Tired of grappling with this perpetual crisis, they undertook a landmark water conservation endeavour to make their village water-abundant, drought-resistant and self-sufficient.
Surdi, Maharashtra: Roughly 51 km from Solapur district in western Maharashtra, Surdi village has a modest population of 3,350. While most villages in this belt face a perennial water crisis, with harsh summers that leave water bodies dry, Surdi in Barshi tehsil is a unique lesson in watershed conservation.
Keen on resolving their water woes, villagers, including women and children, spearheaded a community-driven watershed conservation project, covering 18,070 sqm, earning them the title “water tanker-mukt (free) village”.
In fact, the central government even recognised their efforts: the Surdi Gram Panchayat won the third prize in the “Best Village Panchayat” category at the National Water Awards 2022 organised by the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti.
Spurred into action
Since 2010, there seemed to be no end to the water crisis in Surdi, which only progressively worsened with each passing year. Every February, all water resources would dry up due to the depletion of groundwater levels. Moreover, according to the district data report, the village receives an annual average rainfall of only 601 mm.
Villagers said most of the existing wells were bone dry, which had forced several residents to migrate out of Surdi permanently. Many of them had also tried to sell their agricultural land, albeit unsuccessfully, given that there were no takers amid the water scarcity.
Eager to tackle the problem, some local youth, led by Madhukar Doiphode — a social worker and resident of Surdi — convened a meeting with the villagers to discuss the issue in detail and come up with practical solutions. They then decided to undertake community-driven watershed management projects to save the village from water shortages.
Earlier, Doiphode was instrumental in motivating villagers to keep their land clean and green. He had participated in the Tantamukti Gao Abhiyan scheme, a state government initiative, and had also attended many workshops on water conservation. After one such workshop, he decided to resolve Surdi's water crisis at the village level, tackling the problem at the source.
“We agreed that groundwater recharge through rainwater harvesting could help, but that alone would not resolve this water crisis,” he told 101Reporters.
Without waiting for help from the district administration, the villagers, including women and children, came forward to construct a 600-m-long trench along Surdi’s village limits to allow rainwater to percolate within the settlement. Though it was mainly community funded, the gram panchayat had reached out to the state agricultural department, which then provided technical assistance for the project with the requisite government approvals. Through their combined effort, the villagers managed to revive their parched village pond with rainwater.
“Initially, it was difficult to unite the villagers for water conservation efforts, but after consistent counselling, the residents were ready,” said Doiphode.
Villagers spent around three hours a day fetching water for their daily needs on average, he estimated. This worked out to around 90 hours a month and 45 days a year. Instead, if each family contributed eight to 10 days of labour to dig the trench, a permanent solution to this problem could be devised. These calculations convinced the community to take up the watershed project.
Together, the watershed management projects in the village can store up to 30 crore litres of water, surpassing the community's requirements (Picture credit - Madhukar Doiphode)
Sulbha Balu Mohir was one such villager who was encouraged to participate in the community initiative.
“It was difficult to carry 3 to 4 vessels of water at a time. So when we heard about this community work, we gladly participated without a second thought,” Mohir told 101Reporters.
Uma Thopte, a 37-year-old resident of Surdi, earlier spent several hours a day fetching water for her family of six, often having to pull her son, a Class 6 student, from school to help in the peak summer months of March-April.
“But after this conservation work, our well now has water and there’s no need to travel long for it anymore,” she said.
Collaborative efforts equal lasting impact
Together, the villagers developed small basins and ponds on hilltops to conserve water. When their united efforts exceeded expectations, they went ahead with more challenging community projects. In the last year and a half, they took up a number of water conservation projects — rivulet deepening, a gabion watershed project, consecutive plane variables, deep construction contour trenches, deep drenches, inlet and outlet water tanks, farm ponds, check dams and stone check dams, among others.
“This watershed management project can store up to 30 crore litres, which surpasses the village requirement,” Doiphode added.
Elated with her ward, village sarpanch Sujata Doiphode told 101Reporters: “Scarcity of water was a major concern for the people of this region. However, with the collective participation of people, an impossible task was made possible. The situation changed so drastically that we’ve started cultivating cash crops [like sugarcane, grapes, leafy vegetables], and many of our villagers regularly export superior quality fruits and vegetables to Pune and Mumbai.”
Tukaram Shinde, a farmer from Surdi, said: “Earlier, I used to cultivate only rain-fed crops like jowar and bajra. In 2016, I had decided to sell my 2.5-acre plot, considering the water crisis. Fortunately for me, there were no buyers at that time. However, after the watershed project, I now grow leafy vegetables and export them to markets in Pune and Mumbai.”
Sujata also recalled how the village earlier depended on two hand pumps and wells each.
“These water sources went dry every summer, and villagers — mostly women — had to trek 2 to 3 km to fetch water from a well in an agriculture field,” she added.
Anuradha Magar, another resident of Surdi, told 101Reporters, “Even pregnant women would endure the gruelling trek of procuring water for daily chores.”
It was unsurprising that more women participated in the community watershed project than men — according to the villagers, around 50 to 60% of the women in Surdi participated in the project. They knew the value of each drop as even pregnant women would bear the physical exertion and exhaustion of collecting water from distant locations. They didn't require much persuasion either, unlike the youngsters who joined in only after some counselling.
Abinandan Shelke, a farmer from Surdi, said, “Earlier, many villagers destroyed their crops because they could not consistently purchase water from tankers. However, with water availability growing, the area under onion and grapes is likely to increase.”
Instead of spending three hours a day (or 90 hours a month / 45 days a year), each family was convinced to contribute just eight to 10 days of labour to dig the trench (Picture credit - Madhukar Doiphode)
Furthermore, as soon as villagers became self-sufficient in water conservation, the gram panchayat passed a new resolution that mandated the responsible and judicious use of water. It banned flood irrigation of farmlands in the village, and instead, directed residents to opt for drip irrigation.
The efforts of the villagers didn’t go unnoticed by the district authorities, who commended them for their consolidated work.
“The villagers of Surdi have displayed the strength of unity. They set an example of how any village can become self-sufficient in water management,” said District Collector Milind Shambharkar. “By taking inspiration from Surdi, I’m confident that water conservation and augmentation work will be undertaken in other villages in the district.”
Edited by Grace Jayanthi
This article is a part of a 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we will explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
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