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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

Watershed Management—India’s Crying Need

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Suvrokamal Dutta

The International Committee of the National Geographic Channel defines watershed on the basis of the criterion that the effect of overland flow rather than the effect of channel flow is a dominating factor affecting the peak runoff. On larger watersheds, the effect of channel flow or the basin storage effect becomes very pronounced so that such sensitivities are greatly suppressed.

Planning and development of watersheds call for a rigorous understanding of the occurrence and movement of water in the surface and sub-surface systems along with soil and nutrient losses in a watershed as the need arises for a proper watershed management of that area. In a country like India, where a lot of running water goes waste, it becomes very important to apply the technology of watershed management to solve its annual problems of droughts and floods.

The main objectives of the watershed management programme are to

1. Generate data on hydro-meteorological, soil, nutrient and process-related parameters at watershed level in different agro-ecological zones of the country through instrumentation.

2. Carry out modelling studies on watershed hydrology.

3. Develop Spatial Decision Support Systems (SDSS)for land and water management at the watershed scale.

4. Assess the impact of on-site and off-site management structures for soil and water conservation.

The outputs expected out of these programmes are:

1. Integrated database for water sector at small watershed level for different agro-climatic regions.

2. Spatial Decision Support Systems (SDSS) for watershed management.

3. Scientific indices for impact assessment of watershed management programmes.

4. User manual for using the database and SDSS. In India, the demand for water exceeds its supply.

Conflicts are increasing over shared water resources between agriculture, industry, and urban domestic use as well as between State governments. Sustainable water management is thus crucial for economic development and livelihood of the people of India.

Various projects are in progress in India on watershed management. For example, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the World Economic Forum are the lead partners, combining their existing networks and convening power to benefit sustainable development in India. USAID India and UNDP have also committed to building the Indian Business Alliance on Water (IBAW). The IBAW serves as a non-biased multi-sectoral platform for developing projects and ex-changing good practices to enhance sustainable water and watershed management in India. Its objective is to improve water availability and water quality to businesses, communities and the environment by providing a neutral platform to help multi-stakeholders to foster dialogue, raise the level of awareness, explore and capture opportunities for cooperation in the water sector.

WATERSHED management basically involves harmonising the use of soil and water resources between upstream and downstream areas within a watershed toward the objectives of natural resource conservation, increased agricultural productivity and a better standard of living for its inhabitants. Identifying and addressing the significant externalities associated with watershed is critical for these objectives to be achieved in a sustainable manner.
The Bank of Netherlands Partnership Programme (BNPP) in India basically aims at this. In India, watershed development has largely evolved into generic rural development programmes, though. Despite the broader movement towards more decentralised and evolved management of natural resources, the sustainability and equity of public investments in watersheds is being increasingly called into question. The challenge of identifying and further developing institutional innovations which have succeeded in overcoming the problems posed by watershed externalities is an immediate concern and is something which the Bank of Netherlands Partnership Programme is exploring.

Landscape and climate changes as well as economic developments in watersheds stimulate a corresponding cascade of dynamic adjustments in both water quantity and water quality at locations further downstream. Sophisticated hydrologic simulation models and GIS have become the standard means for assessing the impact on the water resources system in India. For the last three decades, the US-inspired International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, one among the “international links” scattered along the length and breadth of the disadvantaged nations of the world, India included, has received massive funding from the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR).

In the 1980s and 1990s, agricultural scientists and planners aimed to promote rain-fed agriculture through watershed development. A watershed is an area from which all water drains to a common point, making it an interesting unit for managing water and soil resources to enhance agricultural production through water conserva-tion.

It is an eye-opening fact that by the late 1990s, annual expenditure on watershed development in India approached almost an equivalent of $ 500 million (Rs 2500 crores), yet very little concrete information is available on the success or failure of the different project approaches. A lot more needs to be done even though the Government of India and the various State governments together with the international organisations are doing quie a lot to make this concept a success in India; yet a lot more needs to be done. So far, the success story of watershed management in India has been a mixed bag.

The author is a well-known foreign affairs and economic expert; he is the Chairman, Global Council for Peace, and the Convenor, Debating India.

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