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CSR: Water as an impact multiplier

Water project by Ambuja Cement Foundation
Despite having access to reasonably extensive aquifers, the coastal regions of India face a risk of saline water intrusion, rendering their water unusable without treatment.
In the 1990s, Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) observed that the salinity had seeped inland in the Gujarat coastline to up to 15 kilometres and the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) was found to be as high as 4000 mg/litre for certain sea coast villages.
The situation worsened owing to the intensive agricultural patterns in the area and the over exploitation of ground water. As a result, the local community in Kodinar had no potable water available and agricultural yield was adversely hit, impacting the major source of community livelihood.
Despite salinity ingression having far-reaching consequences from a social, financial and ecological aspect, very few corporates address this issue. ACF realized that this was integral for the overall socio-economic development of the regions that they operated in and despite few players in this space; they decided to take action.
ACF began its interventions with a needs assessment exercise through a participatory process involving community members and identified water for drinking and irrigation purposes as the two priorities.

The solution: addressing salinity in a cost effective way

A major challenge is the dearth of knowledge about appropriate technologies for the mitigation of salinity ingress and the ways in which solutions can be contextualized to the region in focus. Moreover, desalination technologies are expensive and require great deal of technical expertise. However, ACF’s response to the issue centred around traditional practices prevalent in the community, coupling the same with technology and that has been able to deliver impactful results.
Since this issue of coastal salinity was a natural phenomenon, ACF approached the problem with a solution derived from the traditional knowledge acquired by the community over years, through the following initiatives:
Surface water harvesting structure: Construction of check dams, revival of traditional water bodies, farm ponds, pond deepening and interlinking canals.
Groundwater recharge: Construction of nala bunds, farm ponds, percolation well, tube well recharge.
In-situ moisture conservation: Drainage line treatment, nala plugs, etc.
Creating water reservoirs from mined out pits: ACF initiated the conservation of mined out pits into water reservoir as a major sustainability initiative to address salinity. These pits were a low cost solution for storage of rainwater

The impact

In terms of outputs and outreach, 16575 wells from 151 villages were benefitted. The project also converted mined out pits to reservoirs creating 300 MCFT of water storage capacity and a 66 km diversion canal network for interlinking rivers and reservoirs was built.
In an independent study conducted, the programme was reported to deliver 13 times social return on investment. Given that salinity ingression affects social and financial well-being of the community and the ecology of the region, the interventions thus had a holistic impact on all three aspects.

Collaboration for scale and sustainability

In addition to co-opting the community, ACF realised that it required to engage other stakeholders to achieve scale and sustainability. In the initial days of the programme, ACF partnered with the Tata Trusts and pooled in their resources for funding, technical expertise and innovation to impact more villages in a robust, sustainable manner. In six years, they were able to demonstrate a robust model and impact.
“Problems in rural areas are complex which need huge resources, different set of skills and knowledge. Therefore, collaboration helps to achieve economies of scale and bring together different skills and innovations and resources. It also builds capacity of participating organisations by learning from each other,” Brajesh Singh Tomar, Deputy General Manager, Ambuja Cement Foundation told Samhita in its latest report on CSR in water.
The government was convinced and agreed to fund close to 60-80% of all future initiatives of this nature. Following the success of the project, ACF now works closely with the government, NGOs, corporates and development agencies with an aim to facilitate pooling in resources and technical knowledge.
One such collaborative initiative is the ‘Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell’, with ACF as its founding member along with Aga Khan Rural Support Program India and TATA trusts. Established in 2008, the cell acts as the advisory body to address salinity in the coastal regions of Gujarat. The organization has also joined hands with the state government to explore and evolve other development interventions in the region.