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Farm ponds on the rise, despite limited groundwater

1 Sep 2017 - 13:00

By Renie Thomas, ASSAR researcher from Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR)

“When water is in the wells, it belongs to everyone since it is accessed from the same aquifer. When it is pumped into a farm pond, though, it becomes private property.” – Small-scale Sangamner farmer

It is statements such as the above that have made us question the wisdom of using farm ponds in semi-arid regions. Is it best practice, considering the variability in rainfall distribution, high evaporation rate and groundwater unavailability? Do farmers find it worth the investment, bearing in mind the regular gamble they take to secure their water resources? Is it creating inequity in the share of groundwater among big and small farmers?

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A farm pond in Karjule Pathar being filled by one of the running bore wells. (Photo by Renie Thomas)

The farm pond scheme is basically intended to safeguard farmers during times of extreme conditions by harvesting rainwater and surface runoff to be used during dry spells later. The scheme has been scaled up across Maharashtra in a big way and more ponds are in the pipeline. The aim is to provide protective irrigation to crops so that farmers can secure their second crop.

My team recently concluded a month-long farm pond questionnaire in six villages, which were selected based on the groundwater vulnerability study carried out in 2016. These villages were classified as extremely vulnerable to groundwater unavailability and at risk during droughts. A total of 214 farm ponds were geo-tagged on the ground and altogether 417 questionnaires were collected based on in-depth structured interviews with farm pond and non-farm pond owners.

Surprisingly, these villages with limited groundwater resources have adopted the construction of farm ponds in a big way. Of the total farm ponds that were geo-tagged, 56% were observed to be non-functional and incomplete due to a variety of reasons, such as the unavailability of funds, delay in sanctioning of farm ponds; disbursement of subsidy; unavailability of both surface and groundwater; not enough land or the appropriate slope; damage to farm ponds due to landslides; and the huge cost of plastic paper lining. The size of farm ponds has been modified too, with some growing as big as an Olympic swimming pool or slightly more than half an acre. The large-holding farmers have more than two farm ponds each with almost five to seven bore wells in their land to fill these ponds.

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One of the many big-sized farm ponds in Wankute, holding pumped-in groundwater. (Photo by Renie Thomas)

Based also on a hydrogeological exercise known as the pumping test, carried out last summer in selected villages, we observed that the radius of influence of pumping wells used for farm ponds ranged from a few meters to almost 52 meters. This also highlights the danger of having wells in close proximity of each other, as it can create a local drawdown or plunge in the water table, affecting neighbouring wells.  

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Groundwater occurrence and movement along basalt flow contacts – not really enough for the feeding of large farm ponds. (Photo by Renie Thomas)

In light of these preliminary findings, it was mostly the small and marginal farmers who complained about not having enough drinking water during the summer months – ironically, they were able to see the water that is being grabbed and held in farm ponds by bigger farmers. The big farmers were of the opinion, though, that should they not store groundwater in their farm ponds it would eventually be moved out from their sub-surface aquifer system to neighbouring farmers. It was also interesting to observe that a few of the small farmers had already initiated or started thinking of flattening their non-functional farm ponds in Dolasane, Bhojdari and Jawalebaleshwar due to it being unused for many years and insufficient groundwater resources to fill the farm pond.

 

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One of the farmers from Bhojdari in front of his farm pond that he plans to flatten and grow groundnut instead. According to him, it has been a dead investment wherein he received no subsidy and there is no groundwater available to fill the farm pond. (Photo by Renie Thomas)

These problems playing out in the villages highlight the need for policymakers to plan surface structures that require more thoughtful consideration in collaboration with the different farmers belonging to various socio-economic backgrounds. There is also a need to carefully examine the various climatic, social and biophysical conditions of the region when rolling out schemes that are intended to assist farmers during adverse conditions. The adaptation strategy should encourage the pooling rather than grabbing of a common resource, and urgently calls for farmers to acknowledge groundwater as a shared resource that needs collective action. While there are obvious benefits of using farm ponds, it should not be at the cost of storing groundwater into these structures. The socio-environmental cost weighs more than the future economic return that farmers are expecting in the semi-arid regions of Sangamner.