Demystifying hydrological science for sustainable development
Indian project puts groundwater management in the hands of poor dry-land farmers
Poor farmers are the first to be affected during periods of water stress or droughts – often with tragic consequences. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh recurrent drought and crippling debt have driven thousands of desperate farmers to suicide.
Agriculture, the mainstay of the region’s rural economy, has become increasingly risky, expensive and water-intensive. The farmer suicides have been linked largely to lost investment in failed bore wells. Many farmers have turned to the cultivation of thirsty, high-value cash crops, which promise greater returns but involve greater risks. Indiscriminate drilling for water and increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have damaged groundwater resources and reduced land fertility.
Understanding groundwater dynamics
An innovative project, funded by the Government of the Netherlands and implemented by local non-governmental organizations with technical assistance from FAO, is attempting to address these issues by helping farmers understand the groundwater system so they can make appropriate investments and better manage their water resources.
So far, nearly 7 000 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 analyse changes in water resource availability. Organized in groups, known as Groundwater Management Committees, these farmers then share this knowledge with others in their communities so that they can make informed decisions on how to maximize available water resources in their area. The four-year project aims to reach around 500 000 farmers.
“What’s unique about this project is that it allows communities to make collective decisions based on an understanding of the scientific and technical underpinnings of the options available to them,” says Daniel Gustafson, FAO Representative in India.
Armed with a clearer understanding of the groundwater balance in their area, farmers have begun to realize the futility of investing in bore wells and are instead shifting to crops that require less water. Moreover, promotion of organic agriculture is reducing the use of expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides and helping to minimize environmental damage.
The project also aims to increase groundwater resources through artificial recharge, whereby agricultural runoff and harvested rainwater are pumped back into the ground, usually through injection wells, to replenish aquifers for future generations.
A hydrological database using geographic information system technology has been developed for use by the Groundwater Management Committees to facilitate analysis of trends in water usage and to provide accurate assessments of the total amount of water available in each hydrological unit.
Equal participation of women in the management committees and in training activities is a key project component to ensure they have an equal role in water allocation decisions.
“The farmers’ empowerment through hands-on learning, community organization and control over their own resources has had a spill-over effect into other areas,” says Gustafson.
Some farmers groups, for example, have used their data collection and analysis skills to assess food insecurity problems in their communities. And in one project location, farmers used rainfall data to lobby the government to declare it a drought-affected area.
“Equipped with a clear understanding of the aquifer systems within which they operate, these communities can become not only watch-dogs for sustainable groundwater use, but also pressure groups to increase public expenditure on groundwater development,” says Gustafson.
Water prize finalist
The Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Project has been selected as one of the 30 finalists for the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize, which will be awarded at the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City from 16 to 22 March. The prize honours an individual or organization whose activities have aimed to benefit all citizens by addressing critical water issues in developing countries.
The 30 candidates, selected from a pool of around 4 000 applicants, have been invited to make presentations at the Forum. The winner will be selected by an international panel of judges, and the prize -- 5 million Japanese Yen (approximately US$45 000) -- will be presented during the Forum’s closing ceremony.
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