Part 1: How do we make a dent in rural water security?

That’s the burning question CSEI’s Food Futures Initiative is working on.


By Anjali Neelakantan

Photo credit: Shehzad Noorani/BRAC

This is the first post of the Rural Water series that documents the journey of CSEI’s Food Futures Initiative so far. If you would like to collaborate with us, please reach out to the initiative lead, Anjali:

How do we make a dent in rural water security? To answer this question, we need to first ask ourselves, what are the problems in rural water security?

First, agriculture and water-related indicators are not faring very well. A large percentage of wells monitored by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) have gone defunct over the last 15 years. Meanwhile, farm wages have been on the decline and farmer suicides have also increased.

This is not for lack of financial investments in the sector. There’s a lot of financial resources — easily over INR 30,000 crores/year — being invested on agriculture and water programmes by the central and state governments, CSRs and bilateral and philanthropic organisations.

Beyond this financial support, there have been programmatic efforts in the form of implementation of rural water security programmes. Watch this short video to know more about rural water security programmes.

Historically these programmes have adopted a ‘ridge to valley’ approach where all the available rainwater is stored and diverted for use. This is achieved by building water harvesting structures like check dams. But in the recent past, the scope of these programmes have expanded to include soil/water conservation and crop/livelihood diversification.

Most of these programmes focus on improving the farmer’s income by increasing cropping intensity, water availability, yields, market prices, and adding value. In fact, when we reviewed 30 of these programmes, we found that a majority of them focussed on increasing water availability.

Have these programmes worked? Have they succeeded in improving farmer’s income?

For the most part, the answer is no.

We wrote about all the bottlenecks in water resource management in this article about the need to manage water better.

One of the bottlenecks with evaluating rural water security-related programmes is the attribution problem.

For instance, a tank rejuvenation programme is trying to improve groundwater levels in the surrounding area. If there is an increase in the groundwater table following the programme, it is difficult to attribute the change to the rejuvenation activities like desilting alone. The increase in groundwater table could have been for a number of reasons — it could have been from the tank rejuvenation itself, from changes in farmer’s behaviour resulting in reduced use of groundwater in that year or due to increased rainfall. Water being a common pool resource, it is impossible to attribute a single factor to the changes in output.

So what do we do then?

Whose behaviour can we influence in the rural water security ecosystem?

To be able to make a difference in this challenging environment, we identified farmers, government institutions, CSOs and philanthropic organisations as the stakeholders in the rural water security ecosystem.

As an impact ecosystem builder, whose behaviour can CSEI influence? Our role is to design research-backed solutions and bring together actors to create platforms that will implement these solutions. We don’t work directly with the farmers to influence their cropping and water usage decisions. Neither do we work directly with the government.

The two non-government stakeholders we can influence with our work are CSOs and philanthropic organisations. While CSOs work on the ground with farmers and government institutions, philanthropic organisations fund these programmes that CSOs implement. But to work with CSOs and philanthropic organisations, we need to first understand the challenges that these stakeholders face in their work.

What did the interviews say about data use challenges?

In collaboration with our partners — the India Climate Collaborative (ICC) — we interviewed 21 CSOs and 11 philanthropic organisations. Our discussions focussed on the types of programmes they implement, how they monitor and evaluate their programmes and challenges in the entire process.

Much of the initial discussions focussed on understanding watershed development programmes in general. But while analysing these discussions we realised that a lot of their challenges centred around the use of data, maps and digital tools. You’ll find the insights from these discussions here.

In the next part of this series, we will talk about the major insight from this session: It was unclear how the data being collected was being used to inform their decisions. Read Part 2: Is data informing decisions in rural water security?

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