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A missionary for conserving groundwater

ISP Mumbai Bureau

She is an influencer on the ground. People wait in small groups to listen to her expert talk in their villages. This sixty-year-old seventh-grade education is today a change-maker for more than a dozen villages of Maharashtra. Meet Lilabai Sonwane of Godri village of Jalna district. A name which is now famous in the region after she was honoured for leadership by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for her stewardship and initiatives in water management. 

Lilabai Sonvane took the community leadership and played a strong role in the promotion of responsible water use and conservation by engaging the community to be responsible towards nature. Lilabai’s story was also featured as one of the 41 stories on Women Leadership in Water Governance and Management globally by UNDP.

“Water is an important natural resource that should be conserved and used sustainably. Water availability continues to be the biggest problem in our region with droughts recurring every other year. If there is no water for us, no water for the birds or the animals, how will we live,” asks Lilabai to the villagers as she begins her discussion with the community. 

Several villages of Jalna are drought-prone areas with low agricultural productivity and declining groundwater levels. Poor governance of available water resources further deteriorated the situation. Lilabai took up the initiative of Water Governance Stewardship on behalf of the WOTR organisation in Maharashtra and became an ambassador for water conservation in the region. 

Her priority areas are promoting aquifer literacy, motivating and mobilising people to work together for sustainable management of their aquifer which is the water table underneath, the source of fresh water for the villages.  Her work has created awareness among the villagers that the groundwater layer that the 14 surrounding villages, called the Godri cluster share, is a common heritage which must be conserved and kept healthy by common effort. 

Her passion and dedication have helped to promote water and aquifer literacy in her village as well as other villages of the Godri cluster. The Godri cluster of villages experiences a cycle of drought every three years. Agricultural productivity was low and the cluster was highly dependent on groundwater but lack of awareness resulted in unequal access to groundwater and its severe depletion in the nearby villages. Lilabai took over the mantle of leadership and played a strong role in the promotion of the water conservation efforts. 

Today,  Lilabai with the support of Jal Sevaks and Jal Sevikas are guiding villages to manage their water resources effectively. The initiative has brought together the residents of all 14 villages. Her passion and dedication have helped to promote groundwater levels. 

Lilabai, who is also a gram panchayat member, has helped villagers share the responsibility of digging small pits to help recharge groundwater. Every villager is conscious of water governance and they compete for the best score in the initiative so that their village development can be incentivised. The water resource of each village under the guidance of Lilabai is managed by women groups and they can now comfortably face severe droughts with best practices in water conservation. 

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