Addressing the expertise bottleneck

Why we need digital tools for rural water security

Rural water security is a problem in India.

India is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Although agriculture contributes only 15% of GDP, it is a crucial sector because over half of India’s population is dependent on agriculture and allied activities. Because much of India is semi-arid, agricultural productivity and farmer incomes are highly dependent on access to irrigation. Irrigated farmer incomes can be anywhere from 3–10 times that of rainfed farmer income. In terms of water usage, agriculture constitutes over 80% of the total water use.

Of the 160 million hectares of India’s arable land, 54% is rain-fed. Of the irrigated area, an estimated 70–80% is groundwater-based. Over the last 15 years, excessive groundwater extraction has resulted in a decline in water levels in wells in India. This has reduced water availability for some farmers and/or made it expensive to get and use water.

As rainfall becomes more variable and temperatures rise, groundwater depletion has reduced farmers’ buffers against climate variability. Off-season rainfall, dry spells, groundwater depletion and numerous other uncertainties have adversely affected the water security of Indian agriculture.

Building structures alone won’t help. We need rural water security plans to consider water budgets.

Even though half of India’s farmers have no access to irrigation, groundwater is already overexploited. Dam building has slowed, and despite considerable investment, canal irrigated area in India has not increased.

Since the 1990s, soil and water conservation measures have been the lynchpin of rural development. These involve boosting recharge through rainwater harvesting structures such as small check dams or farm ponds. The problem is that, this approach by design increases total water use. However, in many watersheds, all available water is already being used. So increasing water for some farmers, only results in leaving less for others because water is drawn from the same common pool. This is referred to as a zero-sum game.

Ultimately, the water management problem is that of allocating the water available each year among users — both people and the ecosystem.

As we argued in an op-ed in 2016, building structures to harvest rain does not address the “zero-sum game” nature of water resource use. Ultimately, the water management problem is that of allocating the water available each year among users — both people and the ecosystem. Without understanding how much water is available, how much is being used, and by whom, solving India’s water crisis is going to be a non-starter.

Water budgeting has taken off but there is an “expertise bottleneck”.

In recent years, there have been several promising attempts at groundwater management with community participation across India. These include the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System (APFAMGS), Managed Aquifer Recharge through Village-level Intervention (MARVI) in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and water budget-based holistic water management in Hiwre Bazaar village in Maharashtra. These pilot initiatives have demonstrated how demand for groundwater can be reduced if timely information on groundwater availability is provided to communities, multiple agencies work together and communities are engaged in the water security planning process.

On a policy front, The National Water Mission made an effort at state water budgets. The Atal Bhujal Yojana aims to bring about behavioural change at the community level through awareness programs and capacity building for sustainable groundwater management. It requires gram panchayats to prepare water budgets as part of a rural water security planning process. A village water budget is an accounting of the available water resources and their various uses at the panchayat level. The purpose of the water budget is to assess surface and groundwater resources and identify current and future needs as a basis for planning.

However, analyses of water budgets suggest that many are not scientifically defensible. In other words, coming up with demand-side interventions as part of water security planning requires solving a highly technical problem in every gram panchayat with very limited funds and access to technical capacity.

Digital tools can address this expertise bottleneck to some extent.

While it may be challenging to quickly build technical capacity at scale, new digital tools can make tools and data available more easily. These could ease the burden of developing in-house expertise.

But there hasn’t been a landscaping report on the subject. At CSEI, we have put our efforts behind this. We want to know what data, maps, and digital tools communities and civil society organisations use. What is their actual on-the-ground usage and what challenges do grassroots communities face around data, maps, and the uptake of digital tools for RWSPs?

If you work with water budgets or are interested in creating water budgets, we would love to hear from you. Write to us at csei.comms@atree.org.

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Veena Srinivasan

Researcher@ ATREE Interested in water resources, urbanization, hydrology, and sustainable development