Can villages be made drought-free in 45 days?

Here's a look at the misleading framework of drought eradication adopted in Water Cup competition by Paani Foundation and its shortcomings.
Actor Aaamir Khan with Paani Foundation team.
Actor Aaamir Khan with Paani Foundation team.

In Maharashtra, a “Water Cup competition” held annually by Paani Foundation started by film star Aamir Khan and his team is compelling everyone working in the water sector to take serious note of it.

Paani Foundation was set up with the aim of making Maharashtra drought-free through water conservation competition among villages. It has created a storm (Tufaan Aalaya, in the words of its promoters) of sorts by bringing people and different stakeholders together to work towards the common cause of drought eradication. While fully acknowledging and appreciating this initiative for its important contribution, this article critically comments on the misleading framework of drought eradication adopted by this initiative and other important shortcomings of it. While doing so, the article also aims to point out important lessons NGOs and corporate sectors can take from this pioneering approach.

First, let’s discuss some of the positive outcomes of the initiative:

What the competition achieved

  1. Apart from the many thousand cubic metres (TCM) of water harvested, the initiative has been successful in mobilising and uniting villagers and other stakeholders. The competition has succeeded in inspiring a huge number of village folk and even urban dwellers to offer their time and labour for shramdaan (offering voluntary labour) during the 45 days of competition. It reaches a peak on May 1 (Maharashtra day) when special events are planned as mahashramdaan and thousands of people offer shramdaan. This vibration in rural communities is significant since most villages are often fractured with socio-political divide and an environment of disappointment and no hope.
  2. The cadre of village level volunteers and trainers created in Maharashtra and particularly in rural pockets is another important contribution of this initiative. The information on Paani Foundation’s website suggests that during the first Water Cup in 2016, a total of 2800 people were trained where this number rose to 6000 in 2017. In 2018, it stands at 20,000.[i] Teams comprising hundreds of trainers are involved in training as well.
  3. Although there is no dearth of literature and audio-video material (such as short videos, films, documentaries, etc.) on the soil and water harvesting subject in the state, Paani Foundation has developed films and books in a simple, attractive and powerful manner that needs to be appreciated. These materials in the local language are available on online social forums.
  4. Creating water storage capacity is at the centre of this initiative and one of the main criteria for winning the Water Cup. Hence, the increase in water harvesting potential through repairs of soil and water harvesting structures and constructing new ones through manual work and machinery are key strategies.[ii] During the first Water Cup competition in 2016, which was held in 116 villages, a total of 1368 crore litres of water storage capacity was built whereas, in 2017, the number of villages increased to 1321 with building structures for harvesting and repairing the existing 8261 crore litres of water. In 2018, the competition has covered 4025 villages in 24 districts.[iii] Here, along with the increase in water harvesting potential, the growth in scale in covering the number of villages is also important. The initiative started with 116 villages in three blocks two years ago; it has now reached more than 4000 villages in 75 blocks of the state.
  5. Bringing diverse stakeholders together and their active engagement as a collective is certainly a methodological contribution of this initiative. Paani Foundation succeeded in getting the required support from the government and the administration for the competition; it even succeeded in making big corporates and film celebrities stand behind this initiative. Along with mobilising the village population, the initiative also linked urban dwellers, civil society organisations and people across professions. 

The fallacy of drought eradication

Despite all these achievements, the theorisation of drought eradication adopted and promoted in this initiative is deceptive. The Water Cup competition claims to make Maharashtra drought free. The overall approach of drought eradication adopted in this initiative is not based on a scientific and rational understanding of drought occurrence and its management. It appears that the competition’s claim of drought eradication is bolstered by the increased water harvested in 45 days of the competition through soil and water conservation methods. This is a wrong theorisation of drought proofing.

There are numerous determinants of drought, ranging from natural and climatic phenomena to human interventions (Nagarajan R, 2009). The overall drought conditions have been categorised into four major types: 

  1. Meteorological drought that mostly occurs because of the dry period between rainfall days.
  2. Agricultural drought from precipitation shortage for crops.
  3. Hydrological drought from the excess use of water. 
  4. Socio-economic drought that gets exacerbated by human activities/interventions (Paolo P and Baldassarre G, 2015). 

It is not clear which type of drought the Foundation is claiming to eradicate through the competition. As the Water Cup approach primarily focuses on increasing the water harvesting potential by harvesting additional runoff, let’s assume the Foundation is talking about addressing the meteorological and agricultural drought by making more water available for crops in the dry period. Unfortunately, Maharashtra is a good example that such a strategy is not enough to make villages drought proof.

Maharashtra has the highest number of dams in the country (Government of India, 2007; Meena M and Uzramma, 2017) and has a glorious history of implementation of watershed development projects wherein thousands of soil and water conservation measures are taken by government, corporates and NGOs in the state (Wani S et al, 2011; Kerr J et al, 2002). Apart from these, there are many government schemes under which water harvesting structures have been built in villages.

The Jalyukt Shivar Scheme, the flagship programme launched by the state to make it drought free in 2019 has augmented the water harvesting potential of the state during the last few years, according to the government.[iv] Therefore, it is practically difficult to find a village in Maharashtra where a soil conservation treatment or water harvesting structure has not been built. However, observations show that all these efforts have not resulted in making these villages completely free from drought (except a few villages where villagers put self-regulations on water-use and cropping pattern). This is because increasing water availability is not the only criterion to make villages drought-proof. We need to keep in mind that, in most cases, the water generated is used for irrigation by a few farmers in the villages whereas most of the land in drought-prone regions is rain dependent (rainfed) and are not benefited from the water harvested.

Importantly, on the issue of increasing water availability and creating structures, most villagers come forward as they are not losing anything by doing so, whereas when it comes to reducing the water use, most farmers, particularly the economically better off ones, do not cooperate. The Water Cup competition gives very little emphasis on water management aspects, such as water budgeting and soil quality improvement. Mobilising and sensitising villagers for adopting water management practices is more challenging than merely bringing them together for water harvesting.

Drought is found to be the result of socio-economic, environmental and political decisions at different levels where available water is being diverted to non-agricultural purposes and runoff in upper reaches is arrested in irrigation projects (reducing water availability to downstream regions/villages, which creates drought-like conditions). Hence to conclude, the Water Cup competition of 45 days will result in making villages drought-free seems like a utopia where there is little practicality and more emotional appeal. The approach is not based on a comprehensive understanding of drought and its complexity. 

Shortfalls and areas of improvement

Apart from the success gained in reaching thousands of villages and engaging hundreds of thousands of people, the strategy and approach adopted in the competition have a few but important lacunae and shortfalls which need to be addressed before taking this initiative to the next level. 

  1. Inequitable access to water: The application of the equity principle in accessing water generated through the competition (i.e. through shramdaan) is an important missing element in the strategy of this initiative. This is essential because there is an urgent need to make conscious efforts to sensitise people on the “common pool nature of water vs private property”. The question here is whether, at least in principle, the Water Cup has included this. Here, the resource-poor farmers (landless, small and marginal land owner and rainfed farmers), most of them contributing their free labour with shramdaan, do hope to access the increased water stored through their efforts but they are not in a position to claim and use the harvested water. On the other hand, the few irrigator farmers, irrespective of their participation in the shramdaan, get easy benefits of it.
  2. Sustainability issues: The biggest challenge in the water sector is sustaining the benefits of soil and water conservation measures beyond the implementation period. To protect the water resources for the coming generations, a purposeful, systematic and periodic maintenance of structures as well as monitoring water use is required. It seems like after 45 days of competition in harvesting water, apart from communication in award-winning villages (under another competition called Sustainability Cup), there is no follow-up system or effective withdrawal strategy in the remaining over 90 percent of villages to ensure that villagers adopt sustainable water use after the competition. Another important fact is that water budgeting processes are best applied during the agricultural season (kharif and rabi) which does not fall within the 45 days period of the competition.
  3. Less focus on demand-side measures: Maharashtra is not poor in rainwater harvesting potential. Irrigation statistics show that the state has the highest number of irrigation projects in the country (approximately 40 percent). At the same time, soil and water conservations measures under watershed development programmes have been extensively implemented in many villages by the state, NGOs and corporates. Therefore, the need of the hour is to shift our focus to demand-side interventions. According to the recently announced composite water management index by NITI Aayog of India, Maharashtra is ranked fifth (NITI Aayog, 2018). So, it is important to select appropriate crops, water saving irrigation practices (drip, sprinklers and mulching), and soil health practices here which ensure efficient use of water. By making communities water literate and putting systems (e.g. water budgeting tools) and processes in place, drought impacts can be reduced. Although challenging, efforts are required to motivate farmers to change their water use practices without which the thousands of TCM of water conserved through the Water Cup competition has little relevance.
  4. Groundwater recharge not prioritised: Since the amount of water harvested is one of the major criteria for winning the award, groundwater recharge practices get less priority. Machine work for deepening, widening, and strengthening of streams and rivers that get government support are criticised by water experts who think of it as dangerous to ecosystem integrity and equity if not done scientifically. It would be helpful if in the next phase of the Water Cup, the support of competent agencies like Groundwater Survey and Development Agency and other research organisation is sought to identify recharge and discharge zones and prioritise conservation work in groundwater recharge zones as the state has very less water recharge potential due to basaltic rock formation in most regions.
  5. Government and governance are a must: Paani Foundation, as stated on their website, believes in “breaking the cycle of people’s dependence on government” through the competition. Although this proposition sounds well in principle, it has serious implications. It is appreciable that Water Cup process motivates villagers to harvest water but the framework which assumes “villagers are self-dependent to manage their water affairs” which also implies that the state has a smaller role in this is weak and deceitful. Managing water in villages (both supply and demand side) is a long-term process which needs continuous financial, technical and capacity building support where the role of the state and different water-related departments is of vital importance. Hence, rather than promoting the principle of villagers’ autonomy, efforts should be made towards linking villagers with state programmes and government officials for achieving convergence for better water management. The healthy politicisation of such initiatives ensures its sustainability.
  6. Cost-benefits ratio: Paani Foundation believes that shramdaan by villagers is the key strategy of the Water Cup competition. They don’t directly invest in harvesting; their focus is in motivating villagers to do it. This gives the sense that with less investment, a good amount of water is being harvested. But this is not fully true. Paani Foundation employs hundreds of experts, motivators, trainers, facilitators and support staff for the initiative. They conduct training of thousands of villagers, manages media, conducts mega-events, all of which require plenty of money. Therefore, to assess the efficiency of fund utilisations (which government and NGOs periodically do in their projects), Paani Foundation should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the competition.      

Lessons for NGOs and the corporate sector

The success of the Water Cup competition is a wakeup call for the NGO sector in Maharashtra and other parts of India whose mandate is natural resource development, particularly the water resource. For decades, the NGOs and corporates have been grappling with different challenges in the water sector. Despite sufficient backing of funds and grant and after years of continuous efforts, they have not been able to achieve the kind of success Paani Foundation achieved in a lesser amount of time. Of course, NGOs face many constraints like lack of committed and skilful professionals, less support of government officials, the dearth of funds, etc but unless the NGOs do not alter their approach and strategies they may get outdated and lose their confidence in rural folks and their stakeholders. Another important lesson from Paani Foundation to NGOs is to adopt the strategy of multi-stakeholder dialogue and cooperation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

Footnotes:

[i] These figures are taken from Paani Foundation’s website.
[ii] According to the information available on Foundation’s website, during competition in 2017 over 70,000 hours of machine work was donated by Bharatiya Jain Sangathana, this is a part of government issued special GRs to offer fuel charges for machine work during Water Cup in 2018 and 2019.
[iii] These figures are taken from Paani Foundation’s website.
[iv] From Times of India, dated March 6, 2017.

References

  1. Nagarajan R, 2009, Drought Assessment, Jointly published by Capital Publishing Company and Springer Publication, New Delhi India.
  2. Paolo P. and Baldassarre G., 2015,  Hydro-Meteorological Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Elsevier Publication, Netherland
  3. Meena M. and Uzramma, 2017,  A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi India
  4. Niti Aayog. (2018). Composite Water Management Index. Government of India, June 2018
  5. Government of India, 2007, Maharashtra, Development Report, by Planning Commission of the Government of India, Academic Foundation , New Delhi, India
  6. Kerr Jet al, 2002, Watershed Development Projects in India: An Evaluation, International Food Policy Research (IFRI), United States of America
  7. Wani S et al, 2011, Integrated Watershed Management in Rainfed Agriculture, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK.

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