Our Vision for Jaltol

We created Jaltol, an open-source tool, to offer easy access to data to help understand, diagnose and intervene better.

Illustration by Sarayu Neelakantan

Much of India is hot and dry. It rains for a few months a year, during which farmers can grow rainfed crops. For the rest of the year, the soil is not moist enough to grow crops without irrigation. Smallholder rainfed farmers with 1–2 acres simply cannot earn enough from a single crop, to sustain even the subsistence needs of their family for the rest of the year. Rainfed farmers must find off-farm work — either in a factory, by migrating to the city or by engaging in wage labour through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

If the farmer is lucky, he/she has access to irrigation in the dry season by tapping a source (small or large) that captured rainwater during the monsoon — a distant dam, an underground aquifer, a local water body, or even an on-site farm pond. The problem in semi-arid parts of India is that almost all the available rainfall is already being captured and stored in one of these. Yet, the amount of water that would be needed if all farmers were to irrigate to grow a remunerative but water-intensive crop like paddy or sugarcane, typically exceeds what is available.

There simply isn’t enough water for all farmers to irrigate a crop of their choice year-round.

As a result, even though almost half of India’s farmers have no access to irrigation, groundwater is already overexploited in many regions.

Building structures won’t help much. We need demand-side interventions that distribute the available water to more farmers.

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, since all available water is already being used, increasing water for some farmers only results in leaving less for others because water is drawn from the same common pool. The problem of rural water in India is fundamentally a governance problem of how to distribute the limited amount of water evenly among a large number of farmers.

But for demand-side management to occur, we need to address the data and capacity bottleneck.

Many existing government schemes require 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. This requires managing the demand for irrigation water within limits as part of rural water security planning. This in turn entails solving a highly technical problem in every gram panchayat with very limited funds and access to technical capacity.

The opportunity: We created Jaltol, an open-source tool to offer easy access to data to help understand, diagnose and intervene better.

Jaltol is a free, open-source water accounting tool that makes water balance estimation easy; it uses remote sensing data — rainfall, evapotranspiration, soil moisture, surface water/groundwater storage, land use/land cover — together on one platform in an easy-to-use format, making water accounting easy.

First, show which areas most urgently need demand-side interventions vs. supply-side interventions.

One question that government agencies and philanthropic donors alike ask is, given the diversity of conditions, how do we decide which types of interventions are suitable in any given geography. For example, should funds be directed on enabling market linkages for low-water intensive crops or harvesting more rainwater?

One ambition is for Jaltol to define simply whether watersheds are already unsustainable (using more water than is available), inequitable (some farmers are overusing water, while others have none), or unproductive (too little water is being used, compared to the available resource).

Second, help government agencies manage rural drinking water projects better.

One major challenge with demand-side management is that farmers are already poor, and telling farmers to reduce water use is simply not politically tenable. This is one reason why, despite the urgent need for demand-side management, there is not a ready market for tools to enable it.

One entry point for water accounting is the Jal Jeevan Mission, Government of India’s ambitious programme that aims to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India. The Jal Jeevan Mission places a lot of emphasis on source sustainability through recharge and reuse through greywater management, water conservation and rainwater harvesting.

Initial analyses of source sustainability planning within Jal Jeevan Mission suggest that there is a serious capacity and data gap. Here, Jaltol offers a ready tool to help rural water service providers understand where and how to source drinking water.

Third, provide basic data to accelerate research for better decision-making, and enable research marketplaces

A lot of the research in India is not ‘practice-ready’ and, conversely, a lot of the research needed to actually solve problems is not getting done. This is in part because many of the data layers needed for water resources research are not readily available to young scholars or consultants who are able to engage in grounded research. For instance, evapotranspiration, rainfall, soil moisture, land use/land cover, etc. are all needed in hydrologic modelling. But generating these from scratch requires a ton of data or requires a lot of processing time and skills that many projects lack. As a result, basic scenario analyses about whether a certain land use cover change would be beneficial or whether an intervention was effective, never get done.

Better data are a prerequisite for improved decision-making. If data is made available and is accompanied by some matching-making between researchers and user communities, some of these analyses could be made directly available to enable improved decision-making by gram panchayats or rural development agencies.

The vision: Jaltol can result in transformative change.

We plan to scale the use of Jaltol in three ways: philanthropies (types of water resources problems), government (improved planning of water resources in JJM), and the research community (by creating research marketplaces) using our innovation funnel approach.

Step 1: Problem identification

We spent six months analysing water security plans and concluded that many were not scientifically defensible highlighting both data and capacity gaps.

Step 2: Ideation

We interviewed key technology experts in the sector to understand how the governance and sustainability of a tool like Jaltol should be handled in the long term. Based on these interviews, we decided to go for an open-source lean development tool, of a QGIS plug-in, instead of an app.

Step 3: Co-creation

We launched a prototype of Jaltol in November 2021 and have subsequently signed an initial set of MOUs with grassroots partners to co-create the product so it is of use to communities on the ground.

Step 4: Scaling

We are now beginning to explore how future versions of Jaltol may be scaled up and are exploring partnerships for each of the three scaling pathways identified.

Read | Aquifer maps add accuracy to Jaltol

The proximate metric of Jaltol’s success will be the number of users and number of downloads of its data layers. The ultimate impact though will be if Jaltol results in improved decision making. For this, we will connect with and work alongside key partners to document case studies of if and how users were able to change decisions based on Jaltol.

We are keen on building strategic partnerships to develop and scale the Jaltol tool. If you are interested in partnering with us on this, please reach out at jaltol@atree.org.

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