An ecosystem-based approach strengthens local resilience to climate crisis

Research & Training

June, 2020

An ecosystem-based approach strengthens local resilience to climate crisis

Insights from the water stewardship initiative in Bhojdari, Maharashtra

By Angha Wasnik and Devaraj de Condappa (TMG Research gGmbH)

A recharge well to harvest rainwater initiated by the Village Water Management Team in Bhojdari © Angha Wasnik/ TMG Research

Climate change has had a significant impact on already scarce water resources in Maharashtra, the second most populous state in India. While some regions face recurrent droughts, others are seriously affected by flooding. In response to climate uncertainty, innovative approaches are needed to enhance the sustainable use of existing resources, and build the resilience of local communities in the long term. This is particularly so in light of the significant threat posed by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic to food systems, and other farm-based livelihoods.

TMG Research, a Think Tank for sustainability based in Berlin, is currently implementing a project under the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) to scale-up Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA). The aim is not only to offer an integrated response to the threat posed by climate change, and interrelated threats, but  to contribute to the achievement of global goals, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

From “Water Use” to “Water Management”

Ground water has always been a scarce resource in the semi-arid Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Many in this rural community rely on tankers to provide emergency water supplies during dry summer months, while others were forced to migrate during severe droughts. The situation improved following the introduction of a state-run watershed management programme in the early 1990s. However, improved water availability for longer periods of the year led to changes in land use, including the increased adoption of crops that were unsuited to the dry land conditions. Over the past two decades, the district has seen ever-increasing discharge of its groundwater for agriculture, at a time when weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable due to climate change. Once again, rural communities have become vulnerable to drought.

Since 2015, Pune-based NGO, the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), has implemented the Water Stewardship Initiative in Bhojdari village of Ahmednagar District. The premise of the project is that while weather uncertainty cannot be changed, human actions to conserve water resources can help improve availability. A core objective is therefore to transform attitudes on water use, and build local capacity to manage scarce water resources in a sustainable, equitable, and efficient way. An important element in this process is to  designate local farmers as “water managers” rather than passive beneficiaries, or “water users.”

In order to ensure a community-led and owned process of “climate-smart water governance,” the Initiative followed a number of key steps:

Introducing the concept of water budgeting

One of the first steps taken by the project was to conduct village-level workshops using a water budgeting tool. The aim was to help community members understand the implications of applying different cropping patterns, and their implication in terms of water usage.

Community sensitisation and mobilisation

During a series of public village meetings (known as Gram Sabhas), farmer leaders trained in water budgeting worked with community members to prioritise their domestic and livestock needs. These consultations formed the basis for developing an integrated water resources management plan for the village.

Establishing the climate-smart water governance structure

One of the concrete outcomes of the community mobilisation phase was the establishment of Village Water Management Teams (VWMTs). Comprising seven men and women, the role of these local institutions was to oversee the implementation of the community-endorsed water management plan in each village. Day-to-day management was assigned to a group of ‘Jal Sevaks’ (water volunteers), tasked with promoting water conservation, water harvesting, and responsible water use.

Facilitating knowledge sharing and mutual learning

Building on lessons learned from these community processes, the project also facilitates regular multi-stakeholder consultations at sub-district level. The sessions bring together a broad range of actors, including community (VWMT) representatives, technology providers, local and state-level government officials, and researchers. The aim is to promote cross-learning, and a shared understanding of water-related challenges, as well as a consensus on developing solutions. These platforms also provide a valuable space where practitioners, scientists, and policy makers can generate robust evidence to help improve future policy design and implementation.

Initial results

Since the Water Stewardship Initiative was introduced, the various VWMTs have presented action plans at stakeholder engagement meetings to propose and discuss actions needed to manage water resources. Other institutional actors are also starting to take notice. For example, the state’s Department of Agriculture recently adopted a proposal to de-silt a local check dam that was proposed in one of the village-level water harvesting plans.

Numerous activities have also been undertaken to improve the management of water resources, and increase resilience to climate change. In 2019, following unusually heavy rainfall in Bhojdari, the VWMT led the pumping of excess well water to a nearby pond, which helped provide additional drinking water for two months. In collaboration with the village council (Gram Panchayat), the VWMT also imposed water management rules, such as a ban on drilling new borewells, and limiting depth increases of old borewells. This has led to a reduction of water-intensive crops grown within the community, as members switch to more drought-resistant options.

The road ahead for Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA)

Community-managed water governance is just one of several EbA models promoted by WOTR. The VWMT model builds on WOTR’s experience in establishing Biodiversity Management Committees to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and natural resources. By introducing alternative livelihoods that enhance biodiversity, such as bee-keeping, or ensuring a greater variety of trees on farm boundaries, the project has contributed to the restoration of local habitats and return of some wildlife species.

If applied at a larger scale, an EbA approach can bring two potential advantages. First, it offers a blueprint for the state and national governments to implement climate change adaptation plans in a cost-effective manner. Second, it demonstrates how the benefits of sustainable resource use can by equitably shared with local communities. Building on practical experiences on the ground, the TMG-WOTR project aims to support communities to explore more sustainable livelihood options, while “weathering the storm” by strengthening their natural resource base.


The article was initially published on Medium:

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