised here (a) restrictions on excessive groundwater extraction (b) restrictions on destructive mining practices and (c) restrictions on highly water-intensive crops. In particular destructive mining practices have been responsible in a very big way for creating water scarcity in several villages.

If adequate attention is given to all these aspects then water scarcity can be tackled in a very effective away and there is no need really for implementing costly dubious projects like the Ken-Betwa Link,  projects which involve high wastage, big budgets, ecological ruin and displacement of people.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.


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