In this paper, I will introduce some critical reflections on the development of hydro-climatic tools for agricultural water management, drawing on findings from two recent research projects in which I have explored the social and political dimensions of water security amongst rainfed farmers in India.
I will begin by giving a very short introduction to my theoretical lens. I will then quickly outline the empirical material, and I will end by reflecting on the lessons learnt which, I hope, will be of some practical help as we work through the challenge of developing new hydro-climatic services.
My theoretical perspective is informed by insights from resilience theory and political ecology.
I draw on insights from resilience theory (cf Holling and the Resilience Alliance) that treat environmental problems as essentially: Social-ecological in origin: Composed of an integrated mix of social, economic, political, cultural and ecological variables in tight integration, resulting in emergent properties and systems in dynamic equilibrium. … and thus, essentially, complex and multi-scalar: Operating at multiple, nested, temporal and spatial scales. Resilience in these systems is achieved by management that takes cognizance of this nature of environmental problems, with inappropriate simplification leading to perverse impacts.
This perspective on social-ecological problems resonates very well with emerging work within the environmental social sciences that calls for deeper attention to the social, political and economic dimensions of environmental change, risk and management.
Specifically, political ecology takes the view that resource governance is inherently and inescapably political. What do I mean by ‘political’? I mean it involves the exercise of power over people and landscapes. It is tied up with our identities, our practices, and with wider social goals around ‘the good life’, ‘development’, ‘equality’, and ‘wellbeing’.
For political ecologists too, the environmental is social-ecological in nature. Political ecology brings two things to resilience analysis – and sustainability science more generally – Informed application of issues of power, equality, distribution, political-economy, governance regimes, and culture which affect all processes of environmental change and influence environmental management. The tools to unpack issues of constructedness: Recognizing this political dimension of resource governance leads us to pay attention to how knowledge about resources – or indeed the wider ‘environment’ is produced. What do we know, how do we come to know it, what are the implications of different interpretations, and whose knowledge matters? These questions matter because knowledge shapes action. “Discourses situate and control how we think about environmental crises, and what we do (or do not do) about them.”
For political ecologists concerned with resource-‘security’ (whether of food, water or energy), naturalized insecurity is a key concern.
In a nut-shell this means that while acknowledging planetary limits and finite resources, political ecologists also point out that issues of scarcity (and resource insecurity) have “become increasingly intertwined with ideas of growth, progress, abundance and sustainability” (Ibid), and is perceived as a “natural, universal and self-evident characteristic of the human condition” (Ibid). For Nicholas Xenos, ‘scarcity’ is a child of modernity, an “open-ended myth… (of) an antagonist in the human story, a story with a happy ending, vanquishing of the antagonist and a life of happiness ever after and abundance for all” (Xenos 1989, p. 35).
This matters, because our determinations of causation influences action. A number of studies in political ecology have shown how assigning risk or scarcity to ‘natural’ causes has tended to lead to inappropriate or even perverse solutions because they eclipse the social-ecological dynamics of resource (in)security and contribute to pathologies of natural resource management.
Rainfed landscapes have been overwhelmingly marginalized in agricultural and rural development policy in India. The dominant model since Independence has focused almost exclusively on intensive irrigation: India has 5000 large dams for perennial irrigation US$21.4 billion on major irrigation projects between 1991 and 2007 22x more investment on irrigation than rainfed systems
This in itself has imposed heavy social-ecological costs: 10% of the amount required for the maintenance of this irrigation infrastructure is actually available 1 million hectares of Green Revolution lands are degraded – over-irrigation and salinization have taken lands out of production 40 million Indians have been displaced by large dam and canal projects since 1947. A vanishingly small minority have ever received legally-mandated compensation. //INSERT: Image of large dam from existing .ppt//
This is broader culture of water management against which debates about Indian water security must be viewed.
Therefore new models needed for water security, and also even if country’s full irrigation potential is reached, 40% of the country would still be rainfed.
Existing studies have mainly attributed this situation to poorly designed or executed projects. My work, however, finds that it is the very understanding of ‘water security’ and its presumed determinants – rainfall and water supply – that are at the heart of continued vulnerability following watershed development.
For the purpose of this paper I will quickly go over a few key pieces of qualitative data derived from interviews with farmers and other stakeholders, which show how people are using climate knowledge – or rather – how ‘climate’ is being experienced and how narratives about climate and water availability have been developed.
Multiple drivers at multiple scales are influencing increased water use on farms. Watershed development is entrenched within a broader water narrative and management culture that prioritizes increased irrigation and intensive agronomies.
IUKWC Workshop Nov16: Developing Hydro-climatic Services for Water Security – Session 3 – Item 4 Bharucha
Water-security in the long durée:
Insights for developing hydro-climatic services
Dr. Zareen Pervez Bharucha. IITM, Pune, Nov. 2016
Resilience theory & political ecology
Environmental systems and risks
[Holling C.S and Meffe G. 1996. Command and control
and the pathology of natural resource management.
Cons. Bio. 10: 328-337.]
Resilience theory &political ecology
Power, politics, distribution
“risk – “(is not just) something real and physical … (it is) constructed
out of history and experience by experts and lay people alike…Risk in
this sense is culturally embedded and has texture and meaning that
vary from one social grouping to another. Trying to assess risk is
therefore necessarily a social and political exercise” (Jasanoff 1999, p.
[Jasanoff S. 1999. The songlines of risk. Env. Values 8(2): 135-152. / Int’ll Soc. Sci. Council 2013. World Soc. Sci.
Report. Changing Global Env. Full text online.]
Unpacking scarcity: “natural, universal and self-
“[an] open-ended myth… [of] an antagonist
in the human story, a story with a happy
ending, vanquishing of the antagonist and a
life of happiness ever after and abundance
(Xenos 1989, p. 35).
[Xenos N. 1989. Scarcity and Modernity Routledge:
Mehta L. 2013. The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the
Politics of Allocation. Earthscan: London.]
Models of water security in agricultural
landscapes in India
5000 large irrigation dams
US$ 21.4 billion, 1991-2007
?40 million displaced
10% of amount required for
maintenance is available
1 million ha in Green
Revolution belts degraded
600 million farmers
90% of cropland
40% of food
30% of population in
degraded semi-arid WSs
live in poverty
Investment in irrigated
agriculture = +22x
Rainfed landscapes are important but neglected
Watershed development: Patchy, partial and
“In our mathematics, 20,000
problem villages minus
20,000 problem villages
equals 20,000 problem
N.C Saxena, Planning
Exploring the lived experience of water security:
General, long-term, lived-experience
Bharucha et al. 2014. All paths lead to rain: Explaining why watershed
development in India does not alleviate the experience of water scarcity. Jrnl.
Dev. Studies. 50(9)].
Findings: social-ecological determinants of
farm-level water security
Findings: Perceptions link climate and distress…
(Climate-driven) water scarcity is
the predominant feature of
Scarcity = agrarian distress
Increased supply is required
… & mirror expert views ...
“Water scarcity is the predominant feature of the drylands.”
“The fragile regions such as the Indian dry tropical areas have several
nature-induced risks and vulnerabilities. Their speciﬁc features... such
as (a) high degree of fragility, marginality, diversity and limited
accessibility, (when compared to prime land areas of the country),
generate the circumstances that keep them poor and contribute to
their low productivity...”
Jodha et al. 2012, p. 3.
… including at local level...
“… stopping farmer’s suicides is the biggest challenge before the
government and to meet it, we have undertaken a flagship programme…
which aims at making 5000 state villages permanently water-scarcity free.
If this succeeds, it will mark an end to farmer’s woes. [Existing initiatives]
cost “crores [which] went down the drain as [they] did not try to go to the
root of the problem, which was inadequacy of irrigation”
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announcing the new rural
development scheme in the state of Maharashtra
(Fadnavis 2015 in Deccan Herald, 2015).
… by problematizing rainfall
“This is what Nature has become. Who knows why. We can’t do
anything about it.”
- Interview with rainfed farmers, Ahmednagar, 2010.
“In dry regions, there is no alternative except for it to rain.
Suppose it were a place serviced by a canal. Even if it didn’t rain,
they could release water from a dam, then people could carry on.
There is nothing like this here.”
… and catalysing a shift to perrenial irrigation
“There used to be only 50 wells in the village. Now
there are 400! If previously 50 wells were being used
for 400 acres, now one well is used for one acre! This is
an improvement, isn’t it?”
“Only those who have wells have benefited.”
- Interview data, 2010.
Interrogating rainfall narratives at district level
Slight decrease, but not due to continuous change.
India: 7% decrease; district trends differ.
Initiation of WSD
Locked-in economies of intensive irrigation
“We do not have to grow crops
which are wholly dependent on
- Interviews with rainfed farmer,
Ahmednagar, April 2010
“[Dam and canal building] is an
enterprise between businesses
and politicians and it has nothing
to do with water availability
especially for the poor”
- Interview with Maharashtrian
water activist, Jan 2015
Re-discovering resilience: Don’t ‘iron out’
[CSE, 1997. Dying Wisdom: The rise, fall and potential of
India’s traditional water harvesting systems. CSE: New
Krätli S. 2015. New perspectives on climate-resilient
drylands development. IIED: London.]
• Climate is NOT an independent driver of agrarian distress.
• Climate knowledge (and action) is not fully captured by weather data. It is
deeply experiential and conditioned by social and political factors. It is also
actively exploited by social actors with diverse agendas.
• Hydro-climatic tools part of a wider arsenal of tools to improve overall
resilience of rainfed dryland farming
- Crop-water requirements for neglected crops.
- Green water management
- Varietal development
- Market support for dryland crops
- Livelihood diversification and rural industry
• Transdisciplinarity: Input of most vulnerable (not most progressive!)
farmers. Institutional dialogue to improve models.
Overseas Research Scholarship