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Charting a conservation path

Charting a conservation path
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First Published: Wed, May 26 2010. 08 47 PM IST

Water table: (top) G. Nagaraju, a hydrological facilitator, explains a chart comparing rainfall figures with groundwater levels at Krishnapuram village in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh; (below) K
Water table: (top) G. Nagaraju, a hydrological facilitator, explains a chart comparing rainfall figures with groundwater levels at Krishnapuram village in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh; (below) K
Updated: Wed, May 26 2010. 08 47 PM IST
Krishnapuram, Andhra Pradesh: Around the centre of the village of Krishnapuram, in south-western Andhra Pradesh, the walls abutting the tapered streets are festooned with several unusual frescos—unusual because they aren’t portraits of film stars or politicians, or logos of soft drinks, the wall art otherwise commonly found in villages.
Water table: (top) G. Nagaraju, a hydrological facilitator, explains a chart comparing rainfall figures with groundwater levels at Krishnapuram village in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh; (below) K.Veerachari and G. Ramaiah (right) measure the water discharge from a borewell in a field outside Krishnapuram. Photo: Bharath Sai / Mint
Instead, these are carefully plotted graphs, painted in vivid blue and yellow, bearing a wealth of data in both numerals and smudgy Telugu: rainfall statistics, crop-yield comparisons, averages of groundwater readings. The central fresco depicts a balance, one pan (indicating groundwater recharge) outweighed by the other (groundwater draft). Often, a Krishnapuram farmer will stand scrutinizing these paintings closely, like a traveller at an airport peering at the departures board.
K. Veerachari, the artist behind these paintings, is a bow-legged, middle-aged farmer himself. He owns 6 acres of land outside the village, from which he coaxes groundnuts, and black and red gram. He also sits on Krishnapuram’s Groundwater Monitoring Committee (GMC), which mulls over readings from rain gauges and observation wells to work out how much water to use. “Groundwater depletion is like AIDS,” Veerachari likes to say. “The effects spread. If another farmer draws too much, it can hurt you.”
The village GMC is the smallest unit in a Food and Agriculture Organization-funded project that, since the summer of 2003, has been marshalling NGOs to work, with nearly a million farmers, in seven of the state’s most drought-prone districts. The Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System (or APFAMGS) seeks to invert the traditional logic of groundwater management. Instead of instructing farmers how much water to draw—and policing that limit—APFAMGS encourages farmers to collect local water data and to make their own decisions.
The result, according to a World Bank study released earlier this year, has been “the first global example of large-scale success in community management of groundwater use”. The report’s principal author, Sanjay Pahuja, admits that he had to restrain himself from sounding too enthusiastic. “You often think there’s no answer to this sort of problem, and then you stumble onto something good like this,” he says over the phone from Washington, DC. “This is quite unique.”
On a map, the district of Kurnool resembles a fox terrier’s head, and Krishnapuram is located on the nape of its neck. Hydrologically, this is unforgiving terrain. Rain trickles into underground aquifers via slender channels of rock—and not, as in the Gangetic plain, via accommodating alluvial soil. The monsoon is temperamental; between 2000 and 2005, Krishnapuram ran into three torrid years where the deficit in rainfall ranged from 30-50%. Between April and early July, when the heat hammers down upon the earth, farmers must sustain crops on the meagre groundwater, like an automobile running on petrol fumes.
Much of this area falls within what experts such as N.C. Ghosh, a groundwater expert at the National Institute of Hydrology, ominously call “the dark zone”, where groundwater is dwindling at a rapid rate. Ghosh deplores the use of alarmist terms such as “desertification”—which emerged last year after two studies charted dropping groundwater levels in north India—but he doesn’t deny the gravity of the situation. “Aquifers aren’t being recharged by rainfall, because so many areas are now paved, and more water is being drawn,” Ghosh says. “It’s a simple equation.”
And yet, convincing farmers of that equation turned out to be APFAMGS’ earliest challenge. G. Nagaraju, a hard-working, even-tempered hydrogeologist working with APFAMGS in Kurnool, remembers his first session with Krishnapuram’s farmers. “They said: ‘Why are you lying to us? We were pumping water for 18 hours a day in the 1980s, and the groundwater didn’t run out,’” Nagaraju recalls. And then, most bitingly, the farmers would say: “Go back to your office.”
Sitting next to Nagaraju and fanning himself, G.V. Konda Reddy, the president of Krishnapuram’s GMC, smiles sheepishly and says: “It’s true. We did.”
After a year, Krishnapuram started to get more involved. Every fortnight, G. Ramaiah, a whippet-thin farmer, threads a sensor through his borewell until it hits water and emits a beep; then he records the depth in a ledger. (“We used to buy this sensor from an agency for Rs12,000, but that was too costly,” Ramaiah says. “So we made our own. For Rs4,000.”) Whenever it rains, Veerachari walks to a crude rain-gauge station—fenced off by double rolls of barbed wire, to keep cattle out—and takes a rainfall reading at precisely 8.30am.
These readings really come into their own at the annual, day-long budget meeting, every October or November, when all the GMCs in a particular hydrological unit—bound by their dependence upon a common aquifer—come together. These meetings, Nagaraju says, can be huge; in the district of Mahbubnagar, near Hyderabad, more than 1,000 farmers attend.
The focus of these meetings (and really, of the entire year’s data collation) is a sheaf of cloth banners hung from a bamboo pole, a sort of rustic PowerPoint, where slides advance by flipping over one banner and moving to the next. With the data on these “slides”, the GMCs tackle some crucial questions. How much water has the aquifer received? How much has been used by farmers already, given the crops they’ve planted? And to keep the groundwater deficit as low as possible, what crops should they plant in the forthcoming winter months?
The aqueous arithmetic performed in these meetings is, Nagaraju admits, a simplification of real-life dynamics. Even professional hydrologists, Pahuja says, are far from being able to predict precise groundwater levels, “but here it’s being done in a relative way, and my sense is that’s why it’s working”. What farmers need is a robust rule of thumb to help decide, for instance, whether to plant water-intensive paddy or water-economic groundnut—and that’s what APFAMGS provides.
The results, both anecdotal and statistical, appear remarkable. When APFAMGS started work in Kurnool, eight of its villages were on the state’s blacklist for drilling too many borewells and drawing too much water; now only two villages remain on that list. The cultivation of cotton—a crop perpetually thirsty for water—has virtually ceased; the acreage under groundnut, on the other hand, has risen sharply.
Most tellingly, according to three-year survey by the World Bank and the University of Hyderabad, only 7% of the hydrological units witnessed an increase in groundwater draft. It is a result that Pahuja’s report terms “unprecedented”, before going on to add: “[T]he approach is quite economical, with the average cost per village community estimated at US$2,000 (Rs95,200)… per year.”
Much about APFAMGS has unwittingly subscribed to the work of Elinor Ostrom, whose work on the Commons—or community resources, such as groundwater—won her the 2009 Economics Nobel. Ostrom famously laid out eight principles to govern the Commons, and APFAMGS follows most of them. Its rules are matched to local conditions; disputes are settled easily and effectively; farmers can modify and shape the rules; governance rises in nested tiers, from the farmer via the GMC to the hydrological unit network.
The one Ostrom principle that APFAMGS doesn’t deploy is that of sanctions for rule-breakers. Veerachari and Konda Reddy insist that the GMC delivers no slaps on the wrists of farmers who waste groundwater; indeed, they grow progressively baffled as they are asked this question, in various forms, over many hours. Veerachari does reveal that they have assistance from one unexpected quarter: “The government only gives us electricity for five to seven hours a day. Really, even if you wanted to, how much water could you possibly pump in that time?”
During his study, Pahuja observed that, somehow, APFAMGS had instilled among its farmers a respect for each other’s needs. This strength, which may have eliminated the need for sanctions, is also a weakness: “It makes the model that much harder to replicate,” Pahuja says.
But largely, APFAMGS seems to rely upon its keen grasp of psychology. It trusts that, given every ounce of information possible, more farmers are likely to be conservative than risk-takers; that farmers would rather adhere to a guideline formulated by consensus in their village than in a distant chamber in Hyderabad; and that watching the benefits of the scheme unfurl around them is the best impetus to participate.
One particular drought year, Veerachari remembers, a particular cohort of farmers insisted on planting paddy, even though their colleagues warned them against it. “They were just overconfident, and of course, there wasn’t enough water, so they lost their crop,” he says. But no admonitions were exchanged, and no penalties extracted. “The next year, when water ran low again, those farmers planted groundnut. And they didn’t have to be advised to do it. They just knew it was the sensible thing to do.”
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First Published: Wed, May 26 2010. 08 47 PM IST