Watershed development in India: Learning through experience

Implementing good watershed management practices can go a long way in dealing with the increasing water crisis in India in recent years. Lessons learned from three World Bank projects are detailed.
Water, a valuable resource Water, a valuable resource

India's water availability in the future is predicted to be bleak if proper steps are not undertaken to deal with the management of the available water resources in the country. The report titled 'Watershed development in India - An approach evolving through experience' by the World Bank, argues that according to recent estimates, the rising demand for water along with further increase in population and economic growth can result in about half the demand for water in the country being unmet by 2030.

Besides scarcity, problems related to poor quality of the available water resources may exacerbate the situation. Hence, solutions are needed that address the constraints on both the supply and demand side, and for both ground and surface water.

Implementing watershed management practices in India: Experiences from World Bank projects

The report argues that implementing good watershed management practices and approaches can go a long way and help India potentially better manage and augment its water resources.

The report analyses the experiences and lessons learnt from three World Bank supported watershed development projects in the Indian states of Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand with the aim to:

  • Understand the feasibility and applicability of watershed management practices in other parts of the country and 
  • Develop guidelines or models for the development and execution of new watershed development programmes in the country.

Watershed development in India

Watershed development is not a new concept in India and a peek into history shows that the people of India have adapted by either living along river banks or by harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flows. Most of India’s water management has been at the community level, relying upon diverse, imaginative and effective methods for harvesting rainwater in tanks and small underground storage structures.

The Government of India (GOI) has also adopted programs based on traditional water management approaches, which focus on micro-watersheds as the basis for planning and intervention since the late 1980s. The Guidelines for Watershed Development Projects became operational in 1995, and there has been a massive country-wide increase in the number and financing for community-based projects for micro-watershed development since then.

These projects are based on rainfall and runoff harvesting schemes that involve rehabilitating, building small check dams and tanks, and groundwater recharge structures. A lot of importance in being placed on these programmes as they have been thought of as important instruments to bring about rural development.

However, it has been realised that these programs have been more about rural development than about watersheds and water resources management and it has been felt that the programs should focus more on water resources objectives. Experiences have also shown that most programmes almost exclusively focus on RWH through community participation, and the extra water available is mostly utilised for irrigation at the cost of drinking water needs, leading to low storage.

Good practices, challenges and lessons learnt from the projects

Against this background, the report describes the experiences gained while implementing the three World Bank projects in India, which followed some good practices that included:

  • Starting from the building block of the micro-watershed
  • Decentralized and participatory development
  • Investing in participatory, evidence-based micro-watershed plans
  • Ensuring inclusion of all stakeholders
  • Investing in capacity building and information sharing
  • Linking conservation efforts to livelihoods for sustainability
  • Monitoring and evaluation

Some of the challenges identified for future programmes included:

  • The recent paradigm shift in watershed management approach
  • Managing upstream and downstream interrelations
  • Ensuring effective demand
  • Managing common pool resources
  • Promoting effective interagency collaboration
  • Give due attention to economic benchmarks
  • Provide incentives for sustainability

The lessons learned from the case studies were:

  • The use of the micro-watershed as the basic unit for planning and intervention was found to be useful, but the larger goals of protecting and conserving hydrologic services and/or managing negative downstream and groundwater impacts remained to be addressed as the micro-watershed approach was carried out in isolation.
  • A micro project (at the sub-watershed level or micro-watershed level) needs to be  planned for at least five to seven years in order to build sufficient social capital.
  • Projects involving multiple agencies are more successful when institutional arrangements make use of the comparative advantages of each of the partners.
  • Programs need to adopt integrated water resources planning at the micro-watershed level.
  • Linking livelihoods to watershed development objectives was a best practice among the three projects.
  • Natural resources based projects should be also focussed on developing sustainable livelihood options for the beneficiaries.
  • The projects made strong contributions in the institutional aspects of Watershed Management (WSM).
  • Transparency and public accountability was found to be the key to smooth implementation and harmonious social relations.
  • All the projects represented global good practices on social issues.
  • The inclusion, empowerment and mainstreaming of women, the poor and vulnerable groups into the decision-making processes was found to be crucial for the sustainability of the project.
  • The mode of interactions of the agency personnel with the community set the tone for the project and determined its outcomes.

Please download a copy of the report below.

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