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Water Security: It's Time for More Actions at Field Level | Water Energy Food Nexus, Bonn 2011

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05 Oct 11

Water Security: It’s Time for More Actions at Field Level

The question of how to effectively use our water resources has been debated for decades, yet what we need more than ever is direct action at the field level.

The historic Dublin Principles resulting from the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in 1992 saw water for the first time officially recognized as a finite natural resource with intrinsic economic value.

Soon after, the first Rio Earth Summit saw the inclusion of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as a specific chapter in Agenda 21. Ever since these landmark agreements, IWRM has remained a hot topic at the national, regional and international levels; Stockholm World Water Week and the International River Symposium are just two examples which bring together global experts to plan the way forward for the sustainable management and use of the resource.

Yet, in spite of unprecedented awareness of the need for global action on water security, effective actions at field level remain relatively limited, with the implementation of IWRM programmes continually being delayed at all levels. Bringing together all mini-basin stakeholders on a common platform for decision-making is more easily said than done – primarily due to conflicting interests. Moreover, private capital for water supply and sanitation can only be attracted when stakeholders accept that water, when supplied as a service is no free resource and must assure some economic benefit to the provider.

In the context of food security, IWRM should actually been termed IWSM (Integrated Water and Soil Management), thus encompassing the interests of the farming community. In many low-income countries about 50-70% of the population is in farming and about 80% of farmers are dry-land users for whom management of rain water and conservation of soil and soil fertility is crucial. For the remaining 20% of farmers practicing irrigation from surface and ground water, getting both adequate quantity and suitable quality remains a challenge due to harsh and erratic rainfall patterns, high-intensity storms, and flash floods with prolonged dry periods in-between.

In order to generate dependable water resources from such a harsh climate, we need a shock-absorbing, resilient interface between the climate and the water resources, which could only be provided by a well-maintained watershed, starting from that of a “first-order” stream. This is achieved through maintaining a good cover of grasses, bushes and trees; protecting the soil with contour bunding and contour tilling of farms; excavating farm-ponds for temporary storage of rain water; de-silting of small ponds and lakes; and constructing bunds on small streams for water storages to promote recharge to ground water. These are the actions at field level which should start at the watershed of a first order stream and progressively cover larger watersheds, with active participation of villagers under guidance from NGOs and government departments.

The above actions comprise the “bottom-up” contribution to IWRM by farmers and villagers at the grass-root level, but must still be complimented by “top-down” efforts provided by governments and international organizations through the provision of funds, infrastructure development, a legislative framework and promoting the role NGOs as a liaison between wider schemes and village communities. In line with the prescriptions of Agenda 21 and the MDGs, NGOs would in turn especially encourage the active participation of women in the forestation of watersheds and in drinking water supply schemes.

To start these “bottom-up” actions at watershed level, we must engage rural communities and move beyond rigid “top-down” schemes implemented by detached district or county level government development offices. Watershed improvements through soil and water conservation activities and forestation could go a long way to assure at least one harvest during rainy periods and sustainable ground water supply for small scale irrigation in other seasons. This is the surest way to stabilize both food and water security for rural communities and stem the flow of drought induced urbanization which continues to put severe pressure on the infrastructure of already over-crowded cities.

Watershed development will not just enable farmers to produce more food and improve access to potable water; it can provide a valuable source of local employment. Through forestation programmes, the total biomass output of the watershed increases, resulting in both a better environment and increased income. Irrigational development can provide work for landless labourers. Many rural communities experience financial hardship if unable to produce “value added” products from agro-output and dairy. Safe drinking water obtained from bore wells, are a low energy solution which can drastically improves rural health and therefore also economic productivity. There is a thus a clear positive impact on “family income” from effective local watershed development schemes at village level.

So, let us move from analysis at conferences to actions at the grass-root level. If we delay any further, there is a real danger of moving from analysis to paralysis.

Dr. Shrikant Daji Limaye is Director of Ground Water Institute (NGO), based in Pune, India and also the Project Leader of the UNESCO-IUGS-IGCP Project no. 523 GROWNET (Ground Water Network for Best Practices in Ground Water Management in Low-Income Countries). Contact: limaye[at]vsnl.com

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