Alyssa Najera & Irene Leonardelli

Dynamics of Water Availability in Maharashtra, India

Alyssa Najera is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz studying Environmental Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies.

Transformation to groundwater sustainability has helped gear the conversation regarding water at a global level. Through a system of networking and interdisciplinary perspectives, groundwater governance has become an area of interest for those studying frameworks that are contextualized upon the conversation of water. Irene Leonardelli, a Ph.D. fellow in the Department of Water Governance at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, mentions that various actors and factors contribute to the way water is governed in the state of Maharashtra, India, where she is conducting her research. Her project draws on feminist political ecology and looks at water as a product of socio-natural entanglements: social relations, culture, nature, technology and how politics intermingle to determine quantity, quality and direction of water flows. Moreover, her work gravitates towards fully understanding the power structures that shape differentiated access to natural resources, including water.

 

During my interview with Irene, background on groundwater governance in India was given to understand the dynamics of water availability in the state of Maharashtra in light of processes of agrarian transformation of the past 30 years. She spent several months conducting fieldwork in a small drought-prone village in the Pune district. In this village, a participatory groundwater initiative was implemented with the support of two NGOs, including ACWADAM, an NGO working on aquifer-based groundwater management (partner of the T2GS project).  The groundwater initiative was instituted in the early 2000 to provide farmers with the appropriate infrastructures and knowledge to deal with water scarcity in the area. Wells and ponds were constructed, farming groups were formed and training was provided to measure the water balance in the wells and establish cropping patterns. However, as described in Irene’s email, farmers stopped implementing this groundwater management initiative, when the government of Maharashtra constructed an infrastructure to provide the area with wastewater for irrigation purposes. 

Her research thus focuses on the “sociocultural implications” of this wastewater infrastructure: “shifts in cropping patterns, changes in groundwater quality, changes in gender labor relations and power relations from an intersectional perspective”.
 

This infrastructure transports wastewater, including sewage and industrial effluents, from the city of Pune to drought-prone rural areas, so that farmers can utilize it to cultivate their crops. As it is great that they have water available all year round, the wastewater contaminated all existing water sources. “The aquifers of this village have been highly polluted by this wastewater. Before this water infrastructure was constructed, farmers had little water but were able to cultivate food crops and had very good drinking water. Conversely, since this wastewater is being used, farmers are doing much better economically, as they can cultivate market crops throughout the year, but their aquifers have become heavily polluted and need to filter the water for drinking purposes”. She explains how now there is a much larger emphasis on cultivating cash crops, such as flowers, to sell at the Pune market.

Yet, the water that used to be retrieved from the drinking water well of the village is now contaminated, not “safe” to drink. For this reason, a water vending machine that purifies the water was installed in the village. Currently, Irene is still researching the actual water quality at different water sources in the village, because some health issues/concerns have been called into question. 

One important component that Irene mentioned particularly in the context of her research in the village, are the power dynamics at play, along lines of gender and caste. She mentioned how different subjects have differentiated access to water resources, including to the wastewater transported by the wastewater infrastructure. Poor farmers, who do not belong to the dominant caste, or single women, remain the most marginalized. Moreover, the implementation of the wastewater scheme is having an impact on gender labor relations, for women have to work more in the farms all year round, and some of them started performing tasks that only men used to do, such as irrigating the crops.
 

Another point of importance that Irene mentioned was how women negotiate their roles in decision-making processes within the households. Many women in the village are part of a self-help group that works as a system of financial support. When women need monetary help, they can ask for a loan with minimal interest and can retrieve funds. This makes them independent from men at least to a certain extent, though the social structure of the village remains very much patriarchal. 

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