Women Among Main Benefactors of Multiple-Use Water Schemes

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This is the second in a series of three guest posts written by staff at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). IWMI  is a non-profit organization  supported by  the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that targets water and land management challenges faced by poor communities in the developing world to reduce poverty and hunger and maintain a sustainable environment. To read the first post in this series, see: Innovative Electricity Scheme Sparks Rural Development in India’s Gujarat Region. (Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet).

In the north-eastern hill region of India and Nepal, only about 5 percent of the existing water resources are used for economic activities. A surfeit of water wreaks havoc in the rainy season, while households suffer acute water shortages in the dry season. Multiple-Use Water Schemes can provide a more controlled and reliable water supply for household needs and more productive agricultural activities. The impacts on household income and the status of women has been significant.

Like most other farmers in this mountainside community, Kampai grows rice, millet, corn and a few other crops using a traditional form of agriculture called jhum, or slash and burn agriculture. Most people immediately think of the negative environmental impacts of slash and burn, but one its main drawbacks is the very low yields it returns. Environmental concerns aside, slash and burn is a poverty trap. Kampai says, “I would like to grow more vegetables and fruit trees, but I have no reliable supply of water.”

Kampai may not appreciate the irony of that statement. The Northeast Hill region, a mere 8 percent of the Indian landmass, has 34 percent of nation’s total water resources. And yet, people in this region are using only 5 percent of the available water. In the rainy season, massive volumes of unharnessed water cause floods, landslides, and wide scale soil erosion. In the dry season, there is little water for agricultural and other uses. This is the definition of ‘economic water scarcity’—scarcity caused not by a lack of supply, but by a lack of investment in water infrastructure.

Several farm-level water management innovations have been tried in the past, including integrated watershed management, water harvesting, multi-commodity farming systems, bamboo drips,and storing rainwater in plastic-lined ponds or ferro-cement tanks. Some of these methods have been popular among local authorities and policy makers, but most meet only agricultural water needs and, even then, they generally do not provide sufficient supplies during the dry season.

What Kampai and other smallholder farmers need is a water supply system that provides water for both domestic needs and high-value agricultural production, including livestock. Such a system needs to be flexible so householders can switch from domestic to productive use to match seasonal demands. It has to be simple, with next to no maintenance costs, and it must ensure equitable access. Such systems are called Multiple-Use Water Schemes or MUS.

The basic designs for MUS are based on: ground water/lake water lifting and distribution; rain water collection and distribution; spring water distributed by gravity system; and stream/river water supply after treatment. Most MUS are designed to cover 10 to 40 households. In some cases up to 80 households have been provided service from MUS. The design of an MUS gives first priority to drinking water and domestic use, which is in line with the government’s policy on water resource development. The design criteria assume 45 liters per person per day for domestic use and 400-600 liter per household for productive use. The final design is decided by technicians in consultation with community users based on their local knowledge and needs.

Between 2003 and 2008, 12 MUS systems were installed by IDE-Nepal/ IWMI in the Himalayan hilly areas  serving a total of about 5000 households. A water poverty mapping technique helped identify the best areas to target.

An evaluation of the installed systems showed that they more than met the key criteria with the added benefit of low initial investment costs (approximately USD $200 per household) and short cost recovery periods. With MUS, households can earn additional annual income of about US$190 through sale of surplus produce, which means the system has a payback period of only one year.

MUS systems also have a great many non-monetary benefits, especially for women. Women are the prime focus groups of all the multiple water-use related project activities. When villages adopt MUS, women generally take up key positions in MUS user committees, empowering them to lead and link with other agencies. The additional income they earn from the sale of vegetables and other produce provides financial independence and enhances financial decision-making. MUS also reduces women’s workload by decreasing the time needed to collect water (free labor). And more vegetable consumption provides better nutrition for women and children, which can translate into savings on medical care.

For more information about this and related projects, you can contact Bharat Sharma at b.sharma@cgiar.org or visit the IWMI website at www.iwmi.org and MUS website at www.musgroup.net/musproject.

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