Digging deeper into water scarcity after watershed development

Above: Watershed measures in Maharashtra Photo: WOTR

~ Guest Post by Zareen Pervez Bharucha 

Farmer after farmer had the same story: fields were parched, wells were empty, it was painful to see the land crack up and peel away like the soles of ones’ feet. ‘What can we do? This is what Nature has become,’ they said, in interview after interview.

I was speaking with farmers in Parner taluka in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. My conversations were part of a research project on the long-term impacts of watershed development. In the same taluka, the village of Ralegaon Siddhi had turned dry fields into green farms using soil and water conservation and a strict set of rules governing land management. Their example and those of other seminal cases have shown the amazing potential of decentralized soil and water conservation. These successes have helped launch watershed development as India’s foremost strategy for dealing with the nexus of dryland degradation, rural poverty and hunger. I was curious about the lived experiences of people in ‘normal’ – rather than well-known – watershed projects.

‘Watershed development’ encompasses an elegant set of ideas: village residents actively manage soil, water and vegetation. Simple structures and techniques are built, which allow rainwater to seep into the earth rather than flowing away, taking topsoil with it. Vegetation is allowed to regenerate, soil moisture and groundwater are recharged. In this way, villages without access to irrigation from dams and canals can, in theory, ride out the natural ebbs and flows of the rain. Vibrant agricultural landscapes can emerge.

Some watershed measures undertaken in Parner, Ahmednagar District Photo: Zareen P Bharucha

Some watershed measures undertaken in Parner, Ahmednagar District Photo: Zareen P Bharucha

The wisdom of doing things this way dates to antiquity in India, with countless examples of rainwater harvesting, soil conservation and participatory management. The revival of these practices and technologies provides a strong counter-current to the ‘big project’ irrigation that has dominated India’s water governance since Independence. With 5,000 large dams, India ranks third globally in numbers of large dams completed. Relative to irrigated zones, ‘rainfed’ areas were largely neglected during our Green Revolution. This was a mistake. Some 60% of India’s net cultivated area is rainfed, and no matter what grandiose engineering we conjure, not every field can be supplied by centralized irrigation infrastructures. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – mega irrigation projects impose unacceptable social and ecological costs, are not cost-effective or equitable, and are not even delivering their promised benefits. Other models are needed to address agricultural stagnation.

Watershed development offers one alternative that may be widely applicable across the drylands.  And there is broad consensus that it provides a valuable counter to ‘big project’ mania in India. A key point has been the foregrounding of people’s participation and decentralized governance. In theory at least, this sets watershed development well apart from the dams and canals which have displaced millions, set up water-conflicts and over which farming communities have little real say. In watershed development by contrast, local autonomy is foregrounded. It is well-accepted in theory and policy at least that projects do not succeed unless people participate in their design and execution. After the project is completed, local communities are meant to manage land and water through watershed committees.

So far, so good.

So why, then, the narratives of the farmers who sat with me as I discussed the long-term outcomes in their villages? These farmers made startling claims about the levels of distress they continued to experience after projects were completed. They agreed that immediately after the project, life seemed good. But ten years on, the overall consensus was that “there has been absolutely no change in the water situation” said one farmer who owned a rainfed hillside farm. And: “If it is in your naseeb that you should have water, then you will have some. Otherwise, not.”

Waiting for rain in Parner, Ahmednagar Photo: Zareen P Bharucha

Waiting for rain: Parched landscape of Parner, Ahmednagar Photo: Zareen P Bharucha

These narratives hinted at a gap between the promise of a handful of successful cases and the reality of ‘everyday’ watershed development in these villages. This matters. Rainfed landscapes are home to around 80% of India’s rural poor and provide some 40% of our food. India is also amongst the biggest groundwater irrigators globally, and alarm bells about falling groundwater levels have been ringing for some time. Rainfed landscapes need groundwater to be managed particularly carefully, as it stands between between dryspells and crop loss.

It is therefore of concern that farmers describe ongoing distress even after watershed development. Why is this the case? Scholarship is limited, because most project evaluations are cast in the instrumental idiom of rural development indicators: quantifiable changes to water levels, crop yields and incomes. But a watershed is complex social-ecological system, not an accounting problem. These numbers don’t fully capture lived experience over time. Where studies have influenced policy change, these have largely focused on the ‘how’ of projects: were structures designed properly? Did people participate?

People’s participation is undoubtedly important, but there is a growing awareness that we need a deeper critique of the premises of watershed development and the practices that stem from these. How do farmers understand project goals and does this have a bearing on outcomes?

The few studies focused on these questions reveal something troubling. Instead of watershed development being used to enhance resilience to dry-spells, it is being understood instead as a means to intensify irrigation. In other words, one might say that general practice is less radical and more ‘productivist’ than originally intended. In the empty schoolroom we used for focus groups, one farmer reported: “There used to be only 50 wells in the village. Now there are 400! If previously 50 wells were being used for 400 acres, now one well is used for one acre! This is an improvement, isn’t it?”

This may indeed look like success: farmers have access to irrigation. But with each new well, groundwater is tapped further and further. There is some evidence that farmers are tapping groundwater which is too deep to have been recharged in recent years. In this case, a relatively non-replenishable resource is being mined for short-term intensification through a series of simple technological fixes starting with water conservation structures and ending with farmers borewells. Farmers may be locked in to such patterns because the switch to irrigated high-value cultivation costs money – making it prohibitive to switch back to dry crops offering relatively low returns[1]. In other words, without real collective governance of water and land, watershed development simply becomes another mechanism to increase irrigation and spike productivity.

Only in isolated cases are farmers and watershed committees setting carefully negotiated boundaries for water conservation after watershed projects. These cases show that governance matters. When water is conserved, it must then be managed so that it is not overused. Several villages – Hivre Bazar being the most prominent example – have for example said no to sugarcane and other thirsty crops after watershed development.

These villages recognize that mining of aquifers cannot by itself push drylands – by definition water-limited – into lush, permanently irrigated regimes year after year. Instead, they are developing a new vision for that makes dryland agriculture sustainable, viable and valuable in its own right.

How to draw wider lessons from these examples? Part of the answer has to be a fundamental shift in our narratives about water and farming. While the charge of a singular techno-utopianism is rightly levelled at large irrigation projects, it is now emerging that even small-scale, decentralized strategies may be unsustainable if not backed by sustainable governance of the rejuvenated resource. Watershed structures alone cannot solve water scarcity. What matters is how much is used, by who, and for what, all these make the difference between promise and outcomes.


Zareen Pervez Bharucha (zpbhar@essex.ac.uk) is a senior research officer at the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex and a member of the Essex Sustainability Institute. The full paper on which this article is based can be accessed via the Journal of Development Studies: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2014.928699

Editor’s Note: This discussion about sustainability and governance of small-scale, even watershed level structures gains importance as Maharashtra Government implements its ‘Jalyukta Shivar’ (Water-rich Farm) program as the solution to all ills affecting water scarcity in Maharashtra. Other than governance, some of the interventions recommended by this program include Widening and Deepening of streams and rivers and Farm Ponds. Experience shows that mindless widening and deepening is raising pertinent issues of water access in the downstream as well as integrity of groundwater aquifers.

Widening and Deepening as per Shirapur pattern Photo: India Water Portal

Widening and Deepening as per Shirpur pattern Photo: India Water Portal

Farm Ponds in many places across Nashik, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, etc., are not used as rainwater harvesting structures, but are used to store pumped groundwater, raising many issues: increased evaporation rates, encouraging unsuitable cropping pattern and more importantly: converting a public resource like groundwater into a private, locked resource.

There is nearly no assessment of the irrigated area created by Maharashtra’s large number of minor irrigation structures (more than 60,000 structures).

Small scale interventions spread over an extensive region are indeed the key to faster more sustainable water security and access, and like larger structures, these too need robust monitoring, assessment, regulation and governance mechanisms in order to be effective and equitable. Past examples show that in places where communities are at the driving seat, such decisions are negotiated and implemented.

[It is not necessary that SANDRP agrees with everything that is stated in Guest Blogs.]


[1] See, for example:

Farrington, J., Turton, C., & James, A. J. (Eds.). (1999). Participatory watershed management: Challenges for the 21st  

Century. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bouma J. and Scott C. 2006. The possibilities for dryland crop yield improvement in Indias semi-arid regions: Observations

from the field. Comprehensive Assessment Discussion Paper No.3. Colombo: Comprehensive Assessment Secretariat.

IWMI, Hyderabad, India

Daftary, D. (2013). Watershed development neoliberalism in India’s drylands. Journal of International Development DOI:


Bharucha Z., Smith D. and Pretty J. 2014. All Paths Lead to Rain: Explaining why watershed development in India does not alleviate the experience of water scarcity. The Journal of Development Studies http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2014.928699

9 Comments on “Digging deeper into water scarcity after watershed development

  1. The success or failure of the watershed scheme depends up on the agroclimatic conditions of a place. I worked out the agroclimatic conditions for few countries. This includes India with 80 stations. The details are given in my book published 1993 and the same was published in Agriculture Meteorology Journal. One Ph.D. student from Pune University [Geography Department] worked with me on agroclimate of Bhima basin [Ph. D. Thesis is available in Pune University, Geography Department].

    Government of India introduced watershed Scheme in 7th Five-year Plan period where they put a limit on average rainfall of 750 mm. In the 8th Five-year Plan this limit was removed. This lead wastage of public money of thousands of crores.

    The Madhya Pradesh region comes under stable rainfed zone as per my study and thus this zone is highly suited for success of watershed scheme but most of the regions in rain shadow zone on the eastern side of Western Ghats are highly unsuitable for watershed schemes along with areas around Gujarat. In fact I watched a TV discussion [at all-India level] on the success and failure of Watershed Scheme in Gujarat. In this discussion a lady member of Narmada Bachao Group was participated along with the Minister from Gujarat State. The Minister openly countered the lady member to show the where this scheme was successful in Gujarat. He poured in details. Also this was a failure in Andhra Pradesh — Anna Hazare was advisor to Mr. Chandrababu Naiudu on this issue.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy


  2. Thanks Dr Reddy. I agree that the removal of the rainfall limit was an odd move. In a way it reflects on the core thesis of the paper: people are using watershed development as a techno-fix irrespective of actual rainfall or water conditions. A pathway to appropriation, not management of drylands. Also, some of the studies I’ve linked below the piece do highlight the various technical problems with simply applying the watershed approach in blanket fashion. You’re right, no measure is appropriate everywhere. The silver lining is that watershed measures are inherently more flexible than our irrigation infrastructures: tailored properly they can be valuable across different contexts. But that doesn’t solve the deeper problems of what is being done with the water conserved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. what did Ralegan Siddhi do that is right while the rest in Parner
    taluka did that wasn’t? A comparative study would help.

    Because Ralegan Siddhi is still thriving so many decades after Anna
    Hazare started the watershed development programme. Of course, the
    younger residents of the village are impatient for an urban lifestyle
    which will extract its own costs.

    shiv kumar


    • Hi Shiv,

      Thanks for this. It’s an interesting question: what makes success, and what can we learn from it?

      My thoughts:

      Ralegaon Siddhi and Hivre Bazar (the two cases I cite directly in the piece) were both helped by charismatic leaders, who set strict rules at the outset of the project. We know that rules and graduated sanctions are important for management of common property resources (literature on this from Elinor Ostrom et al).
      Subsequent watershed programmes are qualitatively different from these grassroots cases. They set out a general schematic for soil and water conservation, setting up of groups etc. but they don’t directly transpose ‘what Ralegaon did’ into other villages. What we can learn anyway from the seminal cases is that when communities pull together (or are pulled together by a strong leader) they can manage resources relatively well over time.

      Having said that, it’s not like Ralegaon Siddhi or other seminal cases are rural utopias either (and it is important to say this – we need to be careful about generalisations). As you rightly point out, there are residents in Ralegaon who may wish to leave the land no matter how much water is managed well.
      And, people have critically examined the question of ‘participation’ in these cases too: e.g. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220380701848426
      These are the kind of careful, place-based analyses we need – comparisons only get us so far.

      Best wishes,

      Liked by 1 person

      • Even villagers like their urban counterparts tend to be aspirational. And this social imperative would push them to cultivate more lucrative crops like sugarcane and even take up floriculture which require a lot more water. In Western Maharashtra farmers tend to gravitate towards sugarcane.

        In one village near Patancheru, in Andhra Pradesh where the ICRISAT campus is located, we saw villagers plant sunflowers after the water table in the region went up. ICRISAT had carried out major watershed development initiatives in what is basically a rain-shadow region but the measures saw people shift from cultivation of millets to sunflowers.

        This was ten years ago. I don’t think the situation would have changed.


  4. Yes true. In the wider (academic) paper I’ve specifically highlighted this as a core problem, and in the piece here too, I end by calling for a more imaginative vision for prosperity in the drylands. The switch to thirsty crops is precisely because we don’t see any alternatives which are both profitable and agroecologically suitable. Ideas: value addition for dry crops, extension services targeted at dry crops, system of crop intensification for sugarcane and other crops to save water (see: http://sri.cals.cornell.edu/aboutsri/othercrops/index.html) and a widespread vision and culture celebrating what our drylands can offer, rather than a singular vision of agricultural prosperity rooted in the Green Revolution of the last century.


  5. Good story, Zareen. Informative and very relevant.

    Is Ralegaon Siddhi having the same problem of lack of equitable water/lack of governance and regulation in water ?

    Is there any review/report that checks on such watershed programmes in
    India ten years after its start? That way we could get to know what’s
    happening both to these projects and land and water-use in the ambit of
    such programmes.

    Keya Acharya
    President, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India


  6. Hi Keya, Thanks for your kind words and for your engagement.
    Ralegaon Siddhi and equitable water sharing – Short answer: Good questions. On the water-sharing issue, I simply don’t know, and would be grateful if anyone reading this could chip in, if they do know. On water governance: If you mean managing groundwater and preventing over-use, then yes, I believe that there are rules governing this. But, I don’t know if they are still in operation across the whole village, or whether everyone follows them. This is something to check on. It’s difficult to do so via the published literature, because success-stories are usually painted in quite simplistic terms, and are not themselves critically analysed (but see, for example, the paper on Hivre Bazar I linked to previously in this thread). So, yes, success stories like Ralegaon Siddhi are generally thought to have better and more effective rules and management strategies. But we need to constantly reflect on these, and engage with them critically too.

    Reports on long-term progress: Very few, not systematically and not ‘holistically’. Again, someone please correct me if I’m mistaken. There are a bunch of reasons why it’s difficult to do long-term evaluations: cost, what parameters, who’s responsible, what would you do if you found gaps? how would you separate ‘project impacts’ from other variables that have become important over the years? But I’d still say that systematic studies of long-term impacts are absolutely essential, we could do with many more, and we need these studies to look at much more than just crop-yields and incomes.


  7. पाटील सुधीर नामदेव

    मला आपला अभिमान आहे


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