Adaptive water resource management in the Lower Bhavani project command area in Tamil Nadu – A research report by IWMI

This study by IWMI explores the theory and practice of adaptive management based on a detailed field study in the Lower Bhavani project command area.


To what extent farmers and water resource managers already practice adaptive management and whether it is practiced in an optimal manner or could there be areas for improvement based on recent advancements in the theory of adaptive management are some of the questions that are particularly appropriate in the light of rapid changes in river basin water use and also in relation to basin closure.

This paper draws on the development and use of water resources in the Lower Bhavani Project (LBP), with the LBP reservoir and the 84,000 hectare (ha) LBP command area. The project diverts water from the Bhavani River, a tributary of the Cauvery River in Tamil Nadu.

However, behind the story of a productive irrigation system lie more complex stories of societal change, conflicts and negotiation in response to water scarcity and several drivers of change. In fact, there were problems from the start, as the original design concept for the project was not accepted by farmers who opted for more water intensive crops rather than the suggested ‘dry crops’. In addition, a highly fluctuating climate and the transfer of water to urban areas have all been a challenge for agricultural producers.

Farmers, system managers and others have responded to these challenges by trying out different management systems, and have continued to adjust their practices in the face of change. This paper presents a five-step framework of analysis based on recent theories of adaptive management to understand o understand the extent to which it is practiced and how it could be improved.

The adaptive water management analysis shows that the LBP system hasBhavani increasingly fulfilled the criteria of a complex adaptive system over the years. Social learning takes place at system and farmer level.

The main uncertainty factor, rainfall variability, has been considered in a stepwise way during the system change cycles and has been included in the system design. The system has, to some extent, fulfilled the requirement of an adaptive regime and has built a substantial amount of social capital. This has been a rather ad hoc process, which could have been much faster had attention been paid to institutional setups and infrastructure designs that support adaptive management.

However, the future will not be easier. The basin is closed with water resources already over allocated to various uses. Yet, cities and industries, and users outside the basin, will demand more and agriculture itself is becoming less important to the economy.

To meet these future challenges, it is essential that policymakers recognize and build on the existing social capital and the negotiation and learning systems that have been developed. Finally, the LBP case study gives us some hope. In spite of contending with an imperfect irrigation system design and intense competition for water resources, water resource managers and farmers are able to adapt and continue to reap benefits from a productive agricultural system.

Download the report here -


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