cover story

No longer at sea

Salinity ingress in aquifers was affecting lives and livelihoods in coastal Gujarat before a project to stem the salty tide took hold

The coastal regions of Gujarat have battled a salinity ingress crisis for decades. The root of the problem lies in the practice of over-pumping of groundwater by villages. This has upset the region’s hydrological balance and caused seawater to encroach into freshwater aquifers. The increase in salinity ingress is impacting an estimated 700,000 hectares of coastal land in Saurashtra, with crop yields plunging by up to 90% in some areas.

The cause of the distress is salt, because that’s what salinity ingress is about. That’s the technical terminology for a 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.

Beyond agriculture and the livelihoods it supports, salinity ingress has had a debilitating effect on public health. Says Virubhai Bhammar, a farmer from Mota Ghana village in Bhavnagar, one of the most-affected districts: “Until recently, poor water quality caused problems like skin diseases, kidney stones and hair fall. Families had to spend a lot on medicine and treatment costs.” 

Out with the salt

Water quality wasn’t the only issue. Every summer, the water table in Mota Ghana and surrounding regions would dip to precarious lows. The reason was the drying up of the seasonal river Navli, whose catchment area also replenishes the region’s wells. This dealt a heavy blow to local residents, mainly groundnut, cotton, wheat and onion farmers who rely on this water for their drinking, irrigation, and livestock-rearing needs.

Freshwater benefit

The situation has improved in Mota Ghana and neighbouring villages thanks to a water-harvesting and artificial-recharge programme in the Navli river basin. Implemented by the Tata Trusts-supported Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), the intervention has increased water levels in the region’s wells by 15-20 metres. As freshwater levels improve, contamination in the form of total dissolved solids has fallen by 50-200PPM (parts per million) from earlier levels of up to 2,000PPM.

Initial studies by CSPC established two main problems: a high degree of rainwater runoff into the sea and low groundwater percolation owing to the hard basalt rock underneath. “With the community’s help, we desilted the catchment area and built or renovated structures like check dams and recharge ponds,” says Kamlesh Solanki, a senior programme manager at CSPC. “We also conducted bore blasting to enhance the storage capacity of the underground aquifers.”

The recharge work has created an estimated 93 million litres of underground storage capacity in Navli’s catchment area. Along with the additional capacity created by bore blasting, the intervention benefits around 900 households in a 4km radius of Mota Ghana.

CSPC has fostered local ownership for the project by forming village-level water-user groups. Members from these groups encourage village residents to participate in the programme and they provide training in water budgeting and monitoring and in best practices for micro-irrigation and fertiliser use. The community contributes about 25% of the costs.

The initiative has had a salutary effect on public health and on crop and livestock productivity in the Navli catchment area. Importantly, it has reduced the drudgery of having to fetch water from far.

Rambhai Bhammar, a farmer living on the outskirts of Mota Ghana, would ride his bullock cart to the village to fetch water whenever the local well ran dry. He doesn’t have to do that anymore. “Thanks to CSPC’s work, our local well holds enough water for my family and our cattle, even in summer,” he says.