Decentralized water resources management
Role of village communities and rural local governments
18 Mar 2021
0 mins read
A woman fetching water from the third tap in the house premises. (Image: Ajaya Kumar Behera)

Decentralization is the transfer of powers and responsibilities from the central government to the elected authorities at the subnational level. In India, as organs of the government closest to the people, the panchayati raj system has emerged as an effective good governance tool.

In water resource management, greater devolution in the water sector has led to democratization across sectors. Local communities and rural local governments can play a pivotal role in creating a sustainable development water model. Local culture enhances water management programs' success as is evident from the community-owned social and agroforestry project in the hamlets of Tentulipada and Nuapada in Orissa.

To highlight these issues, a web policy talk on "Decentralized water resources management: Role of village communities and rural local governments” was held on the occasion of World Wetland Day, as part of the series – The State of the Environment - #PlanetTalks by the Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal.

Why do we need decentralized water management?

“Decentralized water management arises out of a need precipitated by certain issues. These issues can be segregated into the two broad categories - natural-technical and managerial-institutional,” says Liby Johnson, Executive Director at Gram Vikas, a non-government organisation.  

Natural-technical covers issues related to the exploitation of natural resources such as the lack of dependable water resources, erratic rainfall, contaminated groundwater, and rapidly depleting groundwater. Even the impact of production and market-related factors on water use, such as using methods to meet production demands, fall under this category. The technical aspect covers issues related to the lack of in-village infrastructure to meet water requirements.

Managerial-institutional covers issues of administration and institution. The primary challenge is the lack of a unanimous definition of community. The presence of varying interpretations stemming from different vantage points makes the definition itself incomprehensible and thus becomes a hindrance to our understanding of a community.

Additionally, plans designed for water management are made outside user communities, they are often front heavy with technical and capital overload, and they invariably become incompatible with community-based use. This is further augmented by flaws in implementation resulting from an inadequate delegation of operations, the minimal scope for effective community participation, and gram panchayats' incapability to manage water resources.

Elements of a sustainable model


Under this, the demand for greater investment in source sustainability, appropriate technology support for demand management such as support for making better crop choices, and weather information are included. It is observed that local communities have been able to plan more strategically if they have information about their local weather conditions. The demand for decentralized water quality management systems is also clubbed in this category.


This covers demands for the empowerment of the gram panchayats as the governing institutions. Johnson emphasized the need for interaction between the gram panchayat and village communities as governing bodies and user communities, respectively. Such connections will ease the challenges of coordination. The decentralization of technical skills at the village level is crucial. Additionally, there is need for meaningful convergence of resources at the gram panchayat level so that government investments can contribute towards water security.

Principles for success

Gram Vikas, a civil society organisation based in Odisha, has been working on decentralized water management programs with rural communities. They have been successful in the decentralization of water resources by using the following principles:

  • Inclusive community participation ensures every household including the poorest and the socially excluded, contributes to the program. The process promotes affirmative steps to ensure that women and poor people are included in the management of assets and processes.
  • The entire community contributes to capital and maintenance costs. The shared costs allowed for individual concern for results and made the village administration accountable.
  • People take responsibility from an early stage to generate consensus, mobilize local contributions, manage construction and take charge of operations and maintenance.
  • Creation of corpus fund and the maintenance fund ensure in-built financial stability.

Challenges to decentralised water management

The prevalent inequalities and power dynamics within village communities are crucial challenges. The gender, caste, and class differences within villages communities are prominent barriers. Commenting on gender mainstreaming and community-level participation of women, Indira Khurana of Tarun Bharat Sangh stressed the need for women to be part of the planning process and offer their perspectives as they are the primary victims.

Johnson recalled how women have often taken the lead in mobilizing communities and completed the task with maximum benefits. However, women’s participation is subjected to the nature of the community. In some cases, there has been evidence of sustained control in the decision-making process. To counter such inequality, different approaches such as creating parallel platforms to engage with women need to be undertaken.

Similarly, caste, and class inequalities hinders inclusive community participation. Johnson recommends efforts in implementing an all-inclusive approach. He felt that patience and reasoning with the upper caste community members help in battling inequalities, especially in water since it’s a universal need.

Another barrier is the rural-urban conundrum and the associated costs. Johnson recommends adopting different parameters for categorisation. Rather than classifying as rural and urban, he stated that differences should be made based on the prevalence of local sources. Decentralized and distributed water systems from local sources of water are cost-effective and thus help in reducing costs while simplifying the rural-urban divide. 

Contemporary challenges such as COVID-19 pandemic, the increased prevalence of natural disasters such as the tsunami in coastal Odisha, and the consequences of tourism need to be addressed. Commenting on the complexities brought upon by the pandemic, Johnson dealt with the manner in which hygiene had acquired prominence recently. Awareness currently limits itself to washing hands at the cost of other aspects of hygiene. Commenting on natural disasters, resilience and preparedness within village communities are essential. Increasing tourism activity trends have also led to struggles for resource sustainability and thus need to be taken into consideration.

The way forward

It is imperative not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Different entities have to make sure they put in maximum effort. Policies of decentralized water management have to empower the gram panchayat and govern it since it has to be the locus of governance and control.

The panchayats have to be freed from constraints of overutilization of financial resources and need to be given greater autonomy. While there will be umpteen challenges of capability, corruption, and other issues, eventually, the panchayat will take the right decisions for the community's common good. “The pressure for change and reform should come from the people and not from the top,” says Khurana.

The linkages between village communities and panchayats will ensure responsiveness and accountability. “The gram panchayat as the government is the key to ensuring long-term water security in the country. Additionally, the panchayats have to be complemented with active gram sabhas. Most importantly, there needs to be greater awareness about the limits of nature, cognizance of our desires and the ugly footprint we as humans leave behind. A conversation on the value of natural resources and the value of water for mankind is the need of the hour,” says Johnson.


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