Notes from the Field

India’s Most Vulnerable Communities Join to Manage Water Resources

December 1, 2010

India’s Marwar region, located in the Great Indian Thar Desert, is the most densely populated arid zone in the world. While most deserts have three to four inhabitants per square kilometer, this region has 84 to 90. It covers an area of 13.5 million hectares comprising seven districts in Rajasthan State, India. The economy of the region has traditionally revolved around animal husbandry and subsistence agriculture, mostly rain-fed, while its primary ecological resources have been mostly rain-fed water bodies, pastures, grazing lands, and sacred groves. Rainfall varies from 100-300 mm. Climatic extremes such as droughts are a recurring phenomenon.

Women collect water in India

In Rajasthan, one of India's most vulnerable states to climate change, water resource management is critical. Above, women collect water from a beri, a shallow recharge well that provides naturally filtered water.

Not surprisingly, conservation and water resource management is critical in the Thar Desert, as it seriously affects not only the availability of water for drinking and household use, but for other sectors such as agriculture, sanitation, and health. People in the region, particularly women, walk up to six hours a day across the desert under scorching sun to fill a 20 litre urn with water. Changing climate and unpredictable droughts are making the situation only worse. In its 2004 initial communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, India presented Rajasthan as one of the states in the country most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

My foundation, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, a partner to The Asia Foundation, has been working in the region since 2002 to strengthen community institutions to effectively manage water resources. A four-tiered system of institutions from the village level, called the Jal Sabha (village water user association) to the regional level, called the Jal Sansad (water forum), ensures active participation from the community. Through meetings, public awareness campaigns, participatory appraisal exercises, and other activities we bring communities together around water. By doing so, we help form effective, accountable village water associations to plan, manage, and implement micro-projects. The focus is on building the capacity of these institutions with knowledge and skill, rather than top down investments in infrastructure.

This strategy has been mobilized in 220 villages spread over 2,500 km to revive traditional water harvesting and conservation systems, like utilizing  talabs (village ponds), nadis (grassland ponds), beri (shallow recharge wells), and tankas (underground water harvesting tanks) to ensure optimum conservation of water. At the same time, catchment areas (the area that collects the rain runoff from surface harvesting structures) of water structures like agors (catchments), orans (sacred forests), and gauchars (grasslands) are better developed to improve efficiency of water harvesting structures. The project, which has reached 300,000 villagers so far, empowers communities to take ownership over water resource management in their villages, particularly the marginalized and disadvantages sections. Women and girls in these villages have reported that through these new innovations, they now have around five to six more hours per day, which was previously spent gathering water.

Although many Jal Sabhas have indicated that creating additional water harvesting systems and increasing storage capacity is necessary, it is not sufficient to cope with emerging climate challenges. This is particularly true in recent years, which have witnessed severe changes in rainfall patterns, resulting in reduced efficiency of water harvesting from catchment areas. In response, a number of Jal Sabhas have constructed water channels to collect even short and intermittent rainfall, thereby enhancing efficiency. Others have started institutionalizing social norms and management systems to cope with changing climate and recurring droughts. For example, some Jal Sabhas regulate the use of water depending on the water level in their village pond. Others charge a user fee from people taking water in bulk using water tankers of 4,000 litres, while water is available free for those coming with a 20 litre pot. Some Jal Sabhas have begun implementing mechanisms such as watchmen and printed receipts to ensure that usage is accountable and evenly distributed.

This experience reveals that creating social capital and empowering community institutions can be a realistic way forward for adaptation to climate change, particularly in the developing world. After all, vulnerability to climate change is a function of communities’ capacity to cope with changing scenarios.

Kanupriya Harish is Jal Bhagirathi Foundation’s project director. The Asia Foundation has supported Jal Bhagirathi Foundation since its establishment in 2002, and is currently supporting a communications and advocacy unit within JBF to support its advocacy for sustainable water governance in Rajasthan and nationally.

View all posts by Kanupriya Harish

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