In India, Participatory Watershed Management Shows the Power of Natural Infrastructure

Maharashtra is one of India’s most drought-affected regions, but initiatives to restore and replenish watersheds through natural infrastructure are bringing environmental and economic benefits to residents. 

Kumbharwadi and Jondalwadi, neighboring villages in India’s Maharashtra region, used to be two of the driest villages in India. For years, villagers relied on 25 to 30 government tanker trucks to replenish their water supply. Women had to walk two or three hours a day to reach the nearest well, hampering their ability to get an education. Men, unable to farm during dry seasons, were forced to migrate to larger cities for half the year to work in sugarcane mills and factories. 

Little did the villagers know that the answer to their problems lay six feet below the ground. 

Both villages are located not far from the Kumbharwadi watershed, a 900 hectare rainwater basin. For years, the watershed had been neglected, due to a combination of mismanagement, overgrazing, and changing climate conditions, like erosion. By the late 1990s, half of it was considered wasteland. 

But things changed in 1998. 

That year, the Kumbharwadi watershed was selected to be one of the first treatment areas of a watershed management project overseen by the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR). The goal of the program was simple: to use natural infrastructure, such as farm embankments, hillside terracing, and tree planting, to improve the efficiency and accessibility of the watershed. 

The key ingredient, however — and what separated this project from past watershed management projects — was direct, participatory engagement from the local community. Despite India’s hierarchical and caste-based system, WOTR ensured that everyone could participate. It also focused heavily on gender equality, creating 11 female self-help groups that distributed microloans to women to buy farm equipment. 

WOTR educated farmers in practices like water budgeting — reducing the intensity of irrigation practices — and introduced them to climate change adaptation techniques like crop rotation and diversification. 

In just four years, the project led to impressive results: 33 percent more wells, a quadrupling value of cropland, and an agricultural wage rate nine times higher than before. 

Today, WOTR’s participatory management projects have been instituted in more than 3,500 Indian villages. 

Nearly 550 miles south of Maharashtra, the United Way of Chennai, in partnership with the Caterpillar Foundation, is mirroring WOTR’s work by executing its own participatory restoration project in Krishnagiri and Tiruvallur Tamil Nadu.

By engaging the local community to monitor and evaluate the progress of the project, residents are becoming aware of the good practices that promote the importance and maintenance of the waterbody. By restoring more than 20 acres of waterbodies situated in rural areas, this investment will improve access to water above and below ground for more than 16,000 residents living at or below the poverty line. 

As climate change accelerates water scarcity challenges around the world, projects like this will no doubt increase in importance. Maharashtra remains one of India’s driest regions, and this has been exacerbated by climate change: the region has experienced severe droughts in three of the past five years. 

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at recent pictures of Kumbharwadi, where green fields, streams and replenished aquifers show how, with proper management, an oasis can spring from the ground in the most unlikely places.

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