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Use of Cutting Edge Technology for Watershed Development

August 2, 2011


Over two-thirds of India's cultivation takes place on dry rain fed lands which are prone to drought, soil erosion and depleting ground water. The state of Karnataka is no different. More than 70 percent of the state's major agricultural area falls within the semi-arid zone. These lands are subject to periodic droughts, severe soil erosion, erratic rainfall, and depleting groundwater, eroding the natural resource base and significantly hindering agricultural productivity.

To tackle these challenges, the World Bank supported Karnataka Watershed Development Project, known locally as 'Sujala', was initiated in 2001 as a community-driven watershed development project.

The Project, which closed in 2009, introduced cutting edge technology for interventions in over half a million hectares of land in seven predominantly rain-fed districts in Karnataka. Satellite images taken at regular intervals from a height of 900 kms provided data such as land use and land cover, ground water prospects and soil characteristics for large catchments as well as micro-watersheds. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) fused this spatial data with nonspatial data such as rainfall, literacy, etc. to help technical experts and communities to prioritize works and together develop comprehensive action plans for each micro-watershed.

Promoting community participation

Prior to Sujala, most watershed programs in India largely focused on engineering and civil works and were implemented by public agencies with very little community participation. This was the first time that high-resolution satellite images were placed before grassroots communities to help them plan interventions.

Remote sensing and GIS mapping

Satellite images, with spatial resolutions of 23 meters, 6 meters, and 1 meter, generated a series of thematic resource maps for each micro-watershed. These maps depicted land use and land cover showing the area under agricultural land. Communities would take this mapping information and construct a small model of the watershed on the ground to help them see the bigger picture, understand the environmental problems and future potential, and mark areas for treatment. Priority was accorded to places that had a larger proportion of wasteland, a greater uncertainty of rainfall, drinking water shortages in summer, large out-migration, a predominance of vulnerable communities such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and a large proportion of small and marginal farmers.

"Utilization of space technology for watershed planning and monitoring is one of the unique features of this project. Remote sensing and computer mapping technology has been taken to the doors of the farmers. Assessing the problems and prospects for the development of nearly half a million hectares of land in a scientific and cost-effective manner was undoubtedly a challenge, but made easier through the application of these new technologies. It also helped stakeholders better understand the complex relationships between soil and water management, selecting appropriate interventions, and in measuring impacts," said Grant Milne, Senior Natural Resource Management Specialist.

The thematic resource maps helped communities, NGOs and technical specialists (experts in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and forestry) to reach agreement on the priorities for soil and water conservation and the locations for treatments, resulting in sustainable action plans. Decisions were jointly taken regarding where to construct terraces or field bunds to reduce soil erosion from farm fields, locate a farm pond or small check dam to store excess surface water, or plant trees to stabilize steep hillsides.

GIS technology also helped map nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Once GIS mapping helped pinpoint the locations of these deficiencies, all farmers were provided with soil health cards. The farmers, together with community organizations (usually women's groups), were then trained to procure and mix the correct micro-nutrients for their individual farms, rather than purchasing the more generic nitrogen/ phosphorus/potassium mixes that were not as effective. General rainfall patterns at the sub-district level were also generated from historic records. This enabled farmers to plant crops at the right time, reducing their risk of crop failure.

Monitoring and evaluation

Antrix Corporation developed a unique customized, computer-based MIS package, with special software for field NGOs, to create a systematic database that integrated large volumes of data, providing a flow of reliable and timely information that helped monitor the Project's physical and financial progress at all levels.

"The high-quality data and reports helped the project team to identify bottlenecks early on, undertake timely corrections, and shift the project's direction a number of times. For example, when it was found that a high proportion of project funds were flowing to large farmers for soil and water works, the small and marginal farmers had their beneficiaries' contribution reduced leading to improved equity between the groups. When M&E data showed that landless and other vulnerable groups were not receiving a fair share of project benefits, the livelihoods component was expanded to include a revolving fund for Self Help Groups, leading to improved access to credit by group members and the development of small businesses," said B.K. Ranganath, Project Director, Sujala.

Project impact

By the end of the Project, crop yields and cropping intensity in these rain fed areas increased significantly. These were also accompanied by a shift towards higher-value annual and permanent crops (especially horticultural crops such as mangoes). Crop yields, when compared with control groups, increased by about 25 percent, on average, across different crops. Runoff and soil erosion were reduced up to 21 cubic meters per hectare. The percentage of irrigated area increased between 6 percent and 14 percent across project sites, average milk yields rose by around 20 percent, and ground water was available for longer periods. Household incomes increased by about 40 percent for small and marginal farmers (less than 2 ha), more than 50 percent for landless, and close to 80 percent for larger farmers (more than 2 ha), compared to control groups. Overall, the Project improved the lives of 230,000 direct beneficiaries, contributing to a reduction of out-migration by about 70 percent.

Spreading the Innovation

With some 600,000 villages across India, there is huge potential to scale up the successful use of technology for the improvement of watershed lands and degraded ecosystems. Many of the project's approaches have already been incorporated into India's new national watershed policy guidelines. The project is also being replicated in other districts of Karnataka. Many of Sujala's methods have been adopted by forestry projects in Andhra Pradesh and Assam, as well as in livelihood projects in Tamil Nadu, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The model has also attracted significant international attention. Teams from India and abroad have visited the project to learn about the innovative approaches. Attempts are being made to replicate this approach in Malawi and Senegal in Africa.