Tackling drought: How Shirpur learnt water retention

Its multi-layer earth formation couldn’t retain water. So, check dams were built to collect water from catchment areas all through the year. The model is now being replicated across the state

Till recently, Rohidas Ishwar Kakni was too familiar with the drill — jostle with nearly 5,000 others for just an hour at the common village well to draw his paltry daily ration of water, and then wait another 24 hours to begin all over again. That’s now a thing of the past — the onion farmer from Sanjvi Old village in Shirpur taluka in northeast Maharashtra’s Dhule district is no longer on the brink of despair or reeling under an unforgiving, unrelenting drought like the rest of the state.

The Pavra community from Dabkyapada in Shirpur is looking forward to a good yield this year. The project has ensured a constant supply of 18 crore litres of water to the village. Pics/Shailesh Bhatia
The Pavra community from Dabkyapada in Shirpur is looking forward to a good yield this year. The project has ensured a constant supply of 18 crore litres of water to the village. Pics/Shailesh Bhatia

The change in fortune has been brought about by a controversial water conservation project — dubbed the Shirpur model — after the taluka it was first implemented in.

Amrish Patel
Amrish Patel

The project, implemented in 2004, has been rather divisive: many water conservationists and experts, including a government-appointed committee, had written it off as mere quackery with no scientific or technical foundation. But its many success stories have been hard to ignore, so much so that the government passed a resolution on May 9, 2013, to replicate the model across Maharashtra.

Written off
The model envisages three-fold water conservation measures: recharging of wells with water from canals, construction of bandhs on streams, and widening and deepening of streams.

It was the brainwave of Amrish Patel, a former MLA from Shirpur constituency who is now an MLC, and Suresh Khanapurkar, a retired officer of the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency, Pune. Their goal was to make the drought-prone taluka, which has 149 villages, self-reliant in its water needs. The project was implemented in 65 most backward and parched villages of the taluka.

The idea took off from the uniqueness of the soil of the region. Shirpur lies in the basin of the Tapi river and one-third of the region is covered with rich alluvium comprising layers of yellow silt, sand and Deccan basalt boulders, which make it tough to retain water.

That’s where the model’s ingenuity kicks in. A check dam, acting like a buffer, is built to collect water flowing from the catchment area all through the year. The stream is then widened at the check dam. Within a year, the widened structure can hold 18 crore litres of water, ensuring constant supply to the village.

Know your soil
On Thursday, mid-day visited four villages — Wadi, Sanjvi Old, Dabkyapada and Horyapani — inhabited by tribal groups in the taluka. The surplus water and green cover in the region belied all expectations.

Vikram Lalji Pavra (21), a farmer from Horyapani who owns 10 acres of land, said, till the model was implemented, he couldn’t even grow cash crops like baajra. Today, he practises crop rotation and grows onions and other vegetables, along with cotton.

Khanapurkar said we have brought the current water crisis upon ourselves. “It is a man-made tragedy. Groundwater has been indiscriminately exploited to grow water-intensive crops like sugarcane. Besides, acres of forest land have been levelled for commercial gains in the last

25 years.” He stressed on identifying the soil structure of a region before blindly going ahead with water conservation measures. Each region has its own natural soil and sedimentation characteristics. There are places in India that get maximum rainfall, but still rely on tankers” he added.

Smaller, the better
Patel said the project was successful because it was done on a small scale; there were no huge dams, land acquisition and rehabilitation of people, which would take years, mass migration or massive distribution of water involving more than one state. “In the last 12 years, we have successfully implemented 155 small projects at a cost of Rs 40 crore.”

The projects have been funded by private companies, he said. “Water conservation should be ongoing, regardless of a poor monsoon,” he suggested. Rahul Dande, project coordinator, said the project has checked migration. Today, a number of farmers are returning to their once arid land, and in time, they will able to earn R3 lakh per year through sale of crops. “We recently had a bumper crop of onions from a single village — Taradi — which sold for over Rs 21 crore in the export market.”

155, and counting....
mid-day saw the genesis of the 155th project at Wadi village in Shirpur.

Suresh Khanapurkar
Suresh Khanapurkar

Suresh Khanapurkar (in pic) showed us a less than two-ft-wide stream, which currently has only ankle-deep water. It has been widened at the check dam to become a full-fledged river, over 8 m deep and 20 m wide.

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