It would take more than small-scale interventions to check the fast spreading salinity ingress along the Gujarat coastline thanks to unchecked development activities

It needs more than a Gandhian effort to rid Gujarat of its salt scourge. While the pinch of salt made over 70 years ago at an obscure place on the coast had rattled the British Empire, the ongoing salt invasion along the entire coastline of Gujarat has the potential to unsettle the masses without any forewarning.

Along the coast, marine water is creeping underground into freshwater aquifers. Called salinity ingress, it is advancing at an unprecedented rate of half a km a year along the 1,125-km-long coastline of Gujarat. Since the early 1970s, when the salinity ingress was first observed, there are over 2,500 villagers that are currently affected. That salinity ingress covers 550 sq km new area along the coastline every year, the invasion is indeed insidious.

Groundwater depletion

Increasing pressure of economic activities along the coast has caused considerable depletion of ground water, resulting in underground surge of marine water. No wonder, two decades of development activities have caused an increase in the number of administrative blocks where withdrawal of ground water in the coastal region is not safe; from five in 1984 to 21 in 1997, with the total number of coastal blocks being 42 only. And, the number continues to vary.

The only solution to salinity ingress rests on replenishing groundwater reserves, which inhabitants of Beria village in Rajkot district have effectively demonstrated. With the help of 133 check dams built to store rainwater in the village, sustained percolation from which has been able to restrain salinity ingress in groundwater. Similar initiatives have occurred across several villages but the magnitude of the problem continues to be several times the current efforts.

Rainwater recharging

The issue was first brought into public attention in the early 1980s by the socio-spiritual movement called Swadhaya, which inspired millions in the region for mass-scale adoption of irrigation wells as rainwater recharging structures to keep salinity at bay. The simple contraption to direct rainwater into wells was voluntarily built on no less than 10,000 wells across several villages in the salinity-affected areas during the 80s.

Picking up on it, the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), a policy advocacy and action network promoted by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) since 2008, has partnered with 20 civil society organisations to implement projects aimed at water conservation in the affected villages. The State government, through Water and Sanitation Management Organisation (WASMO), has focused on providing drinking water to villagers.

“The severity of salinity, which has stretched inland up to 15 km, has caused severe decline in farm productivity and animal husbandry in the region,” says Divyang Waghela, chief general manager of CSPC, Ahmedabad. It has also been known that salinity beyond permissible limit of 2000 mg/litre or above has been cause for serious health concerns (for example, increasing incidence of kidney stone) as well as for causing drinking water crisis in the region as well.

Given the seriousness of the issue, CSPC has partnered with WASMO in initiating a Coastal Area Development Project covering 450 villages in nine districts. Pitching on the success of its first phase, the government has scaled up the project activities to cover more villages. Under the Department of Irrigation, a Salinity Ingress Prevention Cell has specifically been created to focus on capital-intensive initiatives like constructing a fresh water canal to recharge groundwater.

Segmenting regions

It goes to the credit of CSPC for segmenting the affected region into three categories according to the level of salinity in groundwater. While ‘fully saline’ villages have been subjected to rooftop rainwater harvesting structures for meeting drinking water needs, in ‘prone-to-saline’villages water-conserving farming practices for recharging groundwater have been advocated. Elsewhere, percolation tanks and check dams have been constructed to augment fresh water storage.

While the government has played a supportive role in fighting the scourge thus far, the pace of salinity ingress far outstrips its piecemeal efforts. “It would need to stretch its executive arm to regulate water allocation across sectors, however, without compromising on local farm economics and food security,” argues Apporva Oja, chief executive of AKRSP. Offering incentive to those who conserve water can be effective for community participation.

Without doubt, controlling salinity intrusion is a work-in-progress. Consequently, there is a need to project the magnitude of the problem (including the impact of ensuing climate change and sea level rise) over time because what is not talked about exerts no political pressure. The experience from 22 per cent of India’s coastline in Gujarat ought to be viewed from a national perspective, because pace of development is unscrupulous along the country’s coastline.

If groundwater withdrawal continues at the current pace, specifically along the coastline, and the rivers fail to reach the sea on account of large scale diversion/development, salinity ingress will indeed press for a second Salt Satyagraha!

(The writer is with Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)