Called bavkhals, these age-old ponds once nurtured coastal wadis (orchards and farms) but had become filled with waste over the years. Until one man decided to breathe life into them.
Back in 2010, when Sachin Marti returned to his native village of Bhuigaon in Nala Sopara, Maharashtra, during his vacation from TISS, he saw some children walking back with huge containers filled with water despite the many water bodies in the village. Intrigued, Sachin asked the kids why they did so, to which they replied, “We might die if we drink the water from bavkhal (traditional ponds).”
This was a wake up call for the then 23-year-old who had never given much thought to the source of the water he and his family consumed. For the first time, Sachin was face to face with the water crisis in the Virar-Vasai Region (VVR), part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).
To help spread awareness about water conservation, the alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences joined the Yuva Vikas Sanstha (YVS), an NGO that was already working toward mobilising the citizens of the region.
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What started in 2011 as an effort to stop people from throwing waste in the water bodies, has now grown into a full-fledged mission to restore not only the existing ponds but also revive the ones that have dried up.
Sachin has been leading the NGO’s water project in the region for the last ten odd years, and so far, the NGO has been instrumental in reviving eight ponds which have helped increase the water tables across five villages.
What were once waste dumping grounds, filled with all kinds of dry and wet waste are now freshwater ponds teeming with aquatic life.
Understanding the Problem
For nearly two centuries, people residing in VVR have been using ponds to meet their various water needs like drinking, irrigation and animal husbandry.
“These traditional ponds are nothing but holes created inside forests to capture rainwater and allow the green space and groundwater tables to flourish. The ponds were either owned by individuals or communities,” Sachin, who works as a Project Manager at the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat India in Mumbai, tells The Better India.
However, due to the development boom in Mumbai during the 90s, the real estate expanded to this side of the MMR as well. As the population grew in numbers, the green space declined simultaneously.
“The inhabitants started exploiting the water bodies for their personal needs like washing clothes, bathing and some even use it for open defecation,” he adds.
Finding The Solution
With no concrete figures available on the number and condition of the ponds, Sachin and his team started with a detailed survey of the VVR, “The surveys are being carried out to estimate the quantity of water that we can extract without affecting the overall ecology.”
The NGO is also uploading the results on KoBO Collect, an app that maintains data to be presented to the government, “We will map these ponds on Google Maps, and the app will help in establishing the need to conserve water. This way, we can rope in the government to maintain the revived ponds.”
Next on the agenda was desilting the lakes to free up space, and cleaning the pods. Desilting is the removal of materials like weeds, sand, mud from the pond beds. The extraction is done using local workforce and earth excavators. The collected waste is either given to the local municipal body or the farmers. Asking the farmers to desilt the lakes was comparatively easy as the silt helps in farming. “The ponds were either a part of the farms or residential areas. The silt acts as organic manure that improves the quality of the produce. With farmers’ permission, we desilted the pond.”
The third step of involving the locals in the cleanup drives was a daunting task considering that old habits die hard.
“From sanitary, medical to plastic waste, the residents throw all kinds of waste in the ponds. This further pollutes the groundwater too. Just cleaning the ponds is not sufficient, the real challenge is to sustain the cleanliness and here is where the role of community is important,” he says.
To ensure that ponds do not get polluted again, Sachin ropes in water experts too.
After the cleanup, they plant trees around the pond which helps maintain the ecology and also treat the water naturally. Sachin has also started asking the people residing very close to the ponds to create rainwater diversions. The rainwater collected on the roof of the house usually goes to the drains through pipes. The people have now changed the direction of these pipes to divert the roof water to the ponds.
For his water conservation drives and research on water bodies, Sachin often gets invited to speak about the model he implements. Recently, the Oxford University asked him to present a paper on lake beautification.
In the next five years, Sachin aims to survey the ponds in 20 villages in the VVR and prepare a report on the water quality which he wants to present to the government.
Sachin believes that if he and his team can restore and revive all the 500 odd ponds in the region, then water problems in the VVR can be solved.
You can write to Sachin Marti at: email@example.com
Feature Image Source: Hiraman Bose
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)