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.