Could a Rural Indian Community be a Model for Europe for Better Water and Drought Management?

By Jerome Bossuet

Jerome Bossuet is a Marketing Communication and Multi-media Specialist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Bossuet is a specialist in international agriculture development and development communications with 15 years experience in Europe, Asia, and Africa. He is interested in agricultural innovations to help smallholder farmers in the South. Click here to read more articles in his blog “Innovation contre la faim (Innovation against hunger).

Photo credit: Jerome Bossuet

When water experts meet at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France, should Europe look at rural India for sustainable water management solutions ? The example of Kothapally, a rural community in Andhra Pradesh in semi-arid Central India shows that old recipes of collective natural resources management has a future.

The world is thirsty, not only in the Sahel, but also in Europe. When the U.K. Environment Agency has already warned about water shortages because of the driest biannual rainfall period since rainfall has been recorded (1884), should Europe start preparing itself to adapt to recurrent droughts?

If we look at populations in the South who face drought almost every alternate year, we may find inspiration among rural communities using effective solutions to adapt to water scarcity.

Kothapally is a 1,500 inhabitant rural community in the semi-arid Andhra Pradesh state in India. Farming is essential there with almost every household involved in agricultural activities.

One of the main issues for rural poverty is water availability and water access. Thirty years ago, Kothapally was a poor community with recurrent droughts and many families were forced to migrate as a consequence.

Back then, the government of Andhra Pradesh asked the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to explore low-cost water conservation solutions to improve crop yields. Working together with the village watershed committee and local NGOs, ICRISAT scientists developed simple rainwater harvesting and conservation methods. Rainwater harvesting is a way to capture and store rainwater for later use.

Kothapally’s 270 farmer families identified and built water harvesting structures, such as dams and drainage water gullies, to divert run-off water to water harvesting ponds or wells. They also built and maintained bunds to stop soil erosion and set up women’s groups to produce vermicompost, which was sold to farmers to increase the organic content in the soil and improve the soil’s water retention capacity.

Photo credit: Jerome Bossuet

Such techniques are not new-during the Roman era, rainwater harvesting structures were essential and at the centre of the settlements.

In developed European countries, however, such practices have largely died out with the introduction of more centralized “pipelined” water production and distribution (ie.  from  reliable mains-supplied water). People open the tap and take the availability of water for granted.

If we look at the agricultural sector, most farming practices being economy- and input-driven began neglecting water conservation principles, such as maintaining organic content in the soil for better water retention. With the recurrent droughts in Europe and the agricultural sector being the biggest user of water, attention is now being drawn to better water use and management in drought situations.

Kothapally’s  progress did not happen overnight but it shows how a long term participatory approach can really succeed. The village suffered from water scarcity and poverty until 1998, but is now a green prosperous village boasting healthy crop and high value vegetable yields, even in the baking summer months.

study released in May 2011 by ICRISAT and the Stockholm Resilience Centre compared Kothapally and neighboring villages to analyse the impact of community water conservation and harvesting on water resources availability and socio-economic consequences. The 30 year simulation shows very positive results such as improved rain-fed agriculture and improved productivity and livelihood of farmers. Water runoff halved compared to before the intervention, and the groundwater recharge increased by more than 200 percent which is also highlighted by the fact that community wells remain quite full even during the dry season.

To improve the status of natural resources, such as water and soil, can require decades, and not months. Kothapally now receives frequent visits from water experts from Asia and Africa as this participatory watershed system is promoted as a model for successful water management. This model has been replicated in several other Indian states, with one pilot watershed per State as a learning site for farmers.

Photo credit: Jerome Bossuet

The social dynamics are very important as well. Kothapally’s women were particularly active through Self-Help groups (SHGs), which first focussed on vermicomposting businesses to enrich the farm soils.

But soon SHGs built on their success and entrepreneurial spirit by financing a diverse range of small-scale enterprises from tree nurseries to tailoring.

“Kothapally proves the long-term benefits of a holistic and participatory approach to promote local low-cost water and soil conservation,” sums up Dr. Suhas Wani, project coordinator and senior scientist on watershed management at ICRISAT.

“This is a valuable model to follow given the water crisis that many countries are now facing, including Europe.”

These and other stories of success will all be discussed at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France. Click here for more information on the forum.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


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