Commemorating the ‘World Water Day’ is perhaps an opportune moment for us to write on a subject which has triggered the usual lamentations and crisis management measures by the political and bureaucratic class.

When water shortages occur the mindset is myopic, one of acceptance, finding scapegoats and more often than not laying the blame on truant rains. That’s where the problem begins. It is reported that India is one among 17 water stressed nations in the world leading to a misconception that facing water scarcity is normal.

India has above average annual rainfall of 1100 mm which is much more than most of the European nations, the US (715 mm) and China (645 mm). India, endowed plenty of rivers, utilises around 8 per cent of the rainfall which indicates the inbuilt potential to harness it more optimally.

Contractors and consultants propose expensive concrete structures to harvest rainwater in urban areas, but there are simple solutions requiring minimal investment.

At each site, Rainwater can be easily harvested and led to the ground through Graded Gravel Pits (GGP), which are cost effective and contribute to Shallow Aquifer Recharge. Also, shallow wells can act as a source cum recharge mechanism.

The indiscriminate use of tube-wells has contributed to constant decline of water tables. Storm water drains are presently being utilised for transporting water from one area to another.

Instead, if rainwater is harvested in Storm water drains by putting micro GGPs, in a distributed manner, it will help to recharge the ground soil and only the overflow has to be led out. The GGPs filter the stormwater and recharge in all directions. This may be termed as “Rain Harvesting Storm Water Drains (RH-SWD)” which can help in soil recharge and reduction of flooding.

Focus on soil

The water problem should be viewed holistically along with soil, which is a living being but which humankind treats as ‘dirt’.

A handful of soil contains millions of individual living organisms. Living soil is typically rich in organic matter and nutrients, which can hold water and support the growth and development of plants.

Soil has an enormous capacity to hold water and is the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth holding 6 to 8 times the combined capacity of all river basins put together; and 95 per cent of food is directly or indirectly produced through soil.

On an average, a unit of soil contains 50 per cent soil particles, 25 per cent water and 25 per cent voids. Soil has the best strength at optimum moisture content and has excellent water holding capacity provided it has the right properties. Soils with higher organic matter (OM) content have greater water holding capacity as OM acts like a sponge, retaining water and providing a more stable environment for plant growth.

OM can retain up to 10 times its weight of water, because OM particles have a charged surface that attracts water, making it a key factor in water storage.

OM increase calls for incorporating compost, manure, or other stable organic materials to soil. OM such as coconut coir, peat moss, or even compost, will absorb water, retaining moisture that plants can use during dry spells.

Recommended approach

Increasing water holding capacity: For soil health, the Centre, through its soil health card scheme (SHC) launched in 2015, distributes SHCs to every farmer. A certified entity called Krishi Sakhi (who is a practising farmer) is trained to guide farmers in soil health management and natural farming.

While a workforce of 70,000 Krishi Sakhis has been created, a study conducted in 2019 reveals that while the awareness of the scheme was high at 82 per cent, only 66 per cent understood the recommendations and only 48 per cent followed them.

Soil quality and Water holding capacity must be viewed as a central piece and the Krishi Sakhis be further trained by Nabard, incentivised and monitored on month-to-month basis for increasing OM content so that there is a rapid upliftment of the soil quality leading to quantum increase in water holding capacity. If a scheme on appropriate lines can be conceived it will be a great boon to farmers, society and the nation.

In this regard, lessons may be drawn from the recently initiated innovative scheme ‘Drone Didi’ which has created rural women entrepreneurs and helped to reduce the time for spraying pesticides, spreading them more evenly, making it safe for workers and concurrently reducing water consumption from 150-200 litres per acre to 10 litres per acre using drones. If the Krishi Sakhis could partner Drone Didis it could greatly help in water conservation.

A mass awareness programme to harvest and hold maximum rainwater withinone’ s own plot of land is necessary so that every plot of land is water positive.

The Centre had launched the Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies’ scheme with the objectives of increasing tank storage capacity, ground water recharge, increased availability of drinking water, improvement of catchment areas of tank commands and others. If the Central Ministries, state governments, municipalities, can coordinate and mandate that every corporate house earmarks a certain percentage of funds for restoration of water bodies and implementation of RWH, it will help.

Concerted efforts at creating mass awareness along with the recommendations cited above monitored with strict project deadlines will go a long way in ameliorating the situation.

Nature has been kind to us. Let us join hands to harness rainwater and recharge the soil to become a water positive nation.

Mony is Advisor, Rajagiri Vidyapeeth, and SCMS Kochi; and Member PanIIT Alumni India; Mr. G. Ramkumar is Former Executive Director, Indian Oil Corporation and Rainwater Harvesting Expert