California farmers are being paid not to plant so Los Angeles and nearby cities can use the water that would otherwise go to (mostly low value) crops, says an article in the New York Times yesterday. The water is worth a lot when reallocated to urban use, so it’s not hard to offer farmers a lot of money for the privilege of borrowing their water for a season. The blowback from this kind of arrangement is that local farming economies — the ancillary services that depend on crop production as the base of a large economic pyramid (with the bankers on top, but we won’t go into that!) — get undermined when some farmers stop producing. When a lot of farmers stop producing, the local economy suffers even more, and the speculation is that, as with climate change, there is probably a tipping point where local farming-based economies will collapse.
I’ve just submitted my evaluation report on the Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project (CIDP) in India (see previous blog post), and I need to debrief. It’s one of those progressive projects that is trying to do a lot of interconnected things: farmer participation, women’s empowerment, improved incomes, etc. The over-arching goal is to “improve rural livelihoods and reduce rural poverty” through investments in irrigated agriculture. I like that goal, and so do the farmers. Their production will go up and they will be better off. What’s not to like?
But when you dig a little deeper there are a lot of questions. What do we mean by “livelihoods” and what, exactly is “poverty”? Are livelihoods just about earning more money, and is poverty just about not earning enough? Both concepts have evolved a lot over the past 10 to 15 years. In 2000, the World Bank came out with a definition of poverty that saw income as just one part of the picture, along with opportunity and security. Some years before that, Bhutan adopted the goal of improving “gross national happiness” and not just incomes. Last month, China’s government adopted a similar policy, according to a recent Economist report,
How can irrigation water make Indian farmers happier? Isn’t that what improved livelihoods should really be about? Shouldn’t that be the goal of irrigation development projects like the CIDP?
In Bhutan’s concept of happiness, there are 9 aspects, including psychology, culture, environment, and governance. Income doesn’r even make the list, but is subsumed under “living standard.” I like Bhutan’s approach because it seems closer to the real decisions we make about our own priorities. How does it fit with the way farmers in Chhattisgarh, India view their farming choices? This seems to be the right kind of question for a development project to ask. Well, I’m no farmer, but let me suggest some answers.
On the culture and envrionment aspects, traditional seeds are critically important. Local farmers used to plant dozens of different seeds, with thousands (28,000 is the biggest number I heard) of rice varieties recorded in the state. Building on that diversity would help farmers maintain their cultural identity as rice people, while maintaining enviornmental diversity of rice plants. On the governance aspects, strengthening their water user associations gives them governance power over their canal systems, and increases their happiness that way.
The livelihoods appraoch is not in conflict with the happiness perspective. I found an interesting article by two Danish scholars (E. Petersen and M. Pedersen) suggesting that we take a more psychological orientation to livelihoods, You can read their paper here. Yes, incomes are a necessary part of life, but let’s not confuse incomes with life itself! And the same goes for water. We need water for agriculture, but let’s look for ways that our agricutlural systems can generate not only happy incomes, but also happy outcomes.
CIDP project staff interviewing a farmer in Raigarh District, Chhattisgarh, India
It’s World Water Day, but here in Raipur, India, people are still decompressing from their festival of fire a few days ago. Holi was celebrated on Saturday night with bonfires under the full moon, depicting the burning of the evil sister who tried to kill her enlightened brother, according to the story. The next day was marked by drinking and smearing or throwing colored powder on friends and family, or sometimes strangers. That was Sunday, but nearly everyone took Monday off, and came to work only grudgingly today, Tuesday, mostly unaware the today is the international day of water. The memories of fire are still too strong.
Water, indeed, seems to be losing out to fire in modern India. Industries are slowly but surely extracting more and more water from rivers that would otherwise serve farmers, or maybe nature. However, the nature lobby is weak here, and industries rule, or would if not for India’s pesky Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, who takes his job seriously. The green political movement is not in evidence, however. The battle line is between farmers and industry, and the politicians are actively engaged in appeasing both. The losers, in this quest for votes (from farmers) or money (from industry) are the already stressed rivers who have silently served hundreds of generations of Indians but whose very existence is now threatened.
The priority here is improving the livelihoods of the poor. But how? In agriculture the standard response is to increase incomes by helping the farmers grow higher value crops, and market them to honest traders who will pay a fair price. That is the focus of the project I’m working on right now, the Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project (CIDP), funded by the Asian Development Bank. The project is building the capacity of large (ca. 1000 farmers) water user associations to help them take control of what are now government canals, and to market their crops collectively. The whole production systems starts with water that is retained in “tanks” (shallow reservoirs). Irrigation efficiencies are not great, but the wasted water infiltrates to the aquifer where it is either pumped out by other farmers, or flows to a river, perhaps to be diverted for industry. Yes, water is life, and it’s all related. That’s why water governance — the system of managing, planning, allocating, and protecting water — is so critical. Everyone’s interests are involved in one way or another.
Some of the members of the Crants Water User Association, Kawardha District, Chhattisgarh
The water user associations (WUAs) in Chhattisgarh were created, on paper at least, with the passage of the PIM Act in 2006 and elections the following year. The CIDP project is helping the WUAs through training programs and, for 70 lucky WUAs, personal help from community organizers. The hope is that the Water Resources Department, which now controls the irrigation canals, will be convinced to decentralize that control when they see that properly organized WUAs can do their own irrigation management.
Bilaspur Tank, Raigar Distrcit, Chhattisgarh: Bilspur Tank WUA president, Mr. Patel, cleans debris from the canal gate
The water user associations in Chhattisgarh are an expression of the social value of water. Opting for decentralized governance is a way to empower local communities, replacing the bureaucratic mode that India inhereted from the British. The lesson is not only that water governance reflects political values (e.g., democracy vs, tyranny) but that it actively reinforces those values. The social ethics of water use always confronts governments with choices. Do we want to encourage local self-reliance? Or dependence on the state? The rebellions in the Middle East suggest that the colonial concept of a rigid state bureaucracy is neither stable nor desirable. Change is coming, slowly perhaps, to water management in India.