Tracing Groundwater Recharge for a Sustainable Future

India is the world’s biggest user of groundwater for farming. Depletion of this critical resource could result in a reduction in food crops by up to 20 per cent across the country and up to 68 per cent in regions projected to have low future groundwater availability in 2025. The SwitchON Foundation, WE4F innovator ONergy’s sister organization, has advocated for groundwater recharge through rooftop rainwater harvesting structures in nine states in India. We talked to them to learn more about groundwater recharge and how they’re working with ONergy.

What is your relationship with Onergy, and what do you do together? 

Over the years, SwitchON Foundation has incubated social enterprises like ONergy and ONganic, profit-making organizations with a social agenda. SwitchON has worked closely with the farmers of West Bengal to promote sustainable technology solutions to enhance rural livelihoods alongside addressing climate change.

Both SwitchON Foundation and ONergy are organizations working towards promoting solar technologies to enhance rural livelihoods. SwitchON Foundation mobilizes communities for uptake of solar pumps. In West Bengal, since the g     overnment impanels ONergy as a solar pump provider, many farmers who apply for subsidized solar pumps under schemes such as PM KUSUM and FSSM are provided installation and maintenance of the solar pumps by ONergy.

Besides this, ONergy provides technical assistance to SwitchON in some of its projects. SwitchON Foundation does work with multiple other stakeholders to promote sustainable solutions for enhancing rural livelihoods. Onergy is only one of the many partners working with SwitchON to bring a change on the ground.

What activities does Onergy provide technical assistance on?

Under technical assistance to SwitchON, Onergy provides end-to-end solar solution expertise offering design, engineering, manufacturing, installation, O&M, and solar consultancy services for solar rooftop powerplant, solar irrigation pumping, solar lighting, and microgrids for rural communities in India. In addition, SwitchON Foundation mobilizes communities in West Bengal to uptake Onergy’s solar pumps with drip and sprinkler systems that address groundwater depletion.

Could you please tell us about your groundwater recharge innovation?

 SwitchON Foundation has installed two groundwater recharge structures in the districts of Nadia and Bankura. This has been a result of continuous engagement with the community and technical experts to identify appropriate groundwater recharge structures for a particular area. Over one year, SwitchON Foundation has also conducted training and capacity building of women farmers to monitor and collect groundwater level data. To manage groundwater efficiently, it is extremely important to measure groundwater data.

The rooftop rainwater harvesting structures help catch the rainwater that would otherwise drain away from the catchment area. The water is made to seep down to the ground, facilitating recharge by harvesting the rainwater. Though rooftop rainwater structure is a popular means of groundwater recharge, the innovation lies in the community mobilization for water management. Through participatory workshops on rainwater harvesting to manage water resources, community ownership for managing water which is often considered as a common pool resource, is encouraged. Innovations for groundwater recharge essentially require the involvement of the community. Hence, SwitchON Foundation has trained women Self Help Groups (SHGs) and women farmers to do water monitoring and planning through water budgeting.

How does SwitchON focus on groundwater scarcity in rural India?

SwitchON works towards enabling marginal farmers to conduct sustainable agriculture by resorting to climate-resilient practices. Doing so helps marginal farmers successfully uptake climate-smart technologies like solar water pumps to complete irrigation. However, while solar water pumps are eco-friendly and affordable alternatives to electric/diesel-powered irrigation pumps, solar pumps’ sole reliance on groundwater to conduct irrigational practices often contributes to the non-judicious use of groundwater for agricultural practices.

SwitchON built a SEWA network (Strengthening Energy Water Agriculture) in the Eastern Indian states of WB, Orissa, Jharkhand, and ChhattisgarhSwitchON strengthens the network by building the capacity of network partners, providing them resources, and bringing together different stakeholders in one platform to facilitate discussions and deliberations on climate-smart technologies like solar water pumps, micro-irrigation, and groundwater management.    

Has Onergy been involved in groundwater activities?

Onergy’s core focus for driving consistent demand is developing affordable systems, facilitating bank financing, small farm orientation of technology, and popularizing micro-irrigation. Solar pumps are combined with drip and sprinkler systems ideal for horticulture farmers to improve productivity and reduce water usage. Onergy is also piloting sensor-based automated drip irrigation to further reduce water usage by 25% compared to conventional drip systems.

ONergy has created a transformative impact by adopting models such as water as a Service (WaaS), and forming Water User Groups. These models help in regulating groundwater exploitation in the long run.

Which is the best method for groundwater recharge advocated by SwitchON Foundation and why is this innovation important? 

SwitchON has advocated for groundwater recharge through rooftop rainwater harvesting structures. However, we believe that groundwater recharge should be coupled with groundwater monitoring to understand the water flow. For instance, SwitchOn installed two digital water level recorders to have a three year groundwater data. With this data bank at hand and key partnerships with CTARA of IIT Bombay and Prasari, SwitchON can develop a holistic solution for groundwater recharge.

Water is a shared natural resource, and hence community participation in the management of water is essential, and SwitchON has advocated for Participatory Water Management Workshops. In the upcoming days, SwitchON will involve women farmers. Women are considered efficient managers of natural resources because of their close relationship with nature, monitoring water through water budgeting and crop planning activities.      

What is your suggestion/recommendation to other innovators or organizations in helping solve the global water crisis?    

The global water crisis needs contextualization, as groundwater challenges have to be understood in a local context. Therefore, identification of the correct challenges is a pre- necessity to advocate for proper solutions.

The changes in the groundwater level cannot be seen, and therefore it becomes essential to have correct data to monitor water levels. Though the government has consistent data to record groundwater levels, this data often fails to capture the deep groundwater level, which is critical. Additionally, the water crisis cannot be looked at separately. It is crucial to draw on the connections that water has with energy and agriculture/food, so a holistic approach to water management is necessary.      

SwitchOn Foundation was established in 2008 as a not for profit organization. Over the years, SwitchON Foundation has incubated social enterprises like ONergy and ONganic, which are profit-making organizations with a social agenda. SwitchON has worked closely with the farmers of West Bengal to promote sustainable technology solutions to enhance rural livelihoods alongside addressing climate change. The Foundation has now expanded its operation in nine states. Both SwitchON Foundation and ONergy are organizations working towards promoting solar technologies for enhancement of rural livelihoods. SwitchON Foundation mobilizes communities for uptake of solar pumps. ONergy won the Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) Grand Challenge in 2021. http://www.onergy.in/

Yogeeta Sharma is a Communications and Knowledge Management Specialist for the WE4F South and Southeast Asia Regional Innovation Hub. Previously, she has worked with various USAID programs and gained essential experience in the development sector. She loves bringing innovators’ vision into a virtual reality here at WE4F.