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Editorial – Managing water for sustainable farming

There is an increasing recognition and concern that water as a scarce and vital natural resource needs to be carefully conserved, judiciously utilized and effectively managed. The role of water in serving diverse needs, such as drinking water, agriculture, cleaning and washing is well known. Traditionally too, in some cultures, water has been associated with divinity.

In agriculture, where water use is the highest, water critically influences the food security, economic well being as well as ecological stability. Also, improper management of this resource also erodes the other natural resources such as soil and biodiversity which are so crucial for the survival of all living forms including human beings.

There is greater realization that water and poverty are linked, with those having access to water having a distinct, significant advantage. Thus, availability, access, practices of judicious use and governance of water resources is gaining importance. However, water use systems born out of technological advances enabling indiscriminate and easy use of this resource rather than conservation, greed based rather than need based use, lopsided development policies are threatening the availability of this community resource for the future. Raising temperatures, recurrent droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns are compounding the challenge.

There is an increasing awareness on the need for harvesting and handling carefully the rain water, judicious and sustainable use of water in agriculture. This realization is not new. Traditionally, societies, for centuries, have evolved location specific practices as well as social norms to handle this precious resource. Some of them are still alive. There is conscious effort too by agencies and communities to revive and improve some of these water conservation practices, innovate, while coping with emerging situations.

On the other hand, in several other situations, abundance of water is a problem, for instance, floods. Owing to natural or man made situations, these communities struggle not only for life but also to minimize farm losses. These rural farm populations are evolving coping mechanisms to deal with recurrent disasters like floods.

Thus, in diverse contexts, for instance, mountainous regions, rain fed dry lands, flood prone regions, saline areas etc., the challenges of dealing with water have been different in terms of its management.

Water conservation, use and governance

Traditional water conservation measures are deeply interwoven with local cultures, architecture, traditions, norms and rituals. For the local populations water is both a utilitarian and a symbolic resource. Besides being used for drinking, cleaning and irrigation, water is also seen as a divinity, and plays a central role in all village rituals. Traditional structures, surrounded by cold tolerant species considered sacred are grown around water bodies to avert drought and ire of Gods in hilly region. Traditions are closely linked with local norms and institutions for governance. For instance, during festivals, local irrigation committees plan coming year’s water allocation schedules while planning the new agricultural year for the village.(Nilhare Neupane, p.8).

Similarly, traditional tank management systems indicate interesting governance structures and mechanisms. The traditional management of Mudiyanur tank provides an interesting example of a system of management that ensured fair distribution of water to the land of all households, promoted respect for different roles in society, and sought to resolve conflict between different parties in as harmonious a manner as possible. The practices were found effective not only to meet the irrigation needs of the villagers but also to conserve ground water levels. (STS Reddy, p.10)

An efficient allocation system is essential when rainfall is limited. Various norms are evolved by the communities, sometimes based on the social status in the villages, sometimes even through lottery. Crop choices are made on the quantity of water available. In some areas, water allocation also depends on the type of crops cultivated, with preference given to using water for growing staple food crops of that area. As has been seen, water use is judiciously regulated, paddy varieties chosen carefully, and the method of cultivation adapted to low water availability. An additional important point is that shortages in water supplies are shared in a manner that is accepted by the community members as equitable.(p.8, p.10)

However, all these mechanism survive as long as the social norms developed over centuries are not ignored, locally sanctioned norms of dealing with common resources not replaced. The challenge today is to develop more equitable formal rules that build on existing social capital. “The irrigation system used to function properly in the past because of a strong internal cohesion and because the different groups of people understood each other very well.” The social hierarchy and the informal rules and relationships ascribe different roles and responsibilities to different social groups. However, modern approaches undermine the strength of the systems. (Nilhare Neupane, p.8).

Traditional and modern governance mechanisms can co-exist. In Holland, for instance, the successful polders or reclaimed land below sea level, date back to the 12th century, when rising water levels threatened agricultural land. They are governed by Water boards, organised in a similar way as many water user committees in Asia today. They are still functioning. They do clash with the local governance structures (such as municipalities). For example, the provinces regularly propose to take over the water boards themselves; but the water boards in turn want to take over water regulation functions from the provinces and municipalities. Inspite of these challenges, the history of the Dutch water boards shows that this is a real possibility.(Frank, p.28).

Local perceptions and situation analysis form a strong basis while evaluating what is needed to address the problems. For instance, while dealing with water and energy needs, women decided to take up tree planting as degradation of forests led to reduced groundwater recharge. The plantation and water conservation activities have led to recharge of the village spring after two months of rainfall. This small effort has had such an impact that the water availability has increased three times. (Rakesh Prasad,p.14). Experience of MITTRA is another such example which depicts communities taking charge of developing water sources and managing them well too. As a group they planned what crops to grow based on water availability. Also members agreed not to grow high water consuming crops and banned growing crops like sugarcane. (R C Kote, p.30).

There have been several location specific creative ways of harvesting rainwater and using it effectively – Khatris, diversion based irrigation channels, jalkund (p. 24).

People and communities living in mountainous areas often have more difficulties in accessing sufficient water. Simple technologies are evolved. Though sometimes simple, these technologies can be a great help – their application requires co-ordinated efforts amon all stakeholders. (Auke, p.26). It can be passion driven communities of practice, who innovate and create alternative mechanisms, for instance, Surangas. Surangas are man made caves of water which work on gravitational forces requiring no external power to operate. Many farmers in the regions adjoining Karnataka and Kerala are relying on Surangas, the traditional water harvesting structures, for meeting water requirements of their crops. They strongly feel, “If we have to resort to pump based lift- irrigation like most of the arecanut farmers of our area, we might have to say good bye to farming.” ( Shree Padre p.34).

While there have been lot of investments being made in watershed development, ‘doing in a big way’ need not necessarily be the prerequisite nor is always efficient. Small scale watershed development is a viable way to improve degraded ecosystems, create diverse livelihood opportunities for rural people and build stable ecosystems based on the pillars of water, soil and biodiversity. (Raghavendra Rao, p.6). Similarly, the sub soil biodiversity, crucial for productive farming systems is often nurtured in maintaining humus. The water preserved by humus
would be constantly available for the innumerable soil organisms available at different levels in the soil. Without increasing the soil carbon or humus content in the soil, it is very difficult to improve crop production. (Narayana Reddy, p.31).

Water abundance – management of a different kind

Local communities have always found ingenious ways to overcome adverse conditions like floods, which affect not only farming but also lives and livelihoods. Owing to climate change influences, monsoon periods and flood periods are also varying, accentuating the problem. Some of the coping and adaptive strategies being adopted by the farming communities include, choosing alternative varieties, cropping periods and preparing for disasters in terms of alternative grain and fodder storage mechanisms besides several others. (GEAG, p.19).

Also, communities have evolved alternative practices which make use of the prevalent situation. Floating agriculture is a good popular practice in the low-lying areas in the south-western parts of Bangladesh where lands remain submerged most of time in a year. Not only to cope during floods, floating agriculture is also a potential means of increasing the food production in the country. However, efforts in spreading awareness about the practice and support from the government are required in sustaining such time tested alternative practices. (Sukanta Sen, p.22).

There are many such examples of location specific adaptive capabilities of communities offering potential solutions to water conservation, judicious use of water resources as well as dealing with floods. Some examples have been presented here. There are many more. Dealing with food security, environmental degradation and climate change challenges require strong resolve of the communities and enabling environment for fostering creativity as well as joint action based on conservation rather than careless and exploitative use of resources.

Producing more with Less

SRI is based on principles of using less resources for producing more. Compared to conventional methods, paddy grown based on SRI principles requires 80-90% less seed, 40% less water. By enabling better conditions for plant growth in terms of aeration and soil health, yields have increased by 16-30% while costs of cultivation have come down in the areas AMEF has been promoting SRI.

The biggest challenge has been changing mindsets of farmers. AMEF has been successful, owing to promoting Participatory learning processes like FFS, PTD; Creating groups of trained rural farm youth; and scaling up through appropriate strategies. Beginning with 61 farmers in (2005), gradually the numbers have gone up -109 in 2007; 1867 in 2008, 7005 in 2010 across three southern states through support of DF and WWF. Also, AMEF has been successfully promoting SRI under rainfed paddy in Dharwad area, SRI principles in Ragi, Redgram, and sugarcane to a limited extent.

Source: AME Foundation, November 2010