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FEATURE: Where climate change and three canals meet in Gurgaon, India

Researchers Vishal Narain and Aditya Kumar Singh describe how residents of Gurgaon, India struggle to access and manage water in a changing climate.  Their work is part of the “Climate Policy, Conflicts and Cooperation in Peri-Urban South Asia: Towards Resilient and Water Secure Communities” project funded by the UK’s Department for International Development in collaboration with the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

The CoCOON-CCMCC project on peri-urban water security is exploring how urbanisation and climate change shape periurban water (in)security and the possibilities for conflict and cooperation around water. In Gurgaon, the research is located at the interface of three canals, the Gurgaon Jhajjar Canal, the NCR (National Capital Region) Channel and the GWS (Gurgaon Water Supply) Channel. This selection is based on the focus of the project on exploring the relationship between rural and urban water supply.

The first of these canals carries the domestic waste of the city through the peri-urban villages while the latter two were built to carry water from the countryside to water treatment plants to provide water to the city. The construction of these canals is guided by the growth and expansion of the city and the peri-urban villages through which they pass are meant to be recipients of these changes. In particular, they are not allowed to use the water flowing through the freshwater canals. However, they devise their own ways to take advantage of their situation. A wide range of technologies and institutions have sprung up along these canals, through which the peri-urban communities improve their access to water.

These three canals are the lifeline of peri-urban communities. Although officially they are not able to use water from the fresh water canals, they devise their own ways of circumventing the situation. Hand pumps are a common sight along the canals; tubewells were installed to benefit from the rise in the water table when the Gurgaon Water Supply Channel was dug. However, when the National Capital Region Channel came to be built parallel to it to augment the city’s water supply, the tubewells had to be removed, as lands were acquired for the former.  At the same time, there was a decline in rainfall after the 1970s and the disappearance of what locals call the “chaumaasa” – the four month monsoon period. These factors have increased the reliance on wastewater – an important source of irrigation for wheat and paddy. With the fall in water tables and the absence of an irrigation canal to serve the area, for many, wastewater is the only reliable source to irrigate.Urban-rural flows of wastewater are thus crucial in peri-urban agriculture.

The wastewater comprises domestic sewerage of Gurgaon. It is released in the villages after it passes by a sewage treatment plant where it is used to make fertiliser. The local population considers it ‘impure’ and thus does not consume the produce irrigated by it; rather sells it in the wholesale market. To safeguard against possible skin infections, they apply mustard oil on their hands and feet as they stand in the wastewater to irrigate. A wide range of technologies are used to access the wastewater; electric pump-sets, diesel pump-sets, tractors and pipe outlets. With a decline in rainfall, and the shift in rainfall patterns, the reliance on wastewater has increased. For instance, for paddy cultivation, farmers usually wait for the rains. When rains fail, they use wastewater. Wastewater is preferred over groundwater, which is saline.

While there is growing recognition of the value of wastewater in peri-urban agriculture, little is known about the dynamics of cooperation around it that allow its use to be widespread. Only some farmers whose lands are located along the wastewater canal can pump directly from the canal or access water through a pipe outlet; however, it is made available to several other farmers whose lands are located at a distance on the basis of mutual norms of cooperation, locally called bhaibandi. These norms allow the wastewater to flow – often as much as a kilometre away – through furrows. These forms of cooperation are crucial in sustaining the use of wastewater, growing rapidly in importance in peri-urban contexts in the face of climate change and urbanisation.

Conflicts around wastewater happen for instance, when water from one’s fields overflows to the neighbours, damaging crops. These conflicts are more common when the land-holding size is small, as such contiguous parcels of land may belong to different owners, than when the plots of land are large, and owned by a single person. Conflicts also happen when there is a mismatch between the wastewater discharged in the canal and the farmers’ requirements for irrigation; irrigators then go up the gateworks to put pressure on the gate operator to release more water. Sometimes, at the gateworks the embankments get eroded, causing the wastewater to spill over into the adjoining farmers’ fields. This situation is usually resolved through petitions to the Irrigation Department.

As climate change and urbanisation together create an uncertain environment for water access in peri-urban contexts, wastewater will continue to be an important source of irrigation, sustained by local norms of cooperation. These norms of cooperation are demonstrated in practices that allow irrigators to build furrows to carry wastewater to their fields located at some distance from the pipe outlet – that discharges the wastewater from the wastewater canal – and provide a basis for collective cleaning of the furrows and watercourses. It is important to understand the value of these norms in improving the resilience of communities to the impacts of urbanisation and climate change induced water insecurity.

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