Coping with water scarcity in Andhra Pradesh
Farmer management of water resources helps turn the tide
In the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, farmers plagued by recurrent drought are fighting back, tapping newly acquired knowledge of their groundwater resources to cope with water scarcity.
In recent years, poor farmers in this arid region have been drilling deeper and deeper in search of water to support cultivation of thirsty, high-value crops promising greater returns but involving greater risks. Agriculture, which drives the region’s economy, has become increasingly water intensive and expensive.
Moreover, indiscriminate drilling for water -- the number of wells in Andhra Pradesh increased from 800 000 in 1975 to 2.2 million in 2002 -- and increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are a potential threat to groundwater resources and reduce land fertility.
Insurmountable debts due to lost investments in failed bore wells have driven thousands of farmers to the brink of desperation, many to suicide.
But an innovative project, funded by the Government of the Netherlands and implemented by a network of local non-governmental organizations with technical assistance from FAO, is beginning to turn things around. The key: enabling rural communities understand the groundwater system so they can deliberate among themselves and make appropriate decisions leading to better investments and efficient management of their water resources.
To date, over 28 000 men and women farmers from about 650 villages in seven drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh have been trained to monitor groundwater levels, water discharge from local aquifers and rainfall and to compute water balances to analyse changes in water resource availability.
Organized in groups, known as Groundwater Management Committees (GMCs), these farmers then share this knowledge with others in their communities, a total of around 500 000 farmers, so that they can make informed decisions on how to maximize available water resources in their area.
The project pioneered in using the farmer field school approach for water resource management to promote hands-on group learning. Farmers meet every 15 days to discuss topics such as hydrological measurements, water recharge, water availability and appropriate cropping systems, water use efficiency, organic farming methods, institutional linkages, gender issues in water management, and HIV/AIDS’ impact on the farming sector.
Over 2 000 lead facilitators trained through the project will conduct more than 1 000 farmer field schools of 15 to 17 sessions each in 2007-2008, reaching an additional 800 000 farmers.
Equal participation of women in the management committees and in training activities is an important project component, and women are increasingly playing key roles in decision-making on water allocation and crop planning.
“The project’s success has been in demystifying scientific technology and integrating it with social transformation, women’s economic empowerment and institutional change,” says P.S. Rao, FAO’s National Land and Water Programme Coordinator in India.
Crop-water budget exercises are carried out every year by farmers themselves to reduce risks of crop failure and identify opportunities for sustainable production. GMCs within a hydrological unit come together and work out an appropriate cropping system given their estimate of the total groundwater resources available.
When crop-water balance estimates in September-October 2006 continued to show groundwater deficits in most areas, for example, the farmers took action.
“In critical areas not only did they decide to ban any further drilling of wells and stop cultivating crops requiring intensive irrigation, like paddy and sugarcane, but they also took it upon themselves to improve the irrigation efficiency of less water-intensive crops,” says Rao.
The result: water savings of as much as 33 percent in some areas.
“Putting water management in the hands of well-trained people who stand to benefit from the decisions being made can lead to impressive results,” says Rao.
In the past, efforts have tended to focus on improving the groundwater situation through programmes that target the supply side of water management -- watershed treatment, artificial recharge, afforestation -- essentially trying to put more water into the ground.
“Before, very little attention was paid to demand side management -- the judicious use of available water,” Rao says. “This project represents a new approach to governance – moving from a culture of top-down service provision to empowering people to understand, manage and develop their own resources. We’re seeing a paradigm shift in development projects from subsidies and input provision to developing knowledge banks at the grassroot level.”
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