Want to mobilize people for water management? Let the “Unspoken of” surface!

Climate Change Adaptation, Field Notes, Interviews, News & Events, Sustainable Livelihoods, Uncategorized

March, 2019

Want to mobilize people for water management? Let the “Unspoken of” surface!

By Dr. Marcella D’Souza

The Problem

Day after day, news papers in Maharashtra highlight the water crisis: “In Marathwada, dead insects fill the little water that’s left”; “As crops & jobs dry up, children’s education hit the worst”; “Drought induces up to 30% migration in some Marathwada villages”; “No takers for cattle in Beed, even at 75% discount: Few can afford to buy or feed them”.  The headlines below tell their own story. This situation is not unique to Maharashtra; it can be seen in many other states in the country such as Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

News items

The state government has, as of October 2018, declared as many as 180 of the 358 talukas in the state as drought affected. Climate change is blamed for these impacts, as frequent drought and drought-like situations have been experienced in various parts of Maharashtra since the beginning of this decade. Due to the expanding area under cultivation and the repeated droughts, dependence on groundwater has phenomenally increased.[1]

The ‘Groundwater Assessment Report – 2014’of the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA), shows that in Maharashtra alone there were 24.30 lakh abstraction structures which includes 20.55 lakh dug wells and 3.76 lakh borewells. In the state, 76 watersheds are categorized as over-exploited where the groundwater development is more than 100% of the recharge.  According to another assessment, at the end of March 2018, about half of Maharashtra was facing water scarcity and there was tremendous difficulty in meeting the the drinking water and domestic needs of the people. Yet despite the severe water crisis, the area under sugarcane cultivation in 2017-18 increased in the drought prone regions (according to the Central Groundwater Board), and onion prices (2017-18) fell due to over production.[2]

While we generally point fingers to climate change as the cause of this crisis, anthropogenic (human induced) causes are major drivers for groundwater depletion. Sub-surface water is perceived as a private good; individual owners of wells and borewells use their water resources as desired. There is little acknowledgement that the land, forests and water resources are the common resource base for the use of ALL including the ecosystem and generations to come. The attitude that seems to prevail is, “since we do not know about the sub-surface waters, we’ll do what we please”.

The Challenge therefore is to get rural communities to assume responsibility for managing their water resources, while they earn an income.

Community management of their water resources

The land and water resource base is fundamental for the living and livelihoods of the rural inhabitants particularly as it is home to 56 % of farming households in India.[3]  With desertification expanding in semi-arid India, taking measures to ensure its stoppage or reversal is crucial for survival. While soil and water conservation measures along watershed lines are being implemented through various participatory programmes, they fall short of touching the sensitive subject of water management, as the rich and powerful in villages control these resources.

In order to create joint ownership and make water management the community responsibility, empowering the people with a factual understanding of the water situation – the resource base, the local situation and requirements, and externalities such as climate factors – is essential. A First Step towards this goal is developing a common understanding of the present situation through a participatory assessment of the village water status.

The Village Water Health Chart & Water Budget

As a first step toward creating a realistic common picture of the current scenario, based on people’s observations, a “Village Water Health Chart” is prepared by the Village Water Management Team (VWMT). As people themselves assess the various parameters and rate their situation on the Water Health Chart, the water-related issues in their daily life that they have become accustomed to and hence tolerate, are now uncovered. The people suddenly realise that the situation they felt was ‘normal’ was in fact anything but. People become aware of how the water situation impacts their lives, living conditions and livelihoods. The scenario they generate then triggers a ‘call to action’ where they plan both demand as well as supply side water management and governance to address water issue to either work to improve it or plan such that the good status is maintained. [4]

Village Water Budgeting Chart

Members of the Village Water Management Team preparing Village Water Health Chart in Hivre Korda, Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra. Photo: Eshwer Kale

Some simple tangible parameters of everyday life that are assessed by the VWMTs include:

  • Is water available in the village and hamlets throughout the year for domestic and livestock needs?
  • Does the village receive water in tankers: if so, for how many months; and do the hamlets also receive sufficient water?
  • How much time do women in the village and hamlets spend fetching water? and during summer?
  • Is the education of girls affected by having to fetch water?
  • Are you satisfied with the quality of water?
  • How many wells and borewells are there in the village? What are the depths of the borewells? and for how many months do these have water?
  • How many well owners are able to irrigate the winter crop?
  • How many farmers use micro-irrigation / flood irrigation?

Suddenly, people realize that the simple daily chores actually provide valuable information they were so blind to! [5]

The Water Budget exercise is another eye opener for the VWMT. Each village according to their own context quantifies the amount of water available through rainfall and stored in the water storage structures. They measure water levels in well and bore-wells; and calculate the water requirements for humans, livestock and the different crops they grow.

The Moment of Discovery and the Turning Point

There are many facets to this situation. It is common to find villagers taking for granted children missing school, hamlets not receiving water, distances women walk, the number of borewells in a village, thus making people tolerant of the situation (frog in the boiling pot syndrome). In some cases, households of means attempt to improve their personal situation, which sometimes works against the common good. Hence the rating of the different parameters on a chart with color codes – HEALTHY (green); ILL (orange) and SEVERELY ILL (red) suddenly highlights the status for all to see.

As the color codes on the Water Health Charts are displayed, people are initially reluctant to accept the poor status, give excuses, and give themselves a better (than reality) rating. However, when the chart is presented to the other participating villages and they are questioned by neighboring participants, the VWMT is forced to face facts.

When the Water Budget details are presented in the Gram Sabha, the same experiences are observed. It takes a lot of discussions and dialogue for people to finally accept the reality. Neelkanth Rane, a Hydrologist at WOTR, shares, “Farmers argue that the reality of one well is not necessarily that of the whole village. Those owning borewells refuse to accept their excessive drawing of water as a cause. Some argue that observations of children and women are individual and not that of the whole village. Drought and ‘climate change’ are scape goats. It’s denial all the way! When with patience (of the facilitators) and proof the reality (facts observed by community) is finally accepted, and they realize how badly their water resources are managed, the important question then pops up: “What can we do to change this?”

This is the ‘turning point’!

Reactions of villagers and Actions that follow

Mrs Saraswati Raut of Mardi village in Ambad block of Jalna, Maharashtra shares her experience: I know the importance of water, but what I learnt is that ‘water is public property and everyone has right over it.  Many people think water is their private property, they think water under my land is my property, however a few of them think God has ownership over water. But in training we are taught that water belongs to all.’  We learnt how to save water and recharge water into ground.

Saraswati Raut

Saraswati Raut

“We played a game in training where water from a pot was lifted through straw by four groups. Each group was competing to take out more water than others. Such practices are resulting in making a sieve of land with increased bore holes and reducing the water available under ground. Rather than saving water, people are fighting with each other on water issues,” she observed.

In Mahbubnagar district, Telangana, the WOTR team share their experience following the Water Health Chart and Budget preparation: “It was disheartening to note that the IWMP watershed programs implemented in the villages seemed to have limited impact. Could this be attributed to the project design that did not implement all the required watershed treatments? Or is this due to the very low rainfall of the past three years?! Could this be due to the reduced recharge ability of the geo-hydrology of this region? Could this be due to the excessive water used for agriculture?

These observations triggered the villagers to reflect on the developmental interventions in their villages. Mr. Ramulu, Sarpanch of Chandrana village, observed: “We all should switch off the borewell motor once the fields are irrigated. We often neglect this and leave the motors running.” He was referring to the 24 hours free electricity provided by the Telangana government.

Mr. Chandra Reddy, from Jangareddypally, added, “The paddy crop takes large amounts of water and we need to find ways and means to limit this but we have a good market for paddy and that’s the reason we cultivate it in larger areas. The same applies to the cotton crop. This is an important factor as our income depends on these crops. How can we grow crops, which have no market value?” Some farmers felt anxious when one of their members raised a question, “If we are already receiving reduced rainfall every year, how do you expect us to save water?” [6]

Limbaji Kannar a Gram Panchayat member of Aadha village, Jafrabad shares his concerns: While people may agree now, in the application of water budgets we can expect challenges due to village level politics where there are different groups and sub groups who always take opposite positions to each other. Hence, bringing them on consensus for decisions and actions on water budgeting is a difficult task.

Limbaji Kannar

Limbaji Kannar

It is clear therefore, based on the above reactions, that is a need for a graphic representation of water health status, so that villagers can themselves see the water situation for themselves. This would also help to create a consensus among the villagers on the need to ‘take action’. The water health charts provide just such a graphic representation.

In the below graph, the water health status of 24 villages in Sangamner, in 2016 and 2018 can be seen. ‘Healthy’, ‘ILL’ and ‘Severely Ill’ are the different categories which a village’s water situation can be classified under, depending on parameters defined by the Village Water Budgeting teams. As can be seen from the chart, there is a positive change in the water health status of these villages, from 2016 to 2018 as the number of severely ill villages has declined sharply. This is on account of water budgeting measures.

Water Health Chart Status in 24 villages of Sangamner

Water Health Chart Status


Ramesh Kacharu Shinde, Lingewadi, Bhokardan: Water budgeting is slowly helping to change the mindset of people in our villages. People are using water in a more efficient manner. Many households are using waste water for kitchen gardens. Earlier, we were facing difficulties in taking two crops (kharif and rabi), but following the water budgets prepared has helped us to plan for crops appropriately and save water.

Machhindra Chandrabha Bhagavat, Savargaon Ghule, Sangamner: Due to followup of water budgeting processes (demand and supply side), water availability in our village has increased and hence it has helped to reduce the migration of people for their livelihoods.


In conclusion, it can be said that creating a mindset among rural communities that water is a collective resource and must be managed collectively, is key to ensure that we have enough water for the generations to come. In the past, the focus has been on supply side water management but we now need to shift our attention to demand side management of water, through mindset changes. The Village Water Health Chart is a good step in this direction.


[1] Duraisamy, V., Bendapudi, R. & Jadhav, A. Environ Monit Assess (2018) 190: 535. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-018-6919-5, Boominathan, SD., Duraisamy, V. & Jadhav, A (2019) Monitoring Land Use/ Land Cover Changes (1991-2015) in Purna River Basin, Maharashtra, India-Using Remote Sensing and GIS Techniques. (Under Review).

[2] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/root-of-onion-glut-cultivation-doubled-in-4-years-after-price-rise/articleshow/67583768.cms

[3 Ramarao, M.V.S., Sanjay, J., Krishnan, R. et al. Theor Appl Climatol (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00704-018-2513-6

[4] Kale E., D’Souza M. (2018) Building Resilience to Climate Change: Water Stewardship in Rainfed Agrarian Villages in Maharashtra, India. In: Leal Filho W. (eds) Handbook of Climate Change Resilience. Springer, Cham, available at https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-71025-9_51-1

[5] From me to we WOTR Story of Change http://www.assar.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/138/South_Asia/WOTR/ASSAR_From_me_to_we_WOTR_Story_of_Change_Nov_2018-web_version.pd

[6] https://thewotrblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/31/water-budgeting-in-telanganaexperiences-insights-from-the-campaign/