Karnataka Watershed Development Project

February 28, 2012


Using Satellite Imagery to Develop Land and Water Resources

A watershed, or catchment area, is the areaof land where all the water that drains off itor flows beneath it drains into a single pointor body of water. Watersheds can vary in sizefrom a few hectares of land to thousands ofsquare kilometers. Watershed management isthe integrated use of land, vegetation, and waterresources that harmonizes actions betweenupstream and downstream areas to raiseagricultural productivity, increase rural incomes,and rejuvenate the natural resource base.

Between 2001 and 2009, the KarnatakaWatershed Development Project, known locallyas Sujala, used cutting-edge technology to plan,prioritize, monitor and assess interventionsover half a million hectares of land in sevenpredominantly rain-fed districts in Karnataka.The project was implemented by the KarnatakaGovernment’s Watershed DevelopmentDepartment (WDD) in partnership with severalnon-governmental organizations and the WorldBank. Satellite images taken at regular intervalsfrom a height of 900 kms provided accuratethematic data - such as land use and land cover,groundwater prospects, soil characteristics etc. - for large catchments as well as micro-watersheds.Geographical Information Systems (GIS) fusedthis spatial data with nonspatial data such asrainfall, literacy etc. to help technical experts andcommunities to prioritize works and togetherdevelop comprehensive action plans for eachmicro-watershed. While the Integrated Missionfor Sustainable Development, initiated by theDepartment of Space in 1992, had pio
neeredthe use of satellite remote sensing and GISmapping to develop locale-specific action plansfor watershed development in 175 districtsof the country, Sujala was the first project todeploy this technology effectively over a largearea. It also expanded its use to map resources,prioritize areas for treatment, carry out on-goingmonitoring and evaluation, and assess impacts.This was also the first time that high-resolutionsatellite images were placed before grassrootscommunities to help them plan interventions.

In a key innovation, Antrix Corporation, part ofthe Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO),developed a unique approach for monitoringand evaluation that fused remote sensing, GISmapping and Management Information System (MIS) with conventional ground-based monitoringtechniques to provide state of the art informationto track progress and assess impacts. Thisrigorous method of monitoring performance onan ongoing basis enabled planners to maintaintransparency, enforce accountability, and applymid-course corrections where necessary, leadingto the project’s ultimate success in achieving thedesired impact on the ground.

With some 600,000 villages in India, there is hugepotential to scale up these innovations across the country. Many of the project’s approacheshave already been incorporated into India’snew national watershed policy guidelines. TheSujala project has won seven prestigious awards:National Productivity Awards 2007 and 2009;National Water Award 2007; Earth Care Award2008; National E-Governance Award 2009; as wellas the Global Sustainability Research Award atStockholm, Sweden, and the Geospatial ExcellenceAward at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The project hasalso attracted significant international attention.


More than 70 percent of Karnataka’s majoragricultural area falls within the semi-aridzone, with average precipitation rangingfrom 400 mm to 750 mm a year. These lands aresubject to periodic droughts, severe soil erosion,erratic rainfall, and depleting groundwater, erodingthe natural resource base and significantly hinderingagricultural productivity.

Faced with an acute scarcity of water, most farmerson these rainfed lands grow only one crop a year, withlittle opportunity to increase cropping intensity ordiversify into more valuable cash crops. Average yieldsfor ten of the most common crops in these regionsare an estimated 2-5 times less than optimal. Moreefficient and sustainable use of natural resources,especially of soil, water and vegetation is thereforea basic need for the economic and agriculturaldevelopment of these areas.

To tackle these challenges, the Karnataka WatershedDevelopment Project (KWDP), known locally as‘Sujala’, was initiated in late 2001 as a community driven,participatory and holistic watershed developmentproject to improve the productive potential of selectedwatersheds in seven predominantly rainfed districtsin eastern and northern Karnataka. Implementing acomplex, community-based project like Sujala raiseda number of challenges:

Gathering accurate data over a large area

Assessing the problems and prospects for thedevelopment of nearly half a million hectares of landin a scientific manner within a short time and in acost-effective manner was undoubtedly a challenge.Equally challenging was understanding the complexrelationship between soil and water management ona vast scale, as well as the impact of interventions oncommunities.

Tracking ongoing performance

Earlier, watershed programs often limited monitoring tomeasuring inputs (such as money spent) and physicaloutputs (such as the extent of the area treated, thenumber of trees planted, etc.) This approach did nothowever provide sufficient means to track the project’songoing performance and its broader impacts onthe community. A challenge in Sujala was to adopt amore comprehensive M&E approach, incorporatingnew technologies that could track progress at regularintervals, guiding management on an ongoing basisand enabling them to adjust operations as and whenproblems were identified.

Promoting community participation

Prior to Sujala, most watershed programs in Indialargely focused on engineering and civil works andwere implemented by public agencies with minimalcommunity participation. Since the early 1990s,Watershed Management Programs (WSM) programsintroduced a more participatory planning approach that balances the community’s interests with largerresource-conservation objectives. However, thisapproach requires extensive capacity and institutionbuilding both within communities as well as within theimplementing agency.

Generating incomes for the landless

Typically, watershed management operations focusedon landed farmers, often to the exclusion of landlesssegments of the rural poor, who benefited onlytangentially from WSM works, such as throughconstruction jobs. To broaden the benefits to reachwider sections of the local community, the projectsupported income generation activities for women,the landless and other vulnerable groups. This requireda complex delivery mechanism with support fromqualified field NGOs.


Sujala used cutting-edge technologies to planand prioritize interventions, monitor progressand assess impacts. An independent team fromAntrix Corporation provided ongoing technical andmonitoring and evaluation services to the project.With continued support from the WatershedDevelopment Department and the World Bank team,Antrix was able to push the frontiers in applying thesetechnologies far beyond what was envisioned duringproject preparation.


Remote sensing and GIS mapping

Satellite images, with spatial resolutions of 23 metres,6 metres, and 1 metre, generated a series of thematicresource maps for each micro-watershed. Thesemaps depicted land use and land cover showingthe area under agricultural land (single or doublecropping, fallow land, horticulture); forests (evergreen,deciduous, degraded, thick canopy, scrub); wasteland(salt-affected, waterlogged, gullied, ravinous, barren, rocky); and the location of settlements. Other mapsdepicted soils showing depth, texture, and color ofsoils, as well as levels of erosion; the prospects forgroundwater, indicating sites for recharging groundwaterand locating water-harvesting structures; the location ofwater bodies (rivers, streams, canals, lakes); the gradientof slopes; the network of roads etc. GIS mappingintegrated these large volumes of satellite data withnonspatial data such as rainfall, demography, literacy,class / caste information etc. to help prioritize areasto be treated and develop comprehensive integratedsustainable action plans for each micro-watershed.

Participatory planning

As part of the process, communities would take thismapping information and construct a small model of thewatershed on the ground to help them see the biggerpicture, understand the environmental problems andfuture potential, and mark areas for treatment. Prioritywas accorded to places that had a larger proportionof wasteland, a greater uncertainty of rainfall, drinkingwater shortages in summer, large out-migration, a predominance of vulnerable communities such asscheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and a largeproportion of small and marginal farmers.

The thematic resource maps helped communities,NGOs and technical specialists (experts in agriculture,horticulture, animal husbandry and forestry) toreach agreement on the priorities for soil and waterconservation and the locations for treatments, resultingin sustainable action plans. Decisions were jointly takenregarding where to construct terraces or field bundsto reduce soil erosion from farm fields, locate a farmpond or small check dam to store excess surface water,or plant trees to stabilize steep hillsides. A databasewas prepared showing individual beneficiaries, as wellas the size, type, and location of every activity planned,in addition to specifying whether the activity was to beundertaken on private or common lands. This approachsignificantly reduced the time taken for participatoryplanning from 13 to 9 months, without sacrificing quality.It also improved transparency, thereby reducing localconflicts over upstream and downstream interventions.

Mapping nutrient deficiencies in the soil andestablishing rainfall patterns

GIS technology also helped map nutrient deficienciesin the soil. To increase crop yields, research by theInternational Crops Research Institute for theSemi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the state Departmentof Agriculture, and the University of AgriculturalSciences had identified micro-nutrient deficienciesin local soils. Once GIS mapping helped pinpointthe locations of these deficiencies, all farmers wereprovided with soil health cards. The farmers, togetherwith community organizations (usually women’sgroups), were then trained to procure and mix thecorrect micro-nutrients for their individual farms,rather than purchasing the more generic nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium mixes that were not aseffective. General rainfall patterns at the sub-districtlevel were also generated from historic records. Thisenabled farmers to plant crops at the right time,reducing their risk of crop failure.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Antrix Corporation developed a unique approachwhich fused the top-to-bottom satellite imagery withthe bottom-up participatory approach to developa robust monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. A customized, computer-based MIS package, withspecial software for field NGOs, created a systematicdatabase that integrated large volumes of data,providing a flow of reliable and timely information thathelped monitor the project’s physical and financialprogress at all levels.

Progress was tracked on expenditures (activityand sector wise, on common lands or privatelands); achievements (soil and water conservationtreatments such as the building of field bunds andthe construction of farm ponds, horticulture, forestry,livestock); community mobilisation, capacity buildingetc. Information was generated at state, district, taluk,sub-watershed, and even micro-watershed levels on aweekly and monthly basis. This allowed users (NGOs,WDD officials) to query and analyze field data andprepare reports, charts, trend lines, statistics, etc.

The high-quality data and reports helped the projectteam to identify bottlenecks early on, undertaketimely corrections, and shift the project’s directiona number of times. For example, when it was foundthat a high proportion of project funds were flowingto large farmers for soil and water works, thesmall and marginal farmers had their beneficiaries’contributions reduced leading to improved equity between the groups. When M&E data showed thatlandless and other vulnerable groups were notreceiving a fair share of project benefits, the livelihoodscomponent was expanded to include a revolving fundfor Self Help Groups, leading to improved access tocredit by group members and the development of smallbusinesses. Ultimately, this rigorous ongoing monitoringand evaluation led to the project’s success in achievingthe desired impacts on the ground.

Capacity Building

Satellite communications technology (Satcom), withone-way video and two-way audio, enabled WDDofficials at a centre in Mysore to reach out to largenumbers of beneficiaries and field-based NGOs in allthe districts simultaneously, conduct a dialogue andreceive feedback. Various training programmes werealso imparted through this mechanism to communitybasedorganizations such as Self- Help Groups to buildtheir capacity.

Assessing Impacts

The project’s net contribution to poverty alleviation,the development of capacity and institutions, and therestoration of ecosystems was evaluated at differenttimes using a combination of qualitative and quantitativeindicators. This was done before treatment (baseline),during treatment (mid-term), and at the end of theproject (final) to observe the changes and asses theimpact on the land and water resources. It was also doneafter the project’s withdrawal to look at sustainability.

Results from remote sensing were judiciously combined with more conventional field-based methods such as household surveys, focus group discussions, participatory observations, thematic studies, and case studies to monitor and assess impacts more comprehensively. Observations were also compared between sites within project areas and control sites outside the project area. With large numbers of NGOs working with communities to implement the project’s interventions over a vast area, the satellite images gave planners the true picture on the ground in an accurate, unbiased and transparent manner, enabling them to enforce accountability.


By the end of the project, crop yields andcropping intensity in these rainfed areasincreased significantly. This were alsoaccompanied by a shift towards higher-value annualand permanent crops (especially horticultural cropssuch as mangoes). Crop yields increased by about 25percent, on average, across different crops relative tocontrol groups. Runoff and soil erosion were reducedup to 21 cubic meters per hectare.The percentage ofirrigated area increased between 6 percent and 14percent across project sites, average milk yields roseby around 20 percent, and ground water was availablefor longer periods. Household incomes increased byabout 40 percent for small and marginal farmers (lessthan 2 ha), more than 50 percent for landless, and close to 80 percent for larger farmers (more than 2ha), compared to control groups. Overall, the projectimproved the lives of 230,000 direct beneficiaries,contributing to a reduction of out-migration by about70 percent.


The project has won five prestigious national awards- for boosting agricultural productivity, watermanagement, conserving biodiversity, the innovativeuse of technology and e-governance - and twointernational awards.

The World Bank has recognized the project’s monitoring, evaluation and learning system as global best practice.

Spreading the Innovation

With some 600,000 villages across India, there is hugepotential to scale up the successful use of technologyfor the improvement of watershed lands and degradedecosystems. Many of the project’s approaches havealready been incorporated into India’s new nationalwatershed policy guidelines. The project is also beingreplicated in other districts of Karnataka under thePrime Minister’s relief program for distressed districts,as well as in Rajasthan and Karnataka under theIntegrated Watershed Development Program. Many ofSujala’s methods have also been adopted by forestry projects in Andhra Pradesh and Assam, as well as inlivelihood projects in Tamil Nadu, Bangladesh and SriLanka. ICRISAT’s research on soil nutrient mappinghas been expanded across Karnataka under the BhooChetana program.

The model has also attracted significant internationalattention. Teams from both India and abroad have visitedthe project to learn about the innovative approachesand incorporate the lessons learned. Attempts are beingmade to replicate this approach in Malawi and Senegalin Africa.