With things slowing down in Washington as people go on leave, I have been catching up on a long-promised chapter for a book on Water Management Innovations in Agriculture: Experiences and Future Perspectives, edited by a colleague from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The contribution is on the experience of the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Support project known as APFAMGS, an initiative funded by the Netherlands and implemented as a nationally executed FAO project.
The work was carried out by ten district-level NGOs in seven drought-prone districts of South India where groundwater resources are dangerously overexploited. Through its community-based approach to data collection, participatory learning, and community mobilization it was remarkably successful in getting farmers to make better decisions that reduced groundwater use, increased income and moved the watershed toward sustainability.
The project was highlighted in a 2010 World Bank publication, “Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India”. With what the World Bank report termed “the use of innovative and radically effective communications on ground water status,” the project demonstrated that it is possible to align water use decisions with farmers’ incentives to save their dry season crops and improve crop yields.
Instead of coercing or even coaching farmers to adopt water-saving measures to reduce groundwater use, the project equipped farmers with decision skills to plant a mixture of crops and apply irrigation techniques that minimize risk and maximize income.
The World Bank report was categorical:
“This impact is unprecedented, in terms of reductions actually being realized in groundwater draft, and in terms of the geographic extent of the impact, covering dozens of aquifers and hundreds of communities. While these results are preliminary and pose a number of questions on how exactly this impact has been achieved, they do indicate that the APFAMGS project, with an estimated outreach of 1 million farmers, may be the first example globally of large-scale success in groundwater management by communities.”
Although as a pilot the initiative was quite large, there are inevitable hurdles in making the jump between project-level lessons and provincial or national policy implementation. In writing the chapter, it was gratifying to learn that both the central Government of India and the State Assembly of Andhra Pradesh have been convinced by the project’s participatory approach to water demand management.
A recent presentation to the Indian Prime Minister by Mihir Shah, a member of the National Planning Commission, highlighted the APFAMGS model in which, as he put it, “Farmers become ‘barefoot hydrogeologists’, engage in data collection and analysis, build understanding of dynamics of groundwater in local aquifers.” He also called attention to the formation of the project’s Groundwater Management Committees and their federation into Aquifer Associations that helped integrate groundwater management on a larger scale. As a consequence, the Planning Commission will help the federal Ministry of Water Resources develop a new scheme to upscale participatory groundwater management initiatives like APFAMGS.
Similarly, the state government of Andhra Pradesh has gone a step ahead and drafted new groundwater legislation that gives authority for community institutions to manage locally the water resource systems. It is an excellent example of how FAO’s encouragement and partnership with local organizations, who have a wealth of on-the-ground experience in empowering farmers and their institutions, can create leverage for significant change.
Daniel Gustafson, Director of the FAO Liaison Office for North America, was the FAO Representative in India and Bhutan from 2002 to 2007.