Connecting the dots: Reimagining water security at scale

Connecting the dots (Image Source: www.kudumbshree.org, kudumbashree via Wikimedia Commons)
Connecting the dots (Image Source: www.kudumbshree.org, kudumbashree via Wikimedia Commons)

While water sector actors from samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar have been working for decades on programmes that address water security issues in the country, making a sustainable impact at scale has continued to be a challenge.

What can be done to enhance the impact of programmes at scale? Can we learn from other sectors such as health and education? Can digital technology prove to be a useful tool for enhancing participation and help in capacity building at a larger scale by bringing all on a common platform?

Representatives from the samaaj, sarkar and bazaar had got together a year back on July 2019 in New Delhi to contemplate  these issues on the common forwater platform and to think of innovative means through which this could be achieved.

What has been the progress year after? What have been the experiences and insights from the engagements? Have these processes tried to bring about a shift in policies, processes and discourses and build stronger bonds between samaaj, sarkar and bazaar towards the common goal of water awareness and management?

An online meeting was held in September 2020 where all the stakeholders involved discussed their experiences and their ideas on taking the movement forward.

Capacity building, a growing need

Efforts made by a few states on water management and the relevance of capacity building for the communities involved were highlighted in the presentations made by government personnel.

Experiences from the state of Maharashtra highlighted the importance of making frontline workers understand the three dimensions of water security namely water supply, water quality and source and of the relevance of continuous handholding and training to strengthen the Gram Panchayat level institutions.

The state of Meghalaya has been battling with water scarcity for a long time for which a State Water Policy was formulated in 2019. While the important role of communities and village institutions was envisaged, there was a need to demystify technical knowledge on water management and train people on water resource management at every level or cadre.

The government had thus gradually started making efforts at building a cadre of people who could work at the village level institutions through capacity building efforts. Collaborations between catalysts like NGOs/CSOs/Practitioners, community and government institutions for building a common platform for training and capacity building through digital technologies was crucial in this process.

The efforts made in West Bengal to expand springshed management to mountainous areas and to move from watersheds to microwatershed management through the Ushar Mukti programme were shared. In West Bengal, unique partnerships between NGOs, donors and expert agencies were created, reforms were introduced through the NREGA and guidelines issued to the Panchayats, communities, District Program Coordinators.

Capacity building efforts, producing content in local language with the help of partner organisations and reaching out at scale to enhance skills of frontline workers located in remote areas through training and capacity building by using digital technology were crucial in the process.  

Poor data and information support: Bridging the gap

While capacity building through digital technology holds the promise of empowering individuals with knowledge, it continues to be constrained by lack of access to quality reference material and adequate and timely data.  

It is thus necessary to:

  • Develop easy to understand material that could be used by frontline workers or communities to get trained in short, but frequent spurts.
  • Create information that was more shareable and easily translatable at the ground level.
  • Build a common database that had all information on types and number of trainings and capacity building efforts conducted by regions and number of participants, at one place.
  • Get more and more people from remote areas to attend short good quality trainings at higher frequencies and intervene at the policy level to bring about these changes.
  • Improve access and quality of digital content and data to bridge this gap.

Digital technology for large scale community focused government programmes

The advantages of using digital technologies for involving communities from different regions in undertaking leadership roles and increasing local ownership of water and its management in programmes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) and Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABHY) were highlighted. 

The importance of:

  • Integrating gender equity and addressing power structures through capacity building programmes directed at frontline workers in existing institutional structures within the programmes was highlighted.
  • Keeping and updating programme guidelines/documents as live documents and for data to be constantly updated on what is working and not working at the ground level was identified.
  • Getting feedback from the people at the ground level and connecting with partners at the ground level to strengthen existing structures was emphasised.

Using digital technologies to create new models

The role of digital technology can be extended beyond water management to include other connected domains such as agriculture, revival of community lands and pastures, drinking water, health and water quality issues.

The role of digital technology to improve outreach and communication, increase awareness and build capacities of grassroot frontline workers for addressing state controlled power structures that prevented them from accessing common property resources such as community lands and pastures was highlighted.

Some positive examples from the groundlevel were shared that included:

  • Use of digital technology to train people under the Odisha Livelihood Mission with support from Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) and International Crop Research Institute for the Semiarid Tropics (ICRISAT) in rice cultivation through sharing best practices, providing technical inputs and training people in digital marketing to enhance livelihoods.
  • Guided mentoring sessions in Rajasthan that greatly helped field trainers address their day to day problems and difficulties, helped them connect with experts, policy makers and government officials for guidance and solving field level issues.
  • Training of GP representatives through virtual mode on safe drinking water, improved groundwater levels, managing the commons and other areas, which greatly helped elected representatives to discuss issues on a common platform and come up with solutions.
  • Digital training helped frontline workers at FES to gain information on The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA), which helped people in villages to earn more under difficult times and connect with people in faraway locations on water related diseases without spending money and resources.

Digital technologies to scale up existing models and create new ones

Organisations such as UNICEF, Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), People's Science Institute (PSI), Community Led Landscape Management Project (CLLMP) shared their experiences on the use of digital technologies to conduct online trainings on WASH, JJM and water management at scale, and the learnings and outcomes from the process.

Learnings from the efforts and the way forward

Digital technology has a great potential in making knowledge accessible to all and can be greatly useful in scaling up efforts made at the ground level. It can aid in better communication and connectivity by breaking down silos and making connections between stakeholders at different levels, be them grassroot level communities, government and non governmental organisations. It can reach the last mile users and empower the disempowered with knowledge and the confidence to use it.

Thus women and the marginalised in remote, inaccessible areas can also be reached through digital technology, and empowered with information and the confidence to use this information.

It can help in generating data on a common platform that can feed into efforts to improve the efforts further and lead to generation of rich training material accessible to all.

While some limitations remain in terms of issues related to connectivity, comfort level of stakeholders in interacting virtually, the lack of face to face interactions, many of these can get better as we see more and more improvements in technology.

And shifts have been happening for everyone to see!

These have started right from acknowledging the need for involving grassroot level and frontline workers in designing and implementing interventions and taking technology right at their doorsteps when they are working in the fields or within the comfort of their homes! Grassroot level voices have thus been made accessible as never before!

Another shift has been in the interactions between various actors that are happening much more easily than before through breaking barriers and hierarchies and enabling ease of communication. These are also feeding into the learning process which is multidirectional and not unidirectional as it often was before. Communication between communities, between coworkers, government officials and people, people to people have helped to make learning much more demand based and tuned to the needs of the people participating in the training and learning processes.

One of the other important shifts has been the way in which data is being generated and used in a meaningful way to gain an understanding of the situation, undertaking decisions and informing policy by both the first and last mile actors.

The potential of digital technologies for further learning, training, capacity building, empowering people and strengthening programmes and institutions are promising. Equally important are the shifts that technology can bring about by breaking barriers, boundaries, hierarchies, thus  enabling the voices of the last mile to be represented in the discourses at the policy level.