Adaptation or maladaptation: Case of farm ponds converted into storage tanks in Maharashtra – Implications for groundwater governance

Renie Thomas

Groundwater is the major source for irrigation and drinking water in drought-prone semi-arid regions of Maharashtra. It plays an important component in agro-ecosystem services by providing critical irrigation to crops during prolonged periods of dry spells. The government has been promoting construction of farm ponds in a big way as a strategy to secure rural agrarian livelihood and drought-proof the region. In principle, farm ponds are traditional rainwater harvesting structures that are supposed to have an inlet to allow runoff to ingress into the pond and an outlet to let out excess water. Their purpose was to help farmers adapt to the vagaries of monsoon by harvesting rainwater. But these farm ponds have changed from their intended design and are now widely used as storage tanks to hold groundwater, which is extracted indiscriminately from the underlying multi-layered hard rock aquifer system. The dimensions of such farm ponds have also crossed beyond their prescribed sizes with some being as big as half an acre. This has led to an overexploitation of groundwater by a few farmers thereby creating inequity in access to groundwater and increasing the vulnerability of small and marginal farming communities. This issue tends to exacerbate further during climate variability; thus, reducing groundwater recharge as well as loss of extracted groundwater to surface evaporation.
The main objective of this study was to compare the benefits and costs of these practices in order to highlight the negative externalities due to increased groundwater exploitation. The costs consider both the direct costs (investment costs of the structures, deepening of existing wells & drilling of new deeper wells) and indirect costs (including the value of water lost due to evaporation and depleted groundwater levels).
In-depth interviews of 417 farmer respondents were conducted (consisting of the farm pond and non-farm pond owners) across six groundwater-vulnerable villages of Sangamner block in the Ahmednagar district; to understand the local barriers and enablers in governing the common groundwater resources and the consequences for different social groups in the same groundwater-vulnerable zone.
The study finds that more than 54% of these structures are non-functional and is attributed to limited access to groundwater and government subsidies. It also provides an insight into the current practice of farmers to convert the farm ponds to groundwater storage structures as short-term adaptation mechanism response. But it has resulted in widening groundwater inequity by storing an invisible common pool groundwater resource into a private surface storage structures and it has created an environment for competitive drilling of newer wells. The study finds that in the long run it is seen as a maladaptation.
Since access to groundwater is considered as a key risk-reducing strategy to overcome drought/dry spell situations. The result provides important insights to policymakers in regulation and management of groundwater in relevance to the recently enacted Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2009 which is intended to regulate groundwater use. It has implications for government policies and initiatives (subsidies) towards farm ponds and energy (used for pumping out groundwater) for irrigation purposes.