At Badauna Guggar village in Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh, the women have taken charge of water management. The village has a ‘paani panchayat’, where collective decisions are taken on conserving and using water. Lalita Dubey, a vocal Jal Saheli (water activist), describes how the villagers have been busy building a check dam and creating tanks for rainwater harvesting.

The initiative to empower the women is the effort of Parmarth, a local NGO. Manvendra Dwivedi, field coordinator with the agency, describes how the village is better off than most, since over the last five years, every drop of rainwater has been conserved.

Pointing to examples like this and the one at Rajpura village in Jalaun district, where villagers have created a recharge pit in the middle of two ponds they have dug up, Indira Khurana, policy lead, resource scarcity with IPE Global, says local interventions are what will revive parched Bundelkhand.

Costly solution

Interlinking of rivers is a costly solution, and one that will take long to execute, feels Khurana who has been documenting the use and abuse of water, especially focussing on Bundelkhand. By then, water poverty may escalate and lead to conflicts. This is why she advocates a dozen or so small steps that will help conserve and recharge water.

“This year, all the weather forecasts point to a good monsoon. But this is only half the story. To complete it, we need to be prepared to save the water,” says Khurana.

“To start with, let’s create ponds in the fields so that from a period of acute scarcity, we move to a situation where at least for a few months there is water,” says Khurana. Farmers should be encouraged to make medbandhi s (boundaries around their field) so that the rainwater can be conserved.

Aquatic ecologist Brij Gopal, who has been documenting the Ken river for the last five years, reckons that the cost of the interlinking project, estimated at ₹10,000 crore, could climb to ₹18,000 crore.

Successive governments have created tanks and ponds, but these have been done without scientific inputs, points out Sanjay Singh of Parmarth. At some places, the constructions go against the slope, which has resulted in a wasted effort.

Lessons from history

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, suggests that the State governments should emulate the Chandela kings, who ruled over Bundelkhand 800 years ago. The Chandela royals created tanks and aquifers and harvested rainwater successfully.

Says Khurana, “Almost all the villages here have either a tank, pond, dug well or nallah. The village committee can undertake repairs, desilting, and so on.”

Rather than interlinking rivers, which is a long-term solution, she feels the more urgent need is to create underground water banks through artificial recharge. Over the decades, surface irrigation has gone up and groundwater dependence has risen. Over 85 per cent of rural water needs in the region is met through groundwater, she points out.

“Groundwater recharging needs to be at least doubled,” she says. This can be done by directing rainwater into underground aquifers. Over time, there will be a balance between the surface and groundwater, and rivers will flow throughout the year. “Other countries have done this: it does not require too much electricity to divert water from rivers to aquifers,” she says.

These aquifers, according to Khurana, will also help avert floods. The irony is that water-scarce Bundelkhand has a history of floods.

Several fact-finding committees have toured Bundelkhand and mapped its water resources and offered several practical solutions. The need now is for execution.