Tucked in the Konkan region of the Indian state of Maharashtra, the Palghar district is home to tribal and fishing communities that often lack access to basic services, such as water, sanitation, and health care. Due to their geographic and social isolation, they often miss out on critical government programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, initiated by the Government of India in 2014 to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management. The hilly topography and rocky terrain of the region combined with deforestation has caused rapid soil erosion, depleting groundwater levels and leading to seasonal water shortages every summer, which are often acute.
Since April 2017 the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) in India, through its Environment Health Improvement Programme, has been working to improve access to sufficient and good quality drinking water in these communities. AKAH has worked with communities to record and map water sources and implement measures to enhance the potential of each source. It has also created watershed development plans for each village. These interventions have proven to be critical to helping communities navigate their water and sanitation needs during the COVID-19 pandemic when many communities have faced additional pressure on already scarce resources.
In the village of Devli Pada, located in the Vasai taluka (subdistrict) of the Palghar district, a single borewell was the only source of water for the entire village. The borewell did not provide clear water during the monsoons and dried up for two months every year during the summer. During these months, villagers, especially women, had to travel over 1.5 kilometres through hilly terrain that is populated with snakes to collect water. Since Devlipada is situated in a Reserve Forest area, constructing a new well required a series of permissions from the forest and wildlife departments and the region’s gram panchayat (governing body of a village).
After steering through these processes, in March 2018, AKAH completed the construction of an open well. Unfortunately, this well dried up within a month. AKAH conducted a hydrogeological study which indicated that building an underground bund would help recharge groundwater levels and restore the well’s capacity. Initially, some members of the local community resisted plans for the bund because they feared it would negatively impact the water supply for their fields. AKAH worked with local farmers to explain the project and its benefits and secure their support. In early 2020 construction of the bund was completed.
Today not only does the community have year-round access to safe drinking water but it was able to meet increased demand during the pandemic as migrant and seasonal workers were forced to stay or return to the village. As the well is closer to the village, women save time fetching water and can use that time for other activities including education and work, ultimately improving their status in the community. The bund also retains more surface water in the soil, improving soil quality and allowing farmers to grow more seasonal crops such as cucumber and Indian beans.
AKAH has constructed five such systems in the region including subsurface bunds or vented bunds in rocky areas where subsurface structures are not viable. These systems, which are providing access to safe water to over 800 people living in marginalised communities, require minimal maintenance and will improve water security sustainably over time as they promote natural groundwater recharge.