On a January evening, standing on the precincts of the ancient Shree Dattatraya Temple, about 200 metres from the Kajli river in Maharashtra, 50-year-old Sidharth Kabnoorkar of Kondgaon-Sakharpa village told Mongabay-India, “Be it July or August, the river regularly overflowed its banks, flooding the marketplace and our homes. This had been happening year after year.” But, he hastened to add, “The village is flood-free now.”

Originating from the Devde village at the foothills of Vishalgad, river Kajli meets the river Kew flowing from Amba Ghat to the east of Kondgaon. Their confluence results in a waterfall where there is a change in its course. Flowing up to Bhatye Bay of Ratnagiri, Kajli covers a distance of 72 km with its banks dotted with around 75 villages.

However, it is at Kondgaon-Sakharpa, a village with over 5,000 inhabitants, on the Ratnagiri-Kolhapur highway in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, where Kajli overflows during the monsoon months, entering homes, the marketplace, temples, schools and the primary health centre.

The Konkan region, situated on the western coast of India, has about 22 tributary basins. The region accounts for 42% to 49% of the total rainfall in the state. Most rivers of Konkan are short in length, unlike those of the Eastern Ghats which flow for hundreds of kilometres.

With rainfall levels ranging between 2,000 mm and 6,000 mm, the rivers in Konkan flood heavily in the months of July and August. The turbulent water carries along silt, debris and stones in its wake. When the deluge recedes, the sediment gets deposited on the riverbeds, reducing the river’s depth.

A flooded Kondgaon-Sakharpa, when water overflows in Kajli during the monsoons. Credit: Kajli River Conservation Committee

The first recorded flood of Kondgaon-Sakharpa was in 1949, and since then, it has experienced flooding once every monsoon. Recalling the floods of 1983, 45-year-old Mandar Joglekar, who is now a software professional in California shares, “One night in July, at about 1.30 am, we found our homes submerged under a metre of water. The grocery shop run by my father, an Indian Army veteran, was under water for several days resulting in losses amounting to Rs 1 lakh,” he said.

However, most of the residents that this correspondent interacted with, recall the 2005 July floods as one of the most devastating disasters. With a downpour of about 900 mm in one day, the damages caused in the village were irreparable. This was the same year that heavy rain-induced floods brought Mumbai city to a standstill.

River conservation committee 

In 2019, the residents of Kondgaon-Sakharpa gathered enough support from the village panchayat and the trustees of Shree Dattatraya Temple. Together, they formed the Kajli River Conservation Committee.

“Having acquired the permission from the district authorities for undertaking the river rejuvenation, we started raising funds from the village residents. The donation amount ranged from Rs 50 to Rs 5 lakh. Some senior citizens contributed their savings for the cause too. However, within a couple of months, the pandemic set in and a lockdown was declared, forcing us to pause the work,” said Kabnoorkar, a third-generation Kondgaon-Sakharpa resident, who owns a grocery store and manages a secondary school.

Social media also helped in generating funds for the cause as even people who migrated to other cities and countries contributed money when they saw the posts on digital platforms. In total, the committee was able to raise Rs 33 lakh in donations.

The Kajli River Conservation Committee members then reached out to Naam Foundation, a non-governmental organisation which has worked in water conservation projects across Maharashtra, by finding long-term remedies for drought. Soon, water conservationist Ajit Gokhale, who has executed scores of projects involving sewage/effluent treatment, surface water replenishment, and rainwater harvesting projects, came on board to provide the technical inputs for Kajli’s restoration. Gokhale and his team are credited for making 200 drought-prone villages in Maharashtra self-reliant in drinking water.

The Kajli river before restoration. Credit: Kajli River Conservation Committee

Gokhale wondered why Kajli overflows its banks and floods its surroundings year after year. “Having studied the recurrent incidents of flooding in the Konkan region and visited 22 river sites, we concluded that blaming the deluge on climate change was too simplistic an inference. The crisis is man-made,” he revealed.

Human-made floods

Gokhale who has travelled extensively in the region and visited many villages, observes that the riverine flows have been restricted and diverted over the years. They are made to pass through narrow culverts or diversion channels. The debris accumulated in the pools of the rivers from infrastructure projects like roads, railways, dams and hydroelectric power plants has made the river shallow, he says. With the rivers in spate, flooding became an annual event.

For instance, to build the Konkan Railway Project, the rocky Sahyadri range was bored through. Viaducts were built through many valleys. Around 2,000 bridges were built and 91 tunnels were dug, according to a 2013 study. The debris from this project was dumped on the hill slopes. And when the rains came, the debris rolled down.

“The riverbed accumulating debris and stones further influenced the destruction of the aquatic life and, in the process, the livelihood of the fisher folk. By October, almost all rivers were dry. With the pools of water gone, the temperature of the river environs spiked,” said Gokhale.

Rejuvenating Kajli

The work to rejuvenate the river began in February 2021. Land was raised on both sides of the river, for up to a kilometre and the debris was removed from the riverbed with the help of earthmovers. The work was completed in May 2021, a few weeks before the arrival of the monsoon. For four months, Chaitanya Sardeshpande, 25, a commerce graduate, supervised the job at the site. “While Naam Foundation provided us with the earthmovers, we (the residents) took care of the diesel required for the machines. We also took care of the lodging, boarding, food and remuneration of the workers,” he said.

Since May 2021, the inhabitants of Kondgaon-Sakharpa have lived through two monsoons with no occurrence of floods. Incidentally, the villages of Chanderai, a riverine port until the 1960s, and Harcheri, located 30 km downstream, experienced flooding.

This restoration which is primarily a community-based conservation model to rejuvenate the Kajli river has enthused those living near other rivers in Konkan, that encounter regular flooding. In November 2021, Kondgaon-Sakharpa hosted a workshop titled “Nadi ki Pathshala” (School for the Rivers), led by Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and water conservationist Rajendra Singh. The brainchild of biodiversity expert Sumant Pande, the three-day residential workshop was attended by more than 80 individuals including students, teachers, members of non-governmental organisations and environment activists. Two more workshops were held subsequently in Pune.

The Kajli river before restoration. Credit: Kajli River Conservation Committee

Addressing the Kajli river restoration as the ‘Sakharpa Model’, Pande, who was formerly with the Pune-based Water Literacy, said, “The pathshala (school) is an initiative to educate and empower people about how the ‘Sakharpa model’ of flood relief through public participation. This can be replicated to change the condition of other rivers in Konkan.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.