Water project reunites families in Saurashtra, but experts sceptical of sustainability

Rajkot, Sep 13 An ambitious Rs 12,000 crore ($1.8 billion) project to bring the water of the Narmada river to Gujarat's parched Saurashtra region is helping reunite families, but experts caution that such lift-irrigation schemes had failed the world over.


Thousands of men from the region, who had to leave their homes in search of livelihood due to crop failures, are returning home, a visit to the area revealed.

Mukesh Patel, 44, a resident of Thariyali village in Rajkot district, said he had returned to his village after 18 years as there was finally ample water to irrigate his land due to the SAUNI project. "The government has now made arrangements to provide water to us for irrigation of crops," Patel told IANS.

SAUNI, abbreviated in Gujarati from Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation Yojna, plans to fill up 115 dams of the region with excess run-off water of the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada river. The dams will be fed through a network of pipelines and water will be supplied for drinking and irrigation.

Mukesh Patel said that water had always been a problem in his village. "Not to talk of irrigation, there was also paucity of drinking water," he said, adding that the crop yield was very low in the absence of assured irrigation and they were dependent on the monsoon.

Mukesh Patel was among the many people from the region who took up jobs in Surat's diamond polishing industry. "There are at least 5,000 people from my village and neighbouring areas in the diamond polishing work. Now nearly 95 per cent of them have come back," he said.

Rakesh Murji Patel, a resident of Khudiyali village, about 40 km from Rajkot, said they had a hard time in the diamond polishing industry as remuneration was low. Yet, "we had no choice but to migrate as there was no assured irrigation. It is a blessing that we have been able to return home", he said.

Ajit Chabariya, a resident of Latipur village, said that they can now grow two crops a year due to assured irrigation. Earlier, they were growing crops only during the kharif season (July-December) and the yields were uncertain.

"Villagers mostly grow cotton during the kharif season. But now they will be also grow oilseeds, sugarcane or wheat during the rabi season (January-April). With the promise of assured water supply in the area, we can grow two crops every year," Chabariya said.

Villagers also said they had to dig deep to get drinking water and this was often saline.

A.D. Kanani, a Superintending Engineer of the Gujarat Irrigation Department, said villagers will get water through pipelines and the problem of salinity would end.

The SAUNI project promises to provide water to over 900 villages in all the 11 districts of the Saurashtra region and is slated to be completed by 2019.

Independent experts feel that pumping water to the parched region is going to be a tough task for the Gujarat government.

"SAUNI is based on the unreliable assumptions of water availability in the Sardar Sarovar dam," Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told IANS.

"The Sardar Sarovar Dam can accumulate about 28 million acre feet of water in its reservoir but Gujarat has been allocated only nine million acre feet from the tribunal (that adjudicated the issue). No one can guarantee how much water the dam will get every year depending upon the rainfall," he added.

He also said that "massive lift-irrigation schemes across the world have not been a success in the long term. I don't think SAUNI is going to be successful," Thakkar said.

Explaining the shortcomings of the project, Thakkar said, "The Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which was intended for Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat, has not fulfilled the aspirations of the people as the canal infrastructure for taking the water to those areas wasn't completed."

"And even the water which was supposed to be sent to these drought-prone regions was instead sent to central Gujarat," he said, adding: "SAUNI is an additional irrigation project to that."

Highlighting the shortcomings of the SAUNI project, Thakkar said: "The command area of the SAUNI is not satisfactory as it will send water only to 1.1 million hectares of land once completed while over 4.2 million hectares need water for irrigation."

He also blamed the Gujarat government for not harvesting rainwater, adding: "Water levels are going down in most parts of Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat. That's because unsustainable methods are being employed and rainwater is not being harvested."

"In 2015, there were heavy floods in the Saurashtra region. If water-harvesting schemes and check dams had been in place, the groundwater could have been recharged," he added.


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