Community-led Natural Resource Management: Water Tanks in Telangana

Community-led Natural Resource Management: Water Tanks in Telangana

By the IIC Mission Kakatiya Team

Two years ago, in March 2015, the Government of Telangana announced a massive, rehabilitation program that would be undertaken by the state’s irrigation department over a five-year period. This  program - called Mission Kakatiya - was launched with the ambitious objective of restoring all minor tanks (small, man-made reservoirs) and lakes in the state of Telangana: all 45,000 of them.

The significance of this program stems from the value of these tanks in increasing the water supply in rural Telangana, especially as water availability becomes increasingly volatile in large part due to climate change. Tanks allow for the collection of rainwater, and also serve to recharge groundwater levels in adjacent areas. With the help of mostly gravity based channels, farmers use the water in these tanks to irrigate their crops.

While renovating these tanks is undoubtedly a monumental task, perhaps a harder challenge is identifying what comes next. Tanks are a particularly difficult resource to manage as they are what economists call ‘common pool resources.’ Common pool resources are non-excludable and rivalrous - on the one hand, it is difficult to stop someone from using them, while on the other one individual’s use of them reduces their availability for other users. In the case of tanks, individual users have a strong incentive to use as much water as they need. One user’s actions do not affect the tank as a whole. But since every individual faces this same decision-making calculus believing their use of the tank will have a negligible impact, all users try to use as much water from the tank as possible. This can lead to a situation where a tank is completely exhausted.

A relevant example in the context of India is the case of groundwater. Groundwater regulation in rural India is almost non-existent: the number of farm holdings is too large and the political incentives for providing a relatively stable source of water are too high for the government to decisively manage the use of the resource. Starting in the 1970s, the technology available to abstract groundwater has become far more efficient and cheaper. Concurrently, electricity coverage has increased dramatically across different parts of rural India, and electricity charges are free for farmers. This creates strong incentives for farmers to utilize large amounts of groundwater. After all, individual usage of tubewells is not going to affect the overall level of groundwater. However, when millions of farmers face these same incentives, we arrive at the present situation where close to 30% of the districts in India face a semi-critical or worse level of groundwater.

The challenges of the tragedy of the commons are of course amplified in the case of Mission Kakatiya where there isn’t just one common pool resource, but over 45,000 of them! Furthermore, these tanks are located in villages that vary on a number of dimensions, from social parameters such as caste composition, to ecological parameters such as rainfall availability, to basic administrative questions such as which people use these tanks.

Against such factors, having the government manage each of these tanks is almost impossible. There are simply too many tanks for the government to effectively monitor the situation at each tank. The task of the government is further complicated when one realizes that each tank usually has its own dynamics, where social factors like occupation and caste can play a crucial role in determining what the tank users think is a just distribution of the tank’s water.

There is therefore a critical need to devise a new mechanism to manage these tanks - one that doesn’t rely excessively on the government for the day-to-day management.

One promising solution is to create local, community tank management organizations that are headed by committees. These organizations are known as Water User Associations, while the committees are known as Managing Committees. WUAs are comprised of users of the tank. By virtue of their proximity to the tanks, as well as their constant engagement with it, users are best placed to decide what the tank needs and what it doesn’t, and to make decisions regarding its functioning. Logically, the next step is to determine how to harness that local knowledge into effective management. WUAs are a useful tool in achieving this step - they provide an outlet for community members to organize their knowledge and energies. The maintenance and management of the tank can be delegated to WUAs, with the government playing more of a supporting and supervisory role. In this manner, the government will be able to conserve precious resources, while also fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among users.

Community-based models of tank management have already been tried, and there are lessons to be learned from these experiments. The largest such pilot occurred in united Andhra Pradesh, with mixed results. Some tanks were better managed - most of the 100+ farmers we spoke to on the field said they preferred the WUA system to a government managed system. However, challenges along the way of the WUA programs implementation led to the de facto abandonment of the policy. Managing Committee members were elected. The election process meant that a lot of money was spent by candidates on campaigning or lobbying particular people to endorse or vote for them. Managing Committee members who were elected would then use their position to allocate themselves or their families maintenance contracts, in effect recouping their investment in the campaigning process (in addition to making a tidy profit). In order for future iterations of Water User Associations to be successful, alternative methods of selecting Managing Committee members need to be explored. Furthermore, in order for these WUAs to remain sustainable, they need to be granted the power to control their own finances - thus, they need to be granted the authority to collect water user charges from their users.

In a world with increasingly unreliable supply of water, a community-based approach ensures that all farmers are aware of the others’ usage, and also designates a set of individuals whose responsibility it is to manage the tank. This kind of approach, where collective decisions allocate resources and responsibilities, will help avert the tragedy of the commons, and provide valuable insights for managing common pool resources in the future.



IIC and IME Pioneer Water Quality Sensing Network in India’s Second Longest River

IIC and IME Pioneer Water Quality Sensing Network in India’s Second Longest River

An innovative combination of sensors in the water, networking in the Cloud, and change management on the ground promise potential solutions to age-old water quality problems along the 900-mile Godavari River. Text by Robert Reddy.

60 million people live within the Godavari River basin that drains into the Bay of Bengal on India’s east coast. The river’s water quality affects everyone, and the region stands to benefit from this first-of-its-kind sensor network installation and change management initiative. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recognized the value of the research through a grant to support the Administrative Staff College of India’s (ASCI) program to provide city-wide sanitation improvements for urban populations in Andhra Pradesh. ASCI and University of Chicago experts will collaborate to deliver innovative systems to assess water quality, gage its impact on the local environment, and create more informed practices.

The project is a tale of two UChicago schools—the IME and Harris Public Policy—addressing a real-world problem through very different fields of inquiry and knowledge. Together they are building connections that will elevate the research initiative beyond science. The Institute for Molecular Engineering’s (IME) Professor Supratik Guha, a researcher in sensing technologies and cyber-physical sensing networks, has partnered with UChicago Professor of Law Anup Malani, who leads Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s International Innovation Corps (IIC), a global fellowship program. They are investigating new systems for assessing, mapping, and positively impacting the water conditions at towns along India’s second longest river system.

By combining readily available, remote, in-the-water sensing technologies, with Cloud-based data collection and real-time mapping systems, the research and implementation teams intend to demonstrate the importance and value of detecting and anticipating pollutants that enter the river in the form of human waste, organic materials, and chemical contaminants. The uniqueness of this approach lies in its use of a boat-based mobile sensing platform that carries out streaming measurements, enabling water quality maps (graphical color representations of the data—known as heat maps) to be obtained in desired sections of the river. Instantly measuring multiple quantifiable parameters and using data analytics techniques, the investigators expect to identify trends in pollution levels that are not easily (or cheaply) measurable on-site, such as microbial content. The multiple parameter heat mapping should also enable them to pinpoint sources of pollution entering the river.

Guha describes the IME’s role in terms of innovative engineering and systems building: “We will use two-to-five commercial mobile sensor platforms installed on boats moving through various points in the river to map water quality with high resolution and over time. The platform will be configured with an array of sensors, a power source, an onboard processor, a GPS and a cellular link for data communications. With these sensing installations, the IME will survey a section of the Godavari River and develop a Cloud-based data curation platform with the ability to push data about river conditions to mobile phones using visualization applications, making the data about pollutants publicly available and more accessible.” Highlighting the novelty of this research, Guha continued: “Very little work has been done to date in this area, where large systems of sensors are combined with Big Data and physics models to create cyber-physical sensing systems for large water bodies. The work will be one of the first serious pilot programs to demonstrate the scalability, viability, and utility of this approach. The innovation will be in integrating this as an entire system.”

IIC Co-Founder and Faculty Director Anup Malani explains the IIC’s contribution: “We work to identify and implement scalable, sustainable, high-impact interventions that make great leaps in solving pressing development challenges. This water sensing project is a good example—leveraging top global talent here at UChicago and in India, and implementing the research through intensively trained IIC Fellows operating on the ground with the public sector in Andhra Pradesh. So this work is very much about connections—in technology and people.”

Five IIC Fellows working in the state of Andhra Pradesh are engaging with ASCI to channel the water sensing results through cultivated government and civic relationships to bring new and actionable insights to the attention of local and regional authorities, agrarians, health professionals, and social agencies. The collected, curated, and visualized data should help assess benchmark levels of contamination and inform regulatory measures aimed at mitigating the pollution. Understandings from the data will also be used by IIC Fellows to make evidence-based optimizations to the sanitation program and ensure citizens of Andhra Pradesh receive the maximum health and environmental benefits from interventions. IIC Fellow Priyank Hirani and Dr. Srinivas Rao Balivada, a water quality expert who has recently joined the project, are driving the local implementation of the water sensing research in Andhra Pradesh. This involves coordinating the technical aspects of the project for Guha while simultaneously advancing Malani’s vision of intervention—forming relationships and preparing the civic groundwork for meaningful change in local mindsets, water quality regulations, and infrastructure. Hirani enthusiastically views the challenge: “This river monitoring project puts in motion a set of steps that can have a real impact on the condition of populations residing in the Godavari River basin.”

In India, Professor Guha has enlisted additional help on the Godavari water sensing project, working with IBM Research where he was Director of Physical Sciences before joining the IME and Argonne National Laboratory. “IBM is a pioneer in the area of technologies related to the internet-of-things (IoT) and we are collaborating with a strong research group at IBM Bangalore who have been working in the area of analytics for water.” said Guha.

Toward the end of the project, the IME will also help evaluate the environmental impact of ASCI’s interventions and develop a prototype for more accessible water sensing technology. The project is scheduled to run through August 2018.

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