Sustainable water management to enhance rural livelihoods

The event underlined the need to create a skilled workforce with multi-skilling abilities, embodying the concept of a one-stop-shop and service, particularly relevant for the organised sector.
14 Feb 2024
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The release of the reports prepared under the Jal Kaushal Project, led by the JustJobs Network and funded by Arghyam (Image: Arghyam)
The release of the reports prepared under the Jal Kaushal Project, led by the JustJobs Network and funded by Arghyam (Image: Arghyam)

India, with just 4% of the world's freshwater for 18% of the global population, grapples with a worsening crisis exacerbated by climate change and erratic monsoons, impacting urban and rural areas alike. This necessitates urgent sustainable solutions to address issues such as inadequate infrastructure, groundwater over-extraction, and widespread socio-economic impacts on women, public health, agriculture, and economic growth.

Arghyam along with the National Water Mission co-hosted a session on ‘Catalysing rural prosperity through sustainable water management’ at the recently held Livelihoods India Summit, a national initiative by Access Development Services on Jan 17, 2024 at New Delhi. The track explored sustainable water management's potential to boost rural livelihoods. It discussed government investments in physical infrastructure and new livelihood opportunities for its maintenance, ensuring water quality, and sustaining water sources.

In response to the water crisis, significant investments have been made by the government in programs like the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) and Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). “Now that physical infrastructure is in place, the focus shifts to managing the water source, infrastructure, water quality, and services, unlocking new job opportunities. The link between water and employment is well-established, with an estimated three out of four jobs in the global workforce being heavily or moderately dependent on water, as per a UN report from 2016,” said Priya Sankar, Director, Arghyam speaking at the event.

The water management sector holds significant job potential, with integrated water management serving as both a job creator and enabler; however, there is a lack of recorded information on the tasks, responsibilities, training, skills, remuneration, and working conditions of community members and frontline workers in this field. In response to this gap, the Jal Kaushal Project, led by the JustJobs Network and funded by Arghyam, explores the interconnectedness of jobs, skills, tasks, and rural water management. The eight reports of the study project that addresses the crucial intersection of effective water management and labour market needs were released at the event.

Sabina Dewan, co-author of the report and President and Executive Director of JustJobs Network discussed how the study examines central-level schemes, CSO and NGO initiatives, deciphering the jobs and tasks they entail in rural water management. “Creating a cadre of frontline workers for water management is essential, not only at a technocratic level but also within communities. These workers need specific skills and functions to manage water resources effectively. Also, in a dynamic labour market, where people engage in various roles, multi-skilling becomes crucial. The creation of a common registry to track skilled workers and their functions is recommended,” said Dewan.

Yugal Kishore Joshi, NITI Aayog in his keynote address highlighted the transformative influence of the JJM. “Looking at the employment generation potential of initiatives like JJM, the construction phase alone is estimated to create around 2.8 crore person-years of direct and indirect employment opportunities. This includes skilled and unskilled labour, machinery operators, and suppliers of materials. The operation and maintenance phase, which involves local teams, further contributes to employment, especially empowering women,” he said.

Joshi underlined the need to view rural prosperity beyond conventional economic parameters. The indirect benefits, such as improved health, environmental conservation, and women empowerment, play a significant role.

Debashree Mukherjee, Secretary (DoWR, RD&GR) in her special address discussed that to improve water management and security, skills need to be mapped across various programs, including Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, agriculture, and micro-irrigation initiatives. There is a need to focus on understanding how improved water management contributes to livelihoods.

“Skills mapping is crucial at the village level, and initiatives like Atal Bhujal Yojana depend significantly on Bhujal Jankaar, who provide valuable knowledge of groundwater situations to villagers. These skilled individuals can offer services for agriculture and other essential water management tasks at the grassroots level,” added Mukherjee.

Decoding the impact: JJM and SBM's role in empowering rural livelihoods

The first panel discussion on the topic explored how JJM and SBM are creating new opportunities in water and sanitation service delivery. “A notable challenge was the scarcity of skilled technicians at the rural level, particularly in the operation and maintenance of infrastructure. Despite much infrastructure development, the responsibility for operation and maintenance often falls into a void, relying on community involvement or village water and sanitation committees,” said Nidhi Batra, Founder of Sehreeti Developmental Practices Foundation, while moderating the panel discussion.

“While initiatives like the Jeevika program under the National Rural Livelihood Mission champion women's involvement, there's still a need for additional incentives to drive women’s active participation in drinking water and sanitation endeavours, extending beyond toilet construction. Also, in climate-challenged regions like ours, where floods are recurrent, harnessing the knowledge and experiences of those who have lived through such challenges becomes crucial. The synergy of diverse local skill sets, combining lived experiences with the enthusiasm of youth, can address functional and dysfunctional service issues,” said Eklavya Prasad, Megh Pyne Abhiyaan.

In climate-vulnerable regions with recurring floods, leveraging the expertise of those who have faced such challenges is vital, according to Prasad. The SBM-Gramin program, focusing on toilet construction, has diverse components requiring specific skills, and there is an untapped resource in the existing skilled workforce, particularly in North Bihar and Jharkhand. Encouraging the participation of local masons, plumbers, and electricians, who often migrate to urban areas, is crucial for sustained efforts.

To sustain and enhance ongoing efforts, policies should encourage contractors and subcontractors to actively involve local communities. Establishing a reciprocal functional relationship between the community and contractors is pivotal for service sustainment, as per Prasad.

“To address the gap in operation and maintenance, UNICEF is exploring an initiative, currently underway in Maharashtra, in collaboration with two partner organisations named "One Stop Shop" and "Service Imagine." Picture a village with a mall-like hub offering a variety of services.” said Anand Ghodke, UNICEF. This initiative involves training over 200 local youths in rural areas as WASH Mitras, as frontline community workers, fostering sustainable water management. These individuals undergo training in masonry, plumbing, electrical work, painting, and the repair of water filters and solar instruments.

The training program spans 15 to 21 days, providing foundational skills to address basic service needs, such as tap construction and compost pit installation. The initiative aims not just at multi-skilling but also incorporates supplementary efforts, including equipment provision, certification incentives, and the issuance of identity cards. The idea is to instil a sense of branding and recognition similar to other professions.

“In Maharashtra, we have successfully trained both male and female participants. The average income for these individuals, now capable of contributing to WASH infrastructure gaps, is around INR 12,000 a month. This initiative not only addresses livelihood concerns but also boosts confidence and provides quality and timely services. We have achieved the break-even point for UNICEF and partner investments,” said Ghodke.

Arpit Sharma, the Chief Operating Officer of the Skill Council for Green Jobs underlined the undeniable potential of jobs within the water management sector spanning diverse employment models, ranging from entrepreneurship to gig work. The focus on meaningful employment, integration into policies and guidelines, and the significance of multi-skilled roles in rural settings further amplify the sector's opportunities.

“Women and vulnerable communities are pivotal players, and the integration of traditional knowledge systems becomes imperative in the face of climate change and sustainable development,” added Sharma.

Panel discussion 2 (Image: Arghyam)

Charting the future: Sustaining water and livelihoods in rural India

The second panel addressed the critical issue of water availability and security in rural India in the context of the country’s overdependence on groundwater. The discussion aimed at exploring the complexities of groundwater management and the role of village institutions in effective water governance. The discussion also focused on the potential avenues for skill development required in efficient management of water through water efficient agricultural practices, thus opening new livelihood opportunities for rural communities.

The panel members included Ashok Goel, Commissioner (SPR), Department of Water Resources, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India; Marcella D’Souza, Director, WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies (W-Cres); Meena Das Mohapatra, General Manager and State Head, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) and Govardhan Kulkarni, Ex Chairman, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule WUA, Ozar, Nashik. The panel discussion was moderated by Shilp Verma, Senior Researcher -Water - Energy - Food Policies, International Water management Institute.

Agriculture, groundwater and water related livelihoods in India: The linkages

Shilp Verma highlighted the importance of focusing on agriculture and irrigation and  its linkages with water related livelihoods in rural India. He also highlighted the current focus on renewable energy with India now emerging as a world leader in deploying renewable energy, specifically solar energy in agriculture.

Be it PMKSY’s objective of expanding irrigation or the country’s objective of solarising agriculture, all would lead to creation of new jobs for undertaking works such as digging and maintaining wells and irrigation infrastructure etc, which would need to be exploited to improve livelihoods in rural India, he added.

Ensuring sustainable livelihoods through the water stewardship approach

Marcella D’Souza, WOTR shared the experiences of WOTR of working in semiarid rain dependent areas in Maharashtra. WOTR conducted an impact assessment of an over ten year study based on a climate change adaptation model that implemented a holistic approach adopted in 25 villages in three different typologies namely hilly areas, semiarid, the upper catchment in the rain shadow and the rivulet within.

The study found that there was a considerable improvement in ecosystem services - especially provisioning services that affected agriculture, water and livelihoods favourably. For encouraging sustainable use of water resources, WOTR undertook the water stewardship approach. Village development committees were formed and women participation was encouraged. Participants were trained as Jal Sevaks and Sevikas who collected data at the village level and shared it with the village committees and water budgeting at the village level was implemented. The Jal Sevaks and Sevikas who managed 3 to 4 villages were paid through the project. However, how to pay them after the project ends continues to be a challenge, she added.

Potential for skilling and jobs under government programmes

Ashok Goel informed of the schemes of the government such as the PMKSY that have made investments of a 5 years period from 2021 to 2026 in the range of 93,000 crores. Water being a state subject, funds were also available at the state level. Thus, a lot of investment was being made in the irrigation sector. The focus was on doubling water use efficiency in the irrigation sector, which would lead to creation of more rural jobs, he added.

However, there were some issues that needed redressal to improve irrigation efficiency:

  • There were huge water losses in lined as well as unlined canals. Underground pipelines were being planned to convey irrigation water to command areas to cope with this.
  • Use of treated water especially in periurban areas could replace freshwater provided the quality of treated water matched the water quality needed for agriculture.
  • Need to use technologies such as Sahi Fasal and Precision farming, which would address 10 percent of this 100 percent increase in efficiency.
  • Introduction of metering and pricing was also important. Metering may not be linked to pricing, but would be more useful for water use efficiency in command areas.

In all the areas mentioned, there was a need for skilled manpower. Employment opportunities for agricultural extension work were also increasing. However, all these activities would need multitasking skills and employment must be through SHGs or WUAs rather than through individual farmers, he added.

Increasing role of rural women in skilling and jobs

According to Meenadas Mohapatra from FES, while agriculture was the largest sector for promoting rural livelihoods, its potential had not been utilised fully. FES had been closely working with the department of agriculture with the livelihood mission to promote sustainable agricultural practices and water governance. The objective was to build capacity of field functionaries of the government - the agricultural first line functionaries - the Krishi Mitras and the Krishi Sathis.

FES focused on developing women led agricultural systems, find out how it can be institutionalised and also how community friendly agricultural tools and technologies for crop budgeting could be used among the field functionaries, majority of whom were women.

The role of Water User Associations in ensuring water and livelihood security

Govardhan Kulkarni highlighted the importance of ensuring sustainability of water before talking about generation of employment opportunities in the water sector while also focusing on frequency and efficiency of water distribution through hardware as well as software that would help to generate direct and indirect job opportunities.

He shared the experiences of implementation of the Waghad project in Maharashtra where villagers were able to use water sustainably throughout the year through drip irrigation and conjunctive use of water, which also helped in generating jobs in the village and also helped in improving the economic status of the villagers. He highlighted that while salaries of people employed under WUA could be taken care of by the villages, the government could empower them and make water quotas available. However, trust building in the WUAs among the farmers was crucial.

Reflections/Key points that emerged from the second panel discussion
Need for a collaborative approach and political will crucial

Govardhan Kulkarni highlighted the crucial role that NGOs would need to play at bringing together the government and farmers by enabling a dialogue between both.

As WUAs expanded, water distribution networks would also need to be made efficient as water entitlements got fixed for the farmers. Once water reached the last mile, farmers would be ready to participate in the WUAs.

Political will was also important. State Secretaries, Ministers should also need to be involved in the effort and made aware of the situation in their states. Campaigns for spreading awareness on WUA were also important. At the Gram Panchayat level, local leaders, sarpanch needed to be made aware of the advantages of WUA as at the village level, once the Sarpanch agreed, the whole village would listen. At the same time ground level implementation of governmental programmes and skilling at the ground level was also very essential.

Need for reforms at the policy level

According to Meenadas Mohapatra, one of the positive outcomes of the effort by FES was that due to capacity building initiatives, women Krishi Mitras benefited immensely and this helped change the perception that women cannot use tools, cannot use data and understand issues. However, recognition of women as farmers is still absent. There was thus a need for sociopolitical reform at the policy level such as changing land tenure laws in favour of women to ensure that women can own land.

Use of technology can boost livelihood opportunities

Ashok Goel added that there was a tremendous entrepreneurship potential in irrigation and infusion of technology could lead to many benefits.

Focusing on water management critical to ensure sustainable livelihoods

Dr Marcella Desouza pointed out that long term sustainability of agriculture was a challenge and the farmers were right at the centre of the risks posed by climate change, rainfall, market pushes and pulls. Thus, while looking at jobs in agriculture, sustainability of water needed to be ensured. At the same time looking at equity issues was also crucial.

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