Fluid is the flow

From agriculture to education, dairy development to water conservation, the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell’s efforts in Gujarat have made a lasting difference. By Philip Chacko

Gujarat is the state with the longest coastline in India — nearly 1,600km — and the biggest headache on account of it. The first fact has contributed considerably, through trade and commerce, in raising Gujaratis and their entrepreneurial spirit to the skies. The second, the painful part, is driving regions along the state’s shoreline into deep and dangerous waters.

The cause of the distress is salt, more precisely salinity ingress, a rather tame term for a menacing phenomenon that is harming lives and livelihoods in 2,500-odd coastal villages. Invasive seawater and its salty contents are increasingly polluting the groundwater in these largely rural villages, compromising the health of residents and sabotaging their current and future prospects.

The geology of the region is a factor but the greater culpability lies elsewhere. Fuelled by reckless and rampant exploitation of water resources for agriculture and, to a lesser extent, industrial development, saline contamination of coastal Gujarat’s groundwater has crept up to 15km inland and is creeping further in. There is no workable way to stop this subterranean beast, but it can be controlled to an extent.

Collaborative push

That’s the goal being chased after by the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), a collaborative effort with a multi-thematic spread of people-centric programmes designed to help affected villages and communities, the majority of them clustered in the Saurashtra belt.

Established jointly by the Tata Trusts, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and Ambuja Cement Foundation in 2008, CSPC concentrates its attention on enabling people in the eye of the storm to find the means and methods through which they can live with and manage salinity ingress. Farming, water and livelihoods have been the focus, and remain so, for CSPC, and it also has education, dairy development, water conservation, and sanitation and hygiene in an array of initiatives.

Partnerships are the essence of CSPC’s endeavours. It has connected with government agencies, tapped research institutions and tied up with NGOs and other civil society organisations to fulfil a broad-based mandate. That’s a necessity given the severity of the salinity ingress issue and how challenging finding solutions is.

“What we are dealing with is not economic poverty but water poverty,” says CSPC chairman Apoorva Oza, referring to the depletion of water resources that goes hand-in-hand with the contamination curse. “The impact of groundwater salinity is felt in agriculture and dairy production, in migration trends and, worst of all, on the health front.”

The health emergency triggered by the regular consumption of salty water is particularly alarming. Kidney diseases in coastal Gujarat are about four times the mean — among those hit are children as young as five — and hypertension and arthritis are commonplace.

It’s not as if nothing has been done down the years to tackle the salinity crisis. A host of measures have been tried out since the problem began in the early 1970s. Government committees were formed and policies formulated, investments were made in infrastructure that could counter the seawater tide and, importantly, there has been a massive groundwater recharge campaign.

There are limits, though, to what is possible and doable. “You can never push the sea back, so you have to learn to manage salinity,” says Arun Pandhi, director, programme implementation, at the Tata Trusts, and a member of the CSPC board. “Which is why we look at changing cropping patterns, working with farmers to grow crops that are saline resistant and promoting irrigation solutions.”

Women farmers during an exposure visit to a greenhouse nursery near Rajula in Amreli district

Three ideas

CSPC’s emphasis on getting its equation right has been crucial in maximising the effect of its exertions. “We began with three ideas,” explains Divyang Waghela, a director with CSPC. “One, to create projects that were contextual to the saline ingress issue and bring rural communities together. Two, to network with the government, NGOs, research institutions and all other stakeholders. And three, to make our initiatives scalable and sustainable.”

The tangible is apparent in what CSPC has pulled off. “We have helped bring the salinity ingress issue to the forefront,” says Mr Oza. “We have touched the lives of tens of thousands of villagers. Our support for agriculture and education has made a difference and then there is the policy and perception impact.”

Much more will be required in times ahead to help the communities of coastal Gujarat. Bottled water — with a global market that topped $250 billion in 2020 — is not really an option for these rural folks.