Working Together to Save Water in Tamil Nadu

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Female farmers in Tamil Nadu after attending a farmer training session in the village.

In India, the state of Tamil Nadu has about 4% of the geographical area of the country, 7% of the population and only 3% of the water resources. Hence, it is one of the most water stressed states in India and its crops rely on river water and monsoon rains. Yet, Tamil Nadu is one of the leading producers of agricultural products in India, famous for its turmeric and rice among others. Thus the need to conserve and manage scarce water resources is critical to the success of agriculture of the state, which accounts for more than 20% of its economy.

With the goals of improving water management, conserving water through technology and improving agriculture, the Tamil Nadu Irrigated Agriculture Modernization and Water Bodies Restoration and Management (TNIAMWARM) Project was launched in 2007. Agriculture consumes more water, so there was a strong need to involve farmers as stakeholders in operating and maintaining irrigation systems in the project. This approach, which improved farmer involvement, is called Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM).To implement PIM and build a culture of community water management, Water Users Associations (WUAs) were formed.They are a group of water users, such as irrigators, who pool their financial, technical, material, and human resources for the operation and maintenance of  irrigation systems.

ImageDue to the integral role of the associations in the success of the project, different approaches were tested in testing their formation, responsibilities and outcomes. Lack of training and rapport by a few NGOs hired by the project initially made farmers skeptical of WUAs who did not see the value in this structure. The lack of results by 2013, prompted the project agency and the Water Resources Organization (WRO) to start a new approach. They learned that two things could be improved. Engineers said that they didn’t have time to meet all of their WUAs, monitor their activities, and needed more resources on-the-ground.  Farmers also felt a great distance from the WRO engineers and didn’t feel as if anyone was listening or cared about their concerns. 
After days of deliberation, the project unit agreed to form a WUA development team consisting of a WRO representative to lead, two Mobilization and Training Specialists (MTS), and 10 Field Organizers (FOs).  Each team would be responsible for training 60 WUAswith the aim to reach all the regions of the project. The teams are accompanied by five social scientists to oversee, monitor and coordinate the work of the WUA development teams. In early 2013, the Government supported this new approach and the WRO successfully hired roughly 434 new staff. 
ImageThe critical factor of success in launching the program was the role of the Engineer-in-Chief as a champion. Once recruited, the new staff undertook training with the project’s local training partners at the Center for Excellence in Change Management (CEC). The CEC led a robust training program on community water budgeting, awareness building, PIM, WUA roles and responsibilities.The new staff were trained on how to respond to different challenges using role playing scenarios based on real life criticisms. During one of these training sessions, we observed how skeptical farmers were inspired by Ms. Amutha Selvi, an MTS, who used an analogy of pulling temple cars during festivals, which requires everyone to unite. This analogy helped farmers understand the WUA, which unites farmers to collectively solve their water problems.  The beauty of this model was that it was created, designed and implemented by the MDPU working in close collaboration with WRO and the CEC.
The journey continues, and over a year later, the project has witnessed a palpable difference. Out of over 1500 WUAs, more than 60% have started functioning by conducting management committee meetings that bring farmers together to discuss how to work together to fix leaks and cracks in their canals, how to conduct joint water walks of irrigations systems, how to distribute water fairly and resolve conflicts between neighboring farmers through dialogue and discussion. These simple yet effective trainings are beginning to educate farmers all over Tamil Nadu – giving them the power to understand their water consumption, build ownership of their own assets, and the tools to begin to make the most efficient use of this scarce resource. More robust data on the impacts is currently being collected and we look forward to sharing these with you in our next follow up blog.
A year later, at a training session, I looked around and saw a room full of attentive farmers and engineers sitting side-by-side. One farmer stood up proudly and announced that finally after several years he understood the true power of a WUA!"

Photo 2: Project Officials and WRO Engineers train members of the WUA 
Photo 3: Farmers displaying community water budgeting charts

Photos by Ranu Sinha/World Bank


Ranu Sinha

Water Resource Specialist

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