A guest post Erik Blair and Tim Shah
Over the past two months, we have had the fortune of researching an innovative and highly participatory project in one of our graduate courses at the School of Community and Regional Planning. Both of us had an interest in exploring groundwater in the developing world and were fortunate to stumble across an article in the Economist magazine entitled “Making Farmers Matter” with a focus on India. Why India you may ask? India is the world’s largest user of groundwater with an estimated 22 million wells. As Steven Solomon writes in his newest book, “in India's breadbaskets of Punjab and Haryana, the water tables are falling over three feet per year; monitored wells in the western state of Gujarat show a fall in the water table from 50 feet to over 1,300 feet in thirty years”. India accounts for 25% of the world’s total groundwater draw. Interested in more statistics? See here.
The northern desert state of Rajasthan is not doing any better and the challenges it faces are severe. A major reason for this is the fact that farmers pay virtually nothing for water or electricity. Such wasteful subsidies from state governments have led not only to the perpetuation of destructive farming practices, but worse yet, a culture of over-drafting and a complete neglect for conservation.
Shedding light on a positive and more promising story takes us to a South-Eastern state of Andhra Pradesh where a project named the “Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project” has been gaining traction in its unique approach to demand-side management and through engaging farmers “in the field” to demystify the science of hydrological monitoring. This project was jointly implemented in July 2003 by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in New Delhi along with the UN FAO and 9 NGOs under the leadership of the Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society (BIRDS). More details about the project implementation can be found here.
Zetland has written about the tragedy of the commons countless times and how it is a problem we deal with in the developed and developing world alike. The essence of this project has been to avoid it by teaching farmers to think about water as a common pool resource. This helps farmers overcome their selfish desires and to think about groundwater as shared and collective resource.
The local governance institutions on the ground, which were set up by the 9 NGOs, are paramount to this program. Their objective is to disseminate training and transfer knowledge across districts for the farmers’ collective understanding of groundwater use. The “farmer water school” - an informal training program that improves the skills and knowledge of farmers to carry out their practices in a more efficient and sustainable manner – is one such method.
The program trains farmers to collect hydrological data, understand discharge and recharge, take rainfall measurements and daily groundwater levels. Such “groundwater dynamics” have been poorly understood by these farmers because the science is complex and ostensibly better understood by PhD hydrogeologists at the state level. As evidenced in the eight-year life of APFAMGS, farmers can understand the groundwater system in greater complexity if provided the skills to understand the resource’s limitations, and the capacity to make collaborative decisions about how best to manage it.
A huge success of APFAMGS has been the improvement of gender equity. By learning how to monitor local groundwater levels and measure rates of rainfall and discharge, women have elevated their position in society tremendously. Innovative ideas about water and sanitation access have shortened “water-trips” and improved health, and technical skills have enabled women to make management decisions that directly affect their livelihood.
This collective wisdom and collaborative approach has also translated into the formation of “crop water budget” plans. These plans are premised on “reducing risk of crop failure & identifying opportunities for sustainable production”. A variety of methods go into this process, see here: but the key message is that these plans are devised and shared to allow farmers to strategize about which crops will be grown in which water basin in the state. The crop water budget plans reinforce which crops are more water intensive (rice paddies) and which ones are less (Bengal Gram). Further, this culture of conservation has led to the adoption of drip irrigation for selected crops. This unprecedented communication has forged consensus on reducing the amount of water allocated to the highly water intensive rice paddies, a crop that has driven Punjab’s farmers into serious despair (see this video).
This idea of cooperation, fostered through the vision of groundwater as “common pool resource” has improved crop diversity. This demand-side management approach has led not only to a reduction in groundwater pumping, but selecting crops more strategically based on water intensity – and has become a model of participatory groundwater management for the entire state. This is not a question of regulation of groundwater (both California and British Columbia do not regulate), this is more about how farmers can be empowered, and teach each other, to make critical behavioural changes in their everyday lives.
The farmers have taught us a lot about the power of knowledge sharing. It is in their best interest to share hydrological data with one another to help prioritize which crops they will grow. Prior to the project, the farmers did have each other to discuss best practices on reducing groundwater pumping. Alas, with such desperation to pump water to improve yields and thus quality of life, there was a culture of selfishness which made it hard to see the benefits of cooperation. Without the financial resources from the Dutch Embassy, the technical expertise from the UN FAO, and the understanding of groundwater science at the farmer water schools, it seems to us, that this transformative process would have been a lot more difficult to achieve. Now that the training is well established, we hope that the farmers will take the methods learned and teach other for generations to come. Hopefully, this intergenerational learning does not require the intervention of foreign institutions or groups and that the solutions from here on in are cultivated in a local manner.
To conclude, as graduate students studying community and regional planning, we sometimes get caught up in the process of projects and forget about the importance of outcomes. While the journey in this particular project is arguably more important than the destination; the learning, capacity-building and collaboration exemplified by the farmers has led to significant reductions in groundwater pumping. Such outcomes have been an inspiring story of how to tackle the complex problem of falling water tables.
Bottom Line: More work/investigation needs to be done on this project to see whether it is transferable to other places.
Erik Blair & Tim Shah are graduate students in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This post is a summary of a two-month research project that they presented on in their class “Planning for Water Resource Management”.