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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum
Posted By: R. Sudarshana
Date: Friday, 1 October 1999, at 11:48 a.m.
Key words: groundwater extraction, groundwater recharge, tidal regulators.
DISCLAIMER: I have only generated a summary for the discussion board. But, many portions and data quoted in this summary come from a report being processed by UNESCO/CSI towards publication. The report work was mainly carried out by an NGO named Operations Research Group (ORG) and was coordinated with substantial inputs and advice by Mr. L. Mandalia, Regional Hydrologist at UNESCO office at New Delhi. It has evolved from timely advice and review by a number of professionals at UNESCO headquarters. In the following account, if there are opinions, they are mine and the brickbats (if any) should be directed towards me. Bouquets will go to UNESCO and Mr. Mandalia.
INTRODUCING THE PROBLEM
My two earlier messages (The repercussions of salt extraction / Bhavnagar-Bhal-India, and Planning for port development / Dholera-India) must have already put Gujarat in the readers' mind. The northwestern coast of India, to the west of Gulf of Cambay is shaped like a begging bowl. The bottom of this bowl is Saurashtra while the west side rise of the bowl is Kutch. Together, this coast is some 900 km long and covers 60,000 sq.km. This narrow coastal plain has long been known as a very fertile and productive tract with orchards and vegetable gardens in addition to intensive field crops. Good ground water has been in sufficient supply in the past and until 2 decades back, this was some kind of a paradise of Gujarat state. But in the recent times with the advancement in agricultural techniques, groundwater extraction rates have increased manifold leading to excessive lowering of the water table. This resulted in saltwater intrusion as usual due to the reversal of hydraulic gradient. Continuous and unabated use of saline ground water affected the soil structure, salt balance and resulted in the disappearance of useful bacteria and plants essential for the stability of the soil system, further aggravating drinking water problems. Shortage of fresh water also has become a limiting factor for the growth of industries, especially the dairy industry, one of the largest in the world. Therefore, although the communities worked quite wisely on the land surface and made the best use of natural endowment, the underground villain crept in and kept his date. Once again, the world got an opportunity to locate a lacuna in wisdom.
RESPONSE OF THE STATE
States normally wake up with a jolt if the revenue shrinks. Gujarat too responded quickly and appointed two high level committees consisting of experts from various disciplines to suggest measures and recommendations. The committees identified several factors contributing to salinity ingress, such as excessive withdrawal of ground water, reduced natural recharge, sea water ingress in lower aquifers, tidal water ingress in upper aquifers and poor land and water management practices. It was found on a base year of 1980 that 21 percent of the total area has become saline due to unsustainable over- exploitation of ground water through bore wells, tube wells and dug wells. After prioritizing as per the intensity of the problem, the state constructed two types of groundwater management structures. Firstly, check dams, tanks and recharge reservoirs were constructed for the purpose of groundwater recharge in areas that have seen immense lowering of the groundwater table. Secondly, tidal regulators were constructed for control of salinity ingress in the river deltaic zones. From the various documents I have before me - I can count an expenditure of US$ 10 million, but I guess more is spent. In fact, elaborate civil works occurred for 10 years with reservoirs, regulators, dams coming up in many places and the fresh water was conveyed around by means of radial canals.
IMPACT OF THE GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES
In the ground water recharge areas, rainfall has consistently dropped and the total saline area in different administrative blocks has roughly remained the same. The overall average of saline area has actually increased by nearly 5 percent from the 1980 baseline figure. This has happened despite the fact that the total annual recharge has gone up by nearly half. In the salinity ingress/tidal regulator area too, availability of good quality well water has decreased by about 33 percent and the availability of saline water has gone up proportionally. In comparison, the areas which did not benefit from mitigation measures have also experienced the decline in water quality by about 50 percent.
As numbers can always be intriguing, let us try and understand the story in a slightly different way.
1. Firstly, the wisdom before 1980 had this lacuna of not visualizing what is happening below the feet. It is exactly like not reading the small print of the contract. That is what is 'sustainability' is all about.
2. Like Bhavnagar Bhal (see The repercussions of salt extraction / Bhavnagar-Bhal-India), this area too would not have attracted state's help if it were unproductive to the outside world. Revenue and profits (not the human suffering) attracted mitigation measures.
3. After prioritizing and short listing based on cost benefit analysis, only some areas were taken up for development in view of the critical seriousness of the problem while the rest of the areas were left tied with the time. These measures were supposed to be the rectification of wisdom - society's optimum approach to problem solving.
4. With decreased rainfall and constant/increasing activities, the areas not benefited by mitigation measures declined naturally in terms of water quality. Perhaps some people migrated from here to the greener pastures.
5. Rectified wisdom too appears lacunated when you look back. Firstly, although the recharge increased and the tide was tamed, pressure on water did not decrease or reach a plateau phase. Radial canals brought in new users and state's help increased hope and exploitation of resource. The remedy was still 'give the ball to the crying baby' category and not of 'change the attitude of crying' category. The wise measure of mitigation did not balance 'increase in resource use' against 'recharge/desalting capacity'.
6. Surely, mitigation measures were not useless. Without them, the region would have slipped into deeper crisis. It is only that the rectified wisdom too was lacunated or that the wisdom can never be absolute and complete. The measures kept the system slippage lower in percentage in comparison to the non-benefited area in spite of the pressure on resources.
7. At this moment, the lacunated wistom of 1980 and the rectified wisdom of early '90s appear to have resulted in the same situation. With all the measures, we have reached 'status quo ante'. What is now needed is perhaps an 'enhanced wisdom' addressing the core issue of regulation of resource use vis a vis system capacity. This, of course, is easier said than done in democracies and societies where land holding and land developing are individual prerogatives. Hence, easing the pressure on nature is to be done at a demographic level and not at individual level.
MORALS OF THE STORY
1. Wisdom is circumstantial and its success is time variant. There is nothing like a wise practice for all the time.
2. A coastal region's importance to receive help is decided looking at what it produces for others rather than for its inhabitants.
3. Small prints of nature are more critical on a long run than the nature's headlines.
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