They live along the river bank, but have no water to drink - the story of dry Betwa

Large portions of the ‘perennial’ Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh are bone dry due to over exploitation of the groundwater and the river. Poor villagers living along its banks trek long distances to fetch drinking water while rich tubewell owners sell aquifer waters. Will the Ken-Betwa link project solve the region’s water crisis? A ground report.

Satish MalviyaSatish Malviya   3 Jun 2022 8:49 AM GMT

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They live along the river bank, but have no water to drink - the story of dry Betwa

As part of Gaon Connection's series – Paani Yatra – our national team of reporters and community journalists travelled to remote villages in different states of the country to document how rural India is meeting its water needs in the scorching summers. All photos by Satish Malviya. 

Vidisha and Raisen, Madhya Pradesh

Kaliyabai Jatav lives in Neemkheda village in Raisen district's Sanchi tehsil, that lies just metres away from Betwa river, classified as a perennial river.

"Yet we yearn for water. The river bed is bone dry and the entire village depends on tubewells for its water needs. And, we have to pay three hundred rupees per month to use those tubewells," 60-year-old Jatav told Gaon Connection. According to her, the rich who could afford to sink tubewells to extract groundwater, sold the water to other villagers.

But, for many of the inhabitants, like Jatav, they cannot afford that Rs 300. "We belong to the poorest community in the village. We sometimes have to beg people to give us water, and they often refuse to do so. We have to walk as much as five kilometres to canal get water," Jatav, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste, added.

As part of Gaon Connection's series – Paani Yatra – our national team of reporters and community journalists travelled to remote villages in different states of the country to document how rural India is meeting its water needs in the scorching summers.

Also Read: For 20 years now, Lahuria Deh village has been dependent on water tankers; no one wants to wed their daughter here

Gaon Connection travelled along Betwa river, as it flowed through Madhya Pradesh, visiting many water-strapped villages on its banks. In rural Vidisha and Raisen, hundreds of thousand villagers struggle to find water for their daily use.

The Betwa, a tributary of the Yamuna, originates in the Vindhya range north of Hoshangabad and flows for 590 kilometres before merging with Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. At several stretches in its course, the river is bone dry.

Reckless exploitation of groundwater in the region and the fact that old ponds and wells have been built over or disappeared altogether, leaves no place for the rainwater to collect and recharge the underground aquifers that feed this river.

"As soon as the summers arrive, the small well in the village near the temple dries up. Hundreds of us are forced to walk three kilometres to a dugwell situated outside the village," Guddibai Mogiya, a 50-year-old resident of Udaipur village along the Betwa in Madhya Pradesh's Vidisha district, told Gaon Connection. It is not just the long walk to and fro that is the problem. "We have to sieve the gilao (muck) through a cloth to get water for our needs. And, even the water there is in danger of running out," the 50-year-old added.

Condition of Betwa river 54 kilometres away from its origin.

While authorities have made arrangements to supply water to the village through tankers, it is woefully inadequate. Seven to eight tankers arrive at the village once every four-five days to provide water to a village with a 7,000-strong population.

"A single tanker has a capacity of 4,000 litres," Komal Prasad, the village secretary told Gaon Connection. But that is not sufficient, complain the villagers.

Betwa river is over-exploited

As per the Ground Water Year Book - Madhya Pradesh (2020-21) published by the Central Ground Water Board, water table is declining at a rate half a metre to one metre every year in Datia, Vidisha, Betul, Gwalior, Morena and Sheopur districts of Madhya Pradesh.

According to the year book, the declining trend in post-monsoon water levels suggests that a part of the aquifer is being dewatered every year, due either to deficient rainfall or to developmental activities. And this is one of the reasons for the dry Betwa.

"The biggest problem is that the Betwa river here doesn't flow," Atul Shah, president of the Betwa Uthhan Samiti — Vidisha-based non-profit, told Gaon Connection. According to him, even the little water there is in the river is from the nearby Halali dam.

Stagnant water in the Betwa river at Vidisha city.

Shah held reckless irrigation practices responsible for the declining underground water reserves in the area and the dry river.

"Many farmers in the area have resorted to digging directly into the river bed for irrigation water. This will result in a long term water crisis in the region. This will result in further reduction in the percolation which recharges the aquifers," Shah told Gaon Connection.

As per the data provided by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, the net sown area in Madhya Pradesh is 15.074 million hectares. The net irrigated area in the state by all sources is 6.418 million hectares, which accounts for only 42.57 per cent of total cultivated land.

Also Read: A Midsummer Pipe Dream: Pipelines laid down and taps installed, but where is the water?

Farmers claim lack of surface irrigation facilities forces them to extract the groundwater. The situation of rural tap water connections in the state is no better. As per the dashboard of the centrally administered Jal Jeevan Mission, only 41.03 per cent rural households in Madhya Pradesh have tap water connections as of June 2, 2022. Further, out of the total 257,424 households in Vidisha district, only 40.14 per cent households have tap water connections, whereas tap water connections at 85,467 households 37.65 per cent) are available out of the total 226,999 households in Raisen district.

Reckless water extraction aside, pollution is also killing the Betwa causing acute water distress in the region. "Six sewage drains from the city [Vidisha] are let into the river, and since there is no flow of water, and it is stagnant, pollution is a big problem," Shah of the Betwa Uthhan Samiti pointed out.

"Every Saturday, thousands of devotees throng the shani mandir [situated on the bank of the river in Vidisha town and dump slippers and clothes into the river. We extract trolleys full of such waste from the river every week," he complained.

Also Read: A 5 km trek through jungles and a 100-foot descent to fetch water – a day in the life of tribal villagers in Panna

Ken-Betwa Link Project

In order to address the water shortage in the Betwa river basin, in 1980, the central government formulated the National Perspective Plan (NPP) for development of water resources in the country.

The plan to link water surplus river basins with the water deficit river basins, hoped to mitigate the water crisis. The Centre set up the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) as an autonomous society under the Ministry of Water Resources in July, 1982 and it was tasked with studying the feasibility of the NPP.

On August 25, 2005, a consensus was reached between the Centre, and the state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for the preparation of a detailed project report of the linking of Ken and Betwa rivers. Both the rivers are about 200 kilometres apart.

Source: National Water Development Agency

Its feasibility report suggested building of a dam across the Ken river upstream of the existing Gangau Weir, and making a link canal for transferring the 'surplus' waters from Ken river to water-starved Betwa river.

"Apart from drinking water facility & enroute irrigation of 47000 ha [hectares] in Chhatarpur & Tikamgarh districts of Madhya Pradesh and Hamirpur & Jhansi districts of Uttar Pradesh, provision for downstream commitments of 1375 Mm3 [million cubic metres] for M.P. and 850 Mm3 of water for U.P. has also been kept," the executive summary of the report mentions.

As per a recent official press release, the Ken-Betwa link project with an outlay of Rs 44,605 crore is expected to provide annual irrigation of 1.062 million Ha and drinking water supply to a population of about 6.2 million in Bundelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

While authorities have made arrangements to supply water to the village through tankers, it is woefully inadequate. Seven to eight tankers arrive at the village once every four-five days to provide water to a village with a 7,000-strong population.

Also Read: When disease and deformity are just a sip away

However, environmentalists and water management experts are sceptical about this ambitious project.

The classification of Ken river as water surplus had to be reconsidered, said Himanshu Thakkar, an environment expert and coordinator of Delhi-based NGO South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). "A river can only be classified as water surplus on the basis of the water flow data of the river, and the government hasn't mentioned the water flow data of the Ken river. On what basis was such a classification made," he asked.

Thakkar told Gaon Connection that there was no data in the public domain that indicates that Ken has enough water to transfer to a water-scarce region.

"Dams will swell once water from the Ken river is transferred to areas around Betwa. After this when water is shifted towards the Betwa region, new dams will have to be built which, as a hydrological impact, will submerge and destroy the ecology including thousands of trees over large areas," the environmentalist warned.

Also, Thakkar said that the Central Empowered Committee which was appointed by the Supreme Court, in a report in September 2019, said that the ecological cost of the project outweighs its purported purpose.

However, defending the Ken Betwa River Linking Project, its superintendent engineer, Sheelchandra Upadhyay, who is based in Jhansi, told Gaon Connection that the proposed project was the only way to rid the Betwa region of its water scarcity.

"The population is increasing, water resources are under stress, we need alternative measures to ensure availability of water for the local population. People who oppose this project don't want prosperity to arrive in this water scarce region of Madhya Pradesh," Upadhyay commented.

Meanwhile, Santosh Salve, the executive engineer of Vidisha's Public Health Engineering Department told Gaon Connection, "The groundwater has fallen by three to four metres this year but efforts are being made to ensure that the depletion doesn't continue."

But, the picture is grim. "We are supplying beyond our capacity. We are supplying five million cubic metres of water per year to both Vidisha and Raisen and still there is demand for more. The systems in place are under a lot of stress to meet the demand," Rajeev Kumar Jain, executive engineer, Halali dam, which feeds water to a portion of Betwa river in Vidisha, told Gaon Connection.

KG Vyas, a Bhopal-based environmentalist, told Gaon Connection that the conservation of rivers and groundwater cannot be the sole responsibility of the farmers and the local communities at large.

"The government has to intervene and take up the task of conserving water. Ponds should be dug at a large scale to capture the rainwater which will not only help in conserving water but also help in replenishing the falling groundwater levels," Vyas said. "It should be ensured that the ponds are not merely the ones that are built to somehow utilise the MGNREGA labour. Those ponds are too small, much larger ponds need to be built. That is the only long term solution to this crisis," he added.

Also Read: Dugwells make a comeback in Bihar's villages

#water crisis #madhya pradesh Ken Betwa link Betwa river #story 

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