What do the groundwater data disclosures under Atal Jal programme tell us (and not tell us)?

While sharing her views on water data in the podcast Voices for Water, Dr. Anju Gaur from the World Bank India office refers to her personal fitness monitoring device and suggests- ‘if I am monitoring it, I will manage it’. Throughout this podcast, the line is referred thrice suggesting the predominance of monitoring and measurement paradigm in shaping water management efforts. Given the importance of managing and governing groundwater effectively, many researchers and practitioners often cite the ‘lack of data’ as an impediment for improving groundwater management and governance. It is for this reason, that many groups (academic, government, non-government, civil society, communities) working on groundwater often lay an emphasis on monitoring, measuring and gathering data on groundwater. 

State groundwater agencies as well as the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB) have been collecting various forms of groundwater data- be it setting of monitoring/observation wells, water levels, water quality etc. Since much of this is rather inaccessible to the larger public and thus communities who are dependent on groundwater for their everyday need, it was identified as one of the key deliverables (here, pg 8) under the Atal Bhujal Yojana. The first Disbursement Linked Indicator or DLI-1 or simply called as deliverable identifies ‘public disclosure of groundwater data/information and reports’ as one of the indicators of programme outcomes matrix. This recent tweet (below) from the official (?) Atal Jal Twitter handle shares that till date information of more than 7000 observation wells across 7 states has been disclosed as part of DLI-1.

What do these public disclosures tell us? What do they mean for improving our understanding of groundwater conditions in the block/district/region? And lastly, most importantly though, how can communities and other actors involved in Atal Jal villages use this information/data disclosure to plan effective management strategies for groundwater improvement? In this blogpost, I trace the first question. I will follow up with another blogposts later to address the other two questions. 

I use the case of Maharashtra as the state has put out these reports for all the 38 blocks of the state that represent villages which are part of Atal Jal programme. The structure used for making these reports was homogenous, hence I took examples of 3 block reports to go in detail for analysis. For some weird reason which I cannot grasp, the GSDA English website alone has posted these reports however one cannot find them in the Marathi website (see here, accessed on the day this blogpost was published). Given that these are meant for public dissemination and most people from villages, decision making bodies will prefer to access them in Marathi, I find it odd that such is the case. I hope the GSDA puts them out soon. 

What do these disclosure reports tell us?

Beyond the general characteristics of the blocks (census information, dominant crops, land use and geology) the reports consist of following information on groundwater:

  1. Groundwater conditions- Network of monitoring wells in the block, data availability period, pre and post monsoon water levels (for preceding year) etc. 
  2. Groundwater quality- number of wells monitored, period of data availability, parameters analysed and known quality issues 
  3. Groundwater resources- extractable groundwater resources, current abstraction rates, net groundwater availability, stage of groundwater development and category of assessment unit (safe, semi critical, critical, overexploited)

It then goes on to give the details of water level and water quality monitoring wells and their recent data in a tabular format. The most interesting part of these disclosures are the maps. Following maps have been depicted in the disclosures-

  1. Location map
  2. Base map
  3. Hydrogeological map 
  4. Location of monitoring wells
  5. Pre and post monsoon Water level fluctuation map
  6. Electrical conductivity (EC) map 

Are the disclosures enough?

Based on my understanding of reading these reports I make the following observations:

  1. Data by itself is not enough- Even if the reports outline the details of monitoring network, unless a reader has prior training, it is difficult to make sense of what it means to be reading a GPS value, the m.bgl (metres below ground level) value- a common parameter used by scientists and researchers to make observation of water level fluctuations. This also applies to the water quality parameters. What is EC and what does mg/l mean- how does one make sense of it? The map for EC shows the range of values spatially across the block but does not refer to desirable/permissible limits in the maps, making one wonder what to make of this range. I hope communities and members of decision-making bodies under Atal Jal undergo training and capacity building going forward to make sense of these parameters and units. 
Source: Block Hydrogeological Report Wai- GSDA
  • The data depicts that in most cases the unconfined aquifers (shallow aquifers) are being monitored currently. Given the dependency on deeper/confined aquifers and the increasing use of bore-wells, one does not find monitoring of any bore-wells being currently undertaken. One then, is amused to know what was the role of National Hydrology Project (which is in its third phase currently) that, among other things, aimed to improve monitoring and measurements of groundwater resources. Under the project, piezometers (devices that monitor water levels) were planned to be installed, but no information about their data or fluctuations seems to be referred to in the reports. Given that both the projects have been partially supported by the World Bank and that the same ministry is involved in overseeing both the projects, wont such an exercise find value in disclosures?
  • setting up monitoring stations, collecting data and disseminating them has been part of various projects. Let us take example of JalSwarajya II project implemented by Maharashtra (again in collaboration with World Bank). A monitoring network of about 33000 wells was set up/identified under the project and data for the same was to be collected by ‘Jalsurakshak’- a person appointed under NRDWP programme for water quality monitoring and surveillance. The project went a step ahead to collate all the data visually via an application developed by MRSAC- the state remote sensing agency. The maps in the reports mention to this monitoring network but the monitoring does not find its way into assessments and disclosures. apparently, the last time I had visited this website (1 January 2022), I could see that data is updated only once- sometime in 2015. I hope that such data is being collected but is yet to be updated on the MRSAC application.
Source: MahaGSDA by MRSAC (accessed 1 Jan 2022)
  • Extensive information about groundwater practices is documented by the Minor Irrigation Census reports which is very useful to make sense of groundwater dependency and its intricate characteristics (for example see this, and this). Lack of any references to those data sources only extends the argument about ‘in-silo’ functioning of various agencies and departments that all work on water in one way or the other. This also applies to various projects often supported by the same multilateral agency (World Bank, in this case).
  • The reports have been disclosed using the administrative units as references (taluka/block, in this case). Given that these reports were produced by the groundwater agencies in various states, it would have made sense to integrate hydrogeological information and data from other initiatives. The NAQUIM programme, one of the most influential programmes aimed at mapping aquifers across the country has produced detailed information and data about groundwater conditions in various regions. Such reports, usually available at district scale, could had been tapped into and could have been brought into the dissemination exercise that is currently underway as part of Atal Jal DLI 1. The programme is only referred to as ‘covered’ or ‘not covered’ in disclosure reports.
  •  The report boasts about long term monitoring of groundwater in these blocks. However, one does not see use of trends (of water level fluctuation, water quality) in disclosures but on the contrary sees a year specific value input (like pre and post monsoon water level for 2019). Without making a reference to rainfall, it may be difficult to grasp the groundwater situation based on a single year data value. Although the tables put out values for about 4-5 years, it is very difficult to read numbers out of a table than to actually see some form of visualisation about trends in water level fluctuations etc. 
  • Standardising the processes- The reports are consistent across all the blocks in the structure they follow. Such a standardisation may not serve the diverse typology of groundwater conditions and issues. Reports mention about certain water quality parameters being reported in the block but does not go ahead to give details about such cases. Similarly wells are usually monitored for 2 or 4 times a year across the country. One does see value in such an exercise, but such standardisation across regions may not be appropriate given the rainfall variability that one sees over monsoon period. Increasing instances of post monsoon and pre-monsoon rainfall (also called non-seasonal) affects water tables. Piezometers (devises that monitor water levels) could prove beneficial. It must be mentioned here that such piezometers will be installed in villages under Atal Jal programme but this should not be a case as seen with National Hydrology project.

UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) has entered into its 9th phase since its inception in 1975. The programme, in this phase has adopted the theme- ‘science for a water secure world in a changing environment’. It aims to help members states (countries) achieve their water related goals (like SDG 6) ‘by strengthening scientific knowledge, data availability and enabling informed decision- making’ (Strategic Plan, pg 6). It aims to further interdisciplinary efforts and expanding role of, what is referred in the document as, ‘citizen science’. Can the data/information disclosure made under DLI 1 of Atal Jal programme aid in ‘enabling informed decision making’? How interdisciplinary are these reports and the understanding they produce? What is citizen science when it comes to groundwater?I trace this question in the next blog post.