Watershed management: Still a long way to go

Only 40 percent treatable land has been covered by various government programmes. It calls for better planning.
A traditional system practised in Uttarakhand, the circular pits on the slopes store rainwater and allow it to slowly percolate to the drain line, where water is stored in the pond.
A traditional system practised in Uttarakhand, the circular pits on the slopes store rainwater and allow it to slowly percolate to the drain line, where water is stored in the pond.

With two consecutively weak monsoons, this summer is particularly difficult for India. Around 330 million people across 10 states are affected by the drought. Most of these areas are ecologically and economically disadvantaged. Lands are degraded, rainfed farming is the norm and livestock graze in open areas, putting stress on the already strained natural resources. The resource-rich areas are also turning into wastelands due to exploitative agriculture practices and industrialisation.

In this context, the sustainable use of natural resources becomes important. Actions like conserving water in ponds and wells, recharging groundwater, new plantations and protection of forest area can nourish crops, solve drinking water scarcity, provide fodder for livestock and fuelwood for homes. In development lexicon, these measures taken jointly by a community are called watershed management. Traditional Indian society had realised the importance of these aspects and had devised religious and cultural customs for the judicious use of water and forest areas. 

But over a period of time, the increasing stress of population and government policies alienated people from the environment. Watershed management tries to reintroduce the practice as government-funded programmes. From the time it was first introduced in the 1960s, the concept has gone through various makeovers. These efforts led to some positives and Ralegan Siddhi and Hiware Bazar in Maharashtra and, Sukhomajri in Haryana, emerged as models of how environment conservation can alleviate poverty. 

Here we take a look at the impact of these programmes in various states. A 2010 study by the National Institute of Rural Development in nine states found that the surface water increased by 40 per cent, wasteland was decreased by 20 per cent. Better water availability helped the local economy as the yield of cereals and milk increased by 49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.  

Treatable area under watershed management is the open area which excludes habitations, steep slopes, roads, forests, rocky mountains and area under assured irrigation. Maharashtra has the largest area which can be treated followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. A lot of this area, however, has not been put to use. Among all the states, Odisha has done the best in sanctioning the treatable area. The all India average for treatable land sanctioned is just over 40 per cent which is very low and not enough to bring about substantial reduction in poverty or better living standards even though the covered area is bound to see some positive change. 

All area development programmes were merged into a single Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) in 2009 and rapid progress has been made on the coverage of area and the creation of water harvesting structures like farm ponds, percolation tanks and check dams. 

The year 2014-15 saw an upsurge in the creation and renovation of water harvesting structures. The capacity created, however, relates more to the type of structures than an absolute number. While 2012-13 and 2013-14 had comparatively less structures built or renovated, the capacity created is high because the total structures had high proportion of check dams. The year 2015-16 registered more of farm ponds and hence the dip in the total capacity.

Maharashtra, where many areas are facing severe water crisis due to consecutive drought years, saw maximum number of water harvesting structures being created last year. Uttar Pradesh, however, created the maximum storage capacity followed by Gujarat and Odisha.

Community participation is an integral part of watershed management because ultimately it's the local people who will use and maintain the assets created. This participation is ensured through regular dialogue and physical work of various user groups and federations. People are also encouraged to form self-help groups to start small businesses and help each other financially. The 2010 study, however, found that only 48 per cent of community-based organisations formed under the programme were functional, that too only partly, thus denting the hopes for sustainability of these initiative. 

Just like other government programmes, watershed schemes are not free of shortcomings. The quality of water harvesting structures is always a concern. The 2010 study by NIRD found the quality of structures to be good only in 63 per cent of the cases. The average impact of conservation work on stream or spring flowing in the area was found to be inadequate in 90 per cent of the cases. In a few instances, even a reduction was noticed. 

Auditors have also found glaring irregularities across the states in the planning, the execution and the management processes. One of the major transgression is passing off the agricultural land as wasteland. A CAG audit found that in Madhya Pradesh, Rs 76.38  crore  was spent on the area of which 70 per cent was agricultural land. In Odisha, 57 per cent of the test-checked land was found to be agricultural. In Rajasthan, Rs 29.38 crore was spent on the development of private arable land instead of community land.

In Madhya Pradesh, a CAG audit found an increase in the area under barren land and non-­agriculture land use even after an expenditure of Rs 616.88  crore under various watershed programmes till 2008. The components of the  programme  were  also not executed in the prescribed sequence. Watershed management prescribes ridge-to-valley strategy which means conservation measures, including the plantations and the digging of small trenches, are first done on the highest point of the watershed to reduce the soil and water runoff. In 30 micro­watershed projects, however, it was found that the percolation tanks and farm ponds were constructed in the valley first. This made them susceptible to damage and choking due to the soil flowing downwards with the rain water from the top.

One of the hurdles is the post-programme management. This is why building a strong community participation is important because it's the locals who need to manage the resources after the programme ends. Studies have recommended handholding for two years. Technical assistance for enhancing productivity of the land and the livestock besides guidance for marketing the produce can go a long way in ensuring that people appreciate the benefits of conservation measures and work towards better planning and management.

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