Harvesting rain, auctioning gain

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

The auctioning of water in the Integrated Watershed Development Project in the Shivalik foothills of Haryana suggests that this is a significant new participatory approach to watershed development

In its second phase, the Integrated Watershed Development Project was implemented in 1991 in the ecologically degraded region of Kandi (meaning ‘edge of the mountains’) in the Shivalik foothills of Haryana. The US$45.5 million World Bank-aided project promotes participatory approaches to integrated watershed development. Considered a second-generation project, it relies on multi-disciplinary inputs for natural resource regeneration under rain-fed conditions.

As opposed to the technology-heavy nature of first-generation projects, second-generation projects rely on community participation as an essential tool for regenerating degraded watersheds. Significant lessons from pilot watershed schemes in rain-fed areas in the 1980s helped design these projects. Though technology remains at the core of second-generation projects, they emphasise socio-engineering of technologies for the desired impact.

Falling between the Shivalik foothills and the Indo-Gangetic plain, the rain-fed region of Kandi did not receive any of the traditional national agricultural investment that concentrated primarily on developing irrigable lands. The Integrated Watershed Development Project addressed the challenge of restoring productivity by reversing the process of environmental degradation. It sought community participation and contributions in the development process.

In a departure from previous projects, the Integrated Watershed Development Project focused on beneficiary participation and cost-sharing mechanisms as key principles in bringing about the long-term sustainability of social processes and infrastructure investments. Significantly, the project sought to rehabilitate over 60% of Kandi’s 192,000 hectares , in the Panchkula, Ambala and Yamunanagar districts.

Bereft of adequate land cover, the region has witnessed systematic ecological degradation followed by social degeneration over the past hundred years. Thanks to the over-exploitation of natural resources by erstwhile rulers, this once-lush green region has been reduced to dusty, rolling slopes. An erosion product of the Himalayas, the Shivaliks themselves have been subject to severe erosion. Against this backdrop, the Integrated Watershed Development Project aimed to restore some of the region’s earlier glory by reducing soil erosion on the one hand and increasing crop productivity on the other.

Water auctioning: A viable management system for watershed villages

Once water-harvesting structures are in place in watershed villages, they are handed over to village development committees (VDC) for their upkeep and maintenance. VDCs levy a cess on water, on an hourly delivery basis, that goes towards the structure’s maintenance. The amount collected is often small, though enough to carry out any maintenance should a water-harvesting structure (check-dam) develop serious damage. The onus of maintaining the system rests with the VDC.

In the Integrated Watershed Development Project, some VDCs opted to auction the water stored in the check-dam/harvesting structure. On a given day, the VDC entertains open bids for the structure’s maintenance, for timely delivery of water to the end-users and for the collection of a cess from users. The VCD defines the cess amount and also controls the delivery schedule.

Through the auctioning process, the upkeep of the catchment and regular maintenance of the water-harvesting structure remain the duty of the person whose bid is accepted. The VDC ensures that only village residents are allowed to bid, so that any profits made from the process remain within the village. The VDC is also regularly monitors the process. In effect, in addition to becoming good managers the VDC is also able to assess the lowest bid for the next season. The VCD is fully aware of the total quantity of water harvested, and it can make the most out of it. The VDC gains a one-time fee from the process. It oversees overall management rather than becoming directly involved in the day-to-day management. 

Though it’s still early days yet, the process of water auctioning is developing into a viable management system for watershed villages.    

Technical choices
The project’s main objective was to encourage in-situ water conservation on cropland and community land. It placed special emphasis on the revival of village ponds, construction of water-harvesting structures and development of sub-surface dykes. Most notably, the project promoted increased reliance on cost-effective techniques to harvest a significant amount of the region’s 1,200 mm average annual rainfall.

By providing a range of technical options to communities, the project succeeded in increasing the impact of its location-specific interventions. The socio-engineering of technology thus played a significant role in controlling rampant soil erosion and enhancing crop production.

Traditionally, water-harvesting structures is the favoured form of intervention in most watershed projects. Though the benefits of this capital-intensive intervention accrue only to a few in the watershed area, water-harvesting structures continue to feature as the dominant intervention method. The Integrated Watershed Development Project established water-harvesting structures only where the community demanded them. In locations where the building of structures was found unsuitable, alternative options for in-situ water conservation were worked out.

As the project promoted experimentation and learning, a number of innovative options were tossed out.

The sub-surface water storage structure is one such innovation that’s unique to this project. A sub-surface structure is a kind of dyke that impedes sub-surface flow of harvested water. In locations where sub-surface runoff in streams is significant, a wall is built across the flow, provided an impervious layer exists at a depth of about 2.5 metres. Depending on the available flow, either a well is constructed downstream or water is directly transported through a pipeline to the desired location, often a couple of kilometres from the site. Sub-surface storage structures offer a distinct advantage over other water-harvesting structures in that they don’t run the risk of silting up. So they require less maintenance. Around 22 sub-surface dykes have been set up in as many project villages.

Table 1Details of water-harvesting structures in selected project villages
Village Type Year Cost (Rs) Storage/ Discharge Households covered
Balauti Sub-surface 1995-96 6,11,000 930 gallons/hr 54%
Dhanora Sub-surface 1997-98 22,43,000 9,300 gallons/hr 100%
Kathgarh Sub-surface 2000-01 14,25,000 7,000 gallons/hr 30%
Sambhalwa WHS 2000-01 16,40,000 20 ha metre 76 %
Bholiwala WHS 2000-02 33,50,900 24 ha metre 100%
1US$ = Rs 50
WHS: Water-harvesting structure

By developing a range of technical options, the project emphasised in-situ water conservation. “From erosion control to preserving land, from aquifer recharge to flood moderation, and from improved moisture conditions to increased productivity, in-situ water conservation techniques accounted for several hidden benefits,” said a member of the project staff. Given the inherent benefits of the technical options, village-level institutions for operation and maintenance (O&M) were woven around the water systems.

Though involvement was mandated in the project design, it did not automatically translate into operation and maintenance. Although the community contributed towards the project’s total cost and covered the recurring expenses of water usage, it was not entirely sure about its capacity to operate and manage the system. Enhancing the capacities of village development committees (VDCs) was the key to developing a sound management system.

The early formation of VDCs went a long way in strengthening the institution. But, integral to the process of effective O&M was the core issue of financial sustainability of VDCs. An hourly water cess and the reimbursement of fuel expenses to run pumpsets were too small a contribution to sustain VDCs in any meaningful manner. What was needed was the pooling together of creative energies to design a more remunerative system.

Remunerative system
In contrast to the usual practice of providing revolving funds for O&M, the project advocated levying a cess on water, both for irrigation as well as for household consumption, to generate resources. However an average of Rs 10 to irrigate one acre of land that was discharge-dependent and varied anywhere between 6-15 hours, again, proved inadequate even to cover the cost of managing records and charge-collection.

Table 2Water auctioning profile of selected project villages
Village Auction on Rate (Rs) Present rate Net gain VDC favours
Balauti Oct 2000 1,500 1,700 3,200 Auction
Dhanora July 1997 3,700 14,750 53,600 Hike in auction fee
Kathgarh Nov 2000 7,000 12,600 19,600 Auction
Sambhalwa Oct 2000 8,500 8,500 13,500 Setting auction rules
Bholiwala Sept 2001 10,600 10,600 10,600 Auction
*Net gain reported is up to the period ending May 2002

The real challenge before the VDC was to develop a sound system to manage and operate utilities. In villages where VDCs were in the early stages of exercising their powers and control over community assets created by the project, the management system experienced its share of uncertainties. It therefore took several months of mentoring by project staff before the VDCs appreciated O&M as an integral part of project sustainability.

Confronted by the daunting task of setting up a management system, some VDCs opted for the ‘auctioning of water’. Though in its nascent stages water auctioning seems to have succeeded (see Table 2) as an alternative system of managing project assets, and sustaining the financial health of VDCs.

There are significant lessons to be learnt from the system of auctioning water. First, the community learns to value water as a priceless resource. Initial auction fees have invariably been on the low side, but as the community learns the intricacies of the process, VDCs quickly respond by revising the bidding fee. In Dhanora village, where auctioning is in its fifth year, the VDC has been able to hike the bid four times in as many years. Though there is a limit to which auction fees can be hiked, the community learns to make an informed choice about the value of water.

Second, auctioning makes the process more flexible, permitting VDCs to define the rules of auctioning in the larger interest of the community. This could include taking care of disadvantaged groups, ensuring equitable distribution and choosing a contractor that best meets these conditions. Following limited success with auctioning in its first year, Sambhalwa village resorted to an hourly arrangement. Later, after instituting better auctioning rules and hiking its bidding fees it reverted to the old system. Although VDCs realise that the contractor gains at the cost of the community, the opportunity cost of auctioning outweighs all other considerations. A word of caution: Unless VDCs emerge as strong institutions, contractors are likely to have the last word.

Thirdly, as a system of management, auctioning not only covers the risks of under-utilised water in the wake of good rains it also helps ease the tedious task of realising payments from individual households in an hourly system.

Watershed projects in India have contributed significantly to the evolution of rain-fed technologies and innovative approaches. Though still in its early stages, experiences with auctioning water in the Integrated Watershed Development Project show that this significant new approach could provide a viable option for making watershed projects more effective.

Although auctioning may be an excuse for a weak VDC, it does strengthen committee members by making them better managers. It also teaches the importance of flexibility in designing operation and management systems. These are valid reasons for all those who seek to make institutional sustainability their goal in watershed development.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2004