Sustainable Watershed Use for India’s Future

By Matt Styslinger

Could future wars be fought over water? “Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict,” warned Kofi Annan during his tenure as United Nations (UN) Secretary General. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in the next 20 years people worldwide will use over 40 percent more water than they do now. Whatever the political implications, overuse, pollution, inefficient infrastructure, and stresses caused by climate change are already bringing humankind’s fresh water supply to its limits.

Scarce water is in high demand in some parts of India. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

Few places face population pressures to the extent that India does. In May alone of 2009, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, more than 50 incidences of violence over water were reported after an extended drought. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has been evaluating watershed development projects in different areas of India to determine which development strategies are more successful in improving water conservation, raising agricultural productivity, and reducing poverty amidst the country’s rapidly expanding population. By capturing scarce water resources and improving the management of soil and vegetation, policy makers in India are hoping that watershed development can improve much needed agricultural production in semi-arid areas.

A watershed is an area from which all water drains to a common point. But human boundaries rarely correspond to watershed boundaries, making watershed management a complicated endeavor. What’s more, differences in climate, geography, geology, and levels of use mean that management strategies vary dramatically among different watersheds. Even within a watershed, projects distribute costs unevenly. Upstream water users incur higher costs from watershed projects than downstream users, who reap more of the benefits.

Across India, availability of water resources among different river basins—an area from which all water drains into the same river—varies wildly. In the Brahmaputra basin 32 percent of the total water resources are still available, and 28 percent are available in the Ganga basin. In stark contrast, only 0.2 percent of the total water resources are still available in the Sabarmati basin. IFPRI has focused on development strategies specific for such areas where watershed conditions are difficult and infrastructure and support services have been neglected.

“While much has been written about watershed development,” says IFPRI, “there have been few efforts to systematically evaluate it. By doing so, [the researchers] contribute immensely to our understanding of the promise and challenges of watershed development.”

IFPRI’s research underscores the importance of supplementing hard data with qualitative information about the effects projects have on different interest groups—like farmers with and without irrigation, landless people, pastoralists, and women. By involving these different interest groups in a ‘participatory approach’ to watershed management, complex, locally specific factors that affect livelihoods can be incorporated into projects. Local factors often call for a flexible approach to unexpected situations. IFPRI’s studies have shown that participatory projects are more successful than technocratic, top-down projects. Projects that combine local participation with accurate technical input perform best of all in conserving natural resources and raising agricultural productivity.

IFPRI says that most of the projects they surveyed have had relatively little impact. Many watershed development projects do not work because those whose interests suffer refuse to support the effort. Wealthier landowners and industry, for example, generally oppose water use regulations. Watershed projects can even make things worse for women and landless people. Improving watershed management usually requires restricting access to the natural resource base on which the poorest people depend for their livelihoods.

For integrated watershed development to succeed on a large scale, projects will have to find a way to distribute the benefits from improved management equitably. By involving a broad base of watershed residents, projects can design optimal management strategies. As more and more water-stressed areas of the world are forced to stretch resources thin in the coming decades, residents will need to be diligent and co-operative stewards of the watersheds they depend on if they are going to coexist peacefully.

To learn more about innovative approaches to water management and conservation see: Funding a Blue Revolution, Getting Water to Crops, Water Harvesting, and Slow and Steady Irrigation Wins the Race.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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