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Trapping a river: To replenish groundwater, farmers in Rajasthan tap into Ghaggar

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By Amarpal Singh Verma
Hanumangarh (Rajasthan), June 15 (Ajit Weekly News/ 101Reporters) For over a decade, farmers in Rajasthan’s Hanumangarh district have been artificially recharging the groundwater in the region from the Ghaggar river. Having been forced to take this route due to the gradually depreciating water table, it has helped replenish not just the phreatic zone, but also fetch a good yield of crops for farmers.

Ghaggar originates from the Shivaliks in Himachal Pradesh and enters Rajasthan from near Talwara Jheel village in Hanumangarh, next passing through Khannauri in Punjab, and Chandpur and the Ottu barrage in Haryana. A rain-fed river that’s locally known as ‘Nali’, it used to flow beyond the border near Anupgarh in Sriganganagar district to Fort Abbas in Pakistan, till about 20 years ago. However, it remains confined to Hanumangarh today due to its depleted water level, unable to reach even Sriganganagar, let alone Pakistan.

Lack of rainfall in catchment areas and the construction of a dam over the Ottu barrage in Haryana restricted the amount of river water from reaching Rajasthan. Moreover, a number of times in the 90s, the release of over 35,000 cusecs of water from the barrage towards Rajasthan caused uncontrollable floods in the region. Presently, only a restricted amount of water is released from Ottu, mostly for irrigation in Haryana, and barely 2,000 to 4,000 cusecs reach Hanumangarh sporadically.

As a result of this unpredictability, their rice crops suffered, and they began to rely on tubewells. However, the foresighted farmers realised that if they continued to exploit groundwater — its levels had already started to drop at the time — it’d pose an even bigger problem in future.

“Around 12 to 13 years ago, sensing the water crisis, farmers started recharging groundwater here. Now, there’s no farmer in our area who hasn’t made arrangements for groundwater recharge,” said Gurcharan Singh, a farmer and resident of Chak 35 SSW near Dablirathan village.

A long-term, community-centric solution

Explaining how the community went about rejuvenating their groundwater, Bhim Singh Raghav, a farmer from Kamrani, said: “Farmers with land near the riverbank dug borewells in the middle of the river for the sole purpose of replenishing their groundwater resource. And to prevent soil from entering the pipes, they put up iron nets. When the river began to flow in June-July, the water would seep straight into the ground through these borewells. This absorption continued all while the river water continued to flow. Eventually, the groundwater level rose.’

Even in the nearby village of Dablirathan in Pilibanga municipality, farmers made arrangements to facilitate the flow of river water into their tubewells to keep their groundwater levels up. They dug pipes deep in the middle of the river, through which the water is pumped into the tubewells on the embankments.

According to Rakesh Jat, a farmer from Karnisar, the farmers not only made arrangements for themselves, but also pooled in money to replenish the source of water for the community.

“Around three years ago, 10 farmers here spent around Rs 32 lakh to install a 24-inch-thick pipe on the banks of the Ghaggar,” he said. “As long as the river water flows, it reaches these 10 tubewells, built in an area of around 2km, and keeps the groundwater level high.”

It is estimated that about 250 to 300 farmers have made the necessary arrangements on both banks of the Ghaggar river.

“This system benefits the farmers in two ways: as long as there’s water in the river, they can irrigate their fields through it; simultaneously, the groundwater is recharged due to the continuous inflow of water through the tubewells,” explained Pradeep Bansal, executive engineer of the Ghaggar Flood Control and Drainage Division in Hanumangarh.

All at their own expense

As in the cases of Karnisar and Dabli Rathan, farmers have been bearing the expenses of these community initiatives, having spent between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1.25 lakh, with no subsidies or aid from the government under any scheme for their efforts.

However, the Ghaggar Flood Control and Drainage Division supported the farmers undertaking this conservation work from Kamrani village of Tibbi tehsil to Pilibanga tehsil. Four years ago, it spent around Rs 1 crore to build 34 water-harvesting structures.

“With the arrangements made by the farmers and the department, the water table is being recharged here,” said Rajat Chaudhary, junior engineer of the division. “The groundwater level has stopped dropping. The water quality, too, has improved.”

While the height of the water table varies around the Ghaggar, a month of continuous flow pushes the level up by 10ft to 20ft. As a result of all their efforts, farmers in Hanumangarh today are able to produce rice on about 35,000ha of land, in addition to wheat, mustard and vegetable crops.

According to Prabhudayal Dudhwal, a farmer of Sahajipura, 10 years ago, the salinity of the groundwater here had started rising in places, but that, too, was now under control.

‘You can check for yourself by drinking the sweet water from the tubewell stored in that pot,” he told 101Reporters, pointing to a natural water cooler.

Hanumangarh, an exception in an overexploited state

In the state Assembly in 2021, the government said that 29 of Rajasthan’s 32 districts fell under the overexploited category. On the contrary, the groundwater level is favourable in Hanumangarh, Sriganganagar, Banswara and Dungarpur. While the average level ranges between 47m and 70m in most districts of Rajasthan, it stands at 17.47m in Hanumangarh.

Explaining the contrast, hydrogeologist Barkat Ali, in-charge of the Ground Water Department in Sriganganagar, said: “In Hanumangarh, it’s mostly surface water that’s used for irrigation through canals. Hence, there’s nominal use of groundwater. The continuous recharge through canals also helps.”

Ali, who’s also the nodal officer of the Atal Bhujal Yojna in Hanumangarh, added that the government had included the Sangaria, Tibbi and Hanumangarh blocks of the district under the scheme, with the additional aim of encouraging farmers to practice drip irrigation and cultivate less water-intensive crops.

“We’ll work with the community under the scheme with the help of seven departments,” he said. “It’s commendable that the farming community is already trying to recharge the groundwater in the Ghaggar river area. We’ll visit relevant areas and check out their efforts. If they need any improvement, they will receive all the help required from the departments concerned.”

Independent experts agree that this type of groundwater recharge, out of the left field as it may seem, is both effective and sustainable. Surendra Kumar Sharma — a consultant hydrologist from Hanumangarh who’s been advising farmers in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab for 24 years on groundwater and setting up tubewells — endorses this method. The 67-year-old explained, “For example, if we send one lakh litres of water into the ground, we get back 1.25 lakh litres of water,” and added that farmers must filter the water to ensure that clay does not seep into the groundwater table.

Furthermore, Dr Sushil Kumar Jain, chairman and groundwater expert at the Jaipur-based Water Conservation Institute, echoed Sharma’s concerns. While he appreciated that excess water after irrigation was being used to replenish the water table, he cautioned that not filtering the water for soil and other elements would pollute the groundwater.

(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

–Ajit Weekly News
amarpal/dpb

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