In parched areas in the States of Gujarat and Rajasthan where people could not think beyond water, Ambuja Cement brought about a change of mindset among people to harness and harvest rainwater for use in times of scarcity during summer. Over the past two decades, the efforts bore fruit so much so that even if there is inadequate rainfall or drought conditions, people still have enough water stored in underground tanks for their domestics needs, asserts Pearl Tiwari, President (CSR & Sustainability) at Ambuja Cements.
Could you elaborate on the progress made by Ambuja in tackling the water scarcity issue in the coastal area of Gujarat and ensuring sustainability amid high salinity levels in groundwater.
Water was a perennial issue for people of Saurashtra in Gujarat even in the 1980s and 1990s with inadequate rainfall and cyclical droughts. Being a coastal area, the salinity level in groundwater was high. Ambuja Cements has the mother plant in this area. Since the supplied tanker water was impure, the risk of water-borne diseases was a challenge. Women had to walk 5 to 7 km to fetch water for domestic use. High salinity in groundwater also affected the crops, a factor responsible for poverty in the region.
That is why we decided to tackle the water issue in Gujarat. Initially, it started with communities of 10 villages around the factory but seeing the enormity of the issue the project was extended to the entire region with funding from the Tata Trust. The project included creation of check-dams on the existing rivers, digging of water harvesting pits, interlinking of canals and thereby creation of a sweet water buffer. The result was very encouraging and positive. The saline line which had advanced about 15 km inwardly, was pushed back by about 8 km. Over the last 19 years, 20 to 25 villages spread along 65 to 70 km of coastline have been covered under the project.
Apart from reducing groundwater salinity, how did you address the drinking water issue?
We embarked on roof rainwater harvesting, which did not exist at the time. The idea was to encourage people to collect and store rain water so that they could get good drinking water even in the month of May. Initially, people had apprehensions that stored rain water might get contaminated. It required a change of mindset. They were not aware that rain water, when stored in a technically correct way in an underground tank isolated from sunlight and air, could preserve water for drinking and cooking. We successfully installed 5,000 to 6,000 such tanks in the area. Once people realised that those who embraced the trend had safe drinking water for the whole year, others also took to roof rain water harvesting.
It was drinking water on the one hand and water conservation on the other, which elevated the water table. With consistent work over the last two decades, we have managed to raise the water table by about 36 to 37 feet. The impact is visible and measurable. Where there was hardly any crop, they now have 3 to 4 crops a year. As this was our first plant, we used the surface miner technique to dig huge pits that needed rehabilitation. Now, these are water reservoirs that supply water. Now, even if there is a drought for two years there will still be enough water. The area has mining pits, check dams, percolation wells and a variety of structures.
How was your experience in other States like Rajasthan?
In Rajasthan, we were right in the Thar Desert in Marwar plateau area, between Jodhpur and Ajmer. Rajasthan farmers are different from farmers in Gujarat in the sense that if they say they have 100 bigha land, you see 150 bigha of desert. When we started, it was the third year of the drought and we could clearly see larger issues like absence of schools and healthcare system etc. However, people refused to talk on any other challenges. The point is, for a place that is so water-stressed, people can't think beyond water.
Drought is a cruel reality in Marwar. So we knew, the project needed a different approach, with no rivers and an average of 300mm rainfall even today. That is very little rain. When it rains it is intense and only for a few days. What happens is that it suddenly settles down and it's all gone. In Rajasthan summer is very hot, so evaporation, too, is very fast. So, it was evident that work needed to be done on the water front. We felt that tackling the water issue could address economic and social issues as well.
With the cooperation of villagers we started with the desalting of ponds in the area so that they could be widened and deepened wider in order to hold water for longer periods. Next, we created sub-surface dyke - in a short span we saw water levels rising in the wells. In Rajasthan, roof rainwater harvesting with underground tanks were available in havelis (palaces), but which were lying dormant. We refurbished those and asked people to start using them again. In west Rajasthan, there was something called khadin, which is very similar to bund. We started rejuvenating these and today the result is that there is cumin and other crops with bumper harvests. Today, if you go to Rajasthan in the post-monsoon time you can actually see desert looking green with crops.
Ambuja is setting up renewable energy plants as part of a sustainability initiative. Wind or solar, which one? And if solar is in the vicinity of the cement plant, wouldn't dust affect the output?
Wherever we have sufficient land available, the projects are being implemented by companies specialising in harnessing of renewable energy. We have 7.5 MW wind energy in our portfolio in Gujarat. In solar also, we are providing land for projects that are being implemented on our behalf.
- RENJINI LIZA VARGHESE