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FEATURE: Water stewardship to be ‘climate smart’ – Lessons from Maharashtra

The IPCC’s Special Report on Land and Climate Change stresses the importance of governance for achieving climate change adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development. Here, Eshwer Kale, Marcella D’Souza and Arpan Golechha of Watershed Organisation Trust‘s Centre for Resilience Studies (W-CReS) describe a model of water governance which involved transforming villages in semi-arid areas of Maharashtra from over-exploitation to judicious use of water.

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” This saying by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge precisely describes the situation in groundwater-dependent regions of India where, during dry summer months, villagers are forced to depend on water tankers to quench their thirst.

In times of uncertain monsoon rains and climate change, India’s dependence on groundwater for drinking and agricultural needs is growing. Recent reports by the Central Ground Water Board and the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency in Maharashtra highlight the critical issue of water scarcity and falling groundwater levels in the last five years.

Along with rainwater harvesting measures, we urgently need to use our groundwater resources judiciously, sustainably and efficiently in order to manage our present and future water needs and to contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 5 (gender equality), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 13 (climate action).

Having extensive experience in participatory watershed development with ridge to valley approach since 1993, Watershed Organisation Trust in 2015 launched its Water Stewardship Initiative. Its goal is to promote “climate-smart water governance” through community participation. As part of this initiative, water users at the local level are considered as ‘water managers’ rather than ‘beneficiaries or target groups’. This is the story of 100 villages that have implemented the Water Stewardship Initiative since late 2015 in the Ahmednagar, Dhule and Jalna districts of Maharashtra.

The Water Stewardship Initiative is based on the understanding that when various stakeholders come together and are presented with realistic information about their climate, water resources, the related productivity, and their socio-economic context, then dialogue and discussions among them are inevitable. This leads to the development of a common, systemic understanding of their situation. Coupled with building inclusive institutions, this systematic understanding motivates and mobilises villagers for sustainable actions towards achieving good water governance.

Key interventions, observations, impacts and learnings of the Water Stewardship Initiative are as follows:

Institution building. The Village Water Management Team comprises representatives of various water user groups, including irrigated and not rain-fed farmers, big and small farmers, women and landless people, and representatives of different village level institutions such as Gram panchayat [Indian local self government organisation], watershed committee and water users’ associations, etc. With capacity building, the teams were able to understand and take up their various functions as described below. Jal Sevaks are trained youth who provide technical guidance and are responsible for motivating and mobilising the villagers.

Village Water Health Chart. The Village Water Health Chart assesses the tangible parameters of everyday life which are often taken for granted, such as, time spent by women to fetch water and if it affects the education of girls, quality of water governance at village level, etc.

Following implementation of the Water Stewardship Initiative, it was found that 57% of villages were considered ‘healthy’ in terms of their water status, compared to 20% of villages pre-interventions. The percentage of villages in the ‘severely ill’ category reduced to 18% — from its level of 41%, earlier.

Water budgeting. Based on the locale’s specific rainfall, the Village Water Budget is prepared by prioritising domestic and livestock needs. After this, the requirement of water for crops is calculated. All 100 villages display the Water Budget on public boards. In 2018, which was a year of drought, farmers shifted from water intensive onion and wheat to crops which require less water. Besides this, 78 villages had water available for domestic use.

Water harvesting. The Water Health Status and Water Budget provide information on the water deficit for meeting agricultural productivity. This encourages villages to increase the water harvesting potential of existing structures, by repairing and maintaining them; as well as to construct new ones in appropriate locations. During 2016 and 2017, a total of 61.44 billion litres of water was harvested through these structures.

Water saving. Water availability is further enhanced through water use efficiency measures. The promotion of water saving techniques (micro-irrigation, mulch) during the two and a half year programme period resulted in the saving of 3.24 billion litres of water by the 2,000 farmers who newly started using these techniques.

Rules on water use. Good water governance requires setting norms for water management. The Water Stewardship Initiative encourages the Village Water Management Teams and Gram Panchayats to frame village specific rules regarding appropriate water-use and selecting crops. These rules discussed and then endorsed by the Gramsabha (village assembly). A total of 78 villages formulated rules, such as a ban on drilling new bore-wells, limits on the depth of borewells, and other such rules as acceptable to them.

Stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder engagement constitutes the core of the Water Stewardship Initiative. It brings together the various actors facilitated by the use of games and supported by evidence from research. It encourages the voicing of concerns and needs through active discussion and urges the participants to arrive at a consensus about necessary actions to manage their water resources. Village Water Management Team members and village representatives actively participated in the stakeholder engagement events.

Aquifer management. Aquifer management brings together various villages that share the same aquifer. The Initiative has brought together the residents of 14 villages that share a common pool resource aquifer. This pilot is in line with the Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2009.

Group Micro-Irrigation. The Group Micro Irrigation model is based on the principle that water should be used as a common good rather than a private good, which would reduce the overexploitation of water resources. However, the purpose of Group Micro-Irrigation stretches beyond water conservation and involves water-use efficiency, good agricultural practices, crop planning according to soil type and water availability etc. This Group Micro-Irrigation approach is an example of self-regulation at the lowest of [administrative] levels. Here, groups of farmers have come together to modify their competitive water use behavior, to help avoid over-exploitation and promote sustainability. The model has been implemented in parts of Maharashtra and Telangana states and is being scaled up in several villages.

The good practices initiated in the Water Stewardship Initiative are essential to influence the practices and behaviour of water users in an appropriate direction and to follow these practices as a habit. These ground-level governance measures are a necessary step towards adaptation to climate change and the extreme events to which climate change increasingly contributes.


Image: Maharashtra, Credit Michael Foley, flickr

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