What COVID-19 means for watershed management in India

Non-implementation of watershed activities may lead to poor availability and accessibility of water for domestic, agricultural needs 

By Partik Kumar
Published: Wednesday 06 May 2020

Watershed management has emerged as the most decentralised, integrated, innovative and effective programmes for enhancement of natural resources such as water, soil and the vegetative cover in the last four decades. It also provides livelihood to the marginalised sections of the society.

This year, however, is unlike the previous ones, with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the subsequent lockdown taking a heavy toll on watershed activities across the country.

“April and May were very important months in the annual watershed calendar. All activities planned in the last few months had be implemented in these months. The Rabi crops were harvested and villagers were available for work,” said Amit Deshmukh, a watershed executive working in Marathwada, Maharashtra.

Repair of earlier constructed structures and expansion of water harvesting structures are the two crucial activities that take place during these two months. By the end of May, all major physical activities are wrapped up.

This year, however, none of the work took place at any of the sites. 

“The lockdown barred villagers as well as technical staff of NGOs to carry out field work or gathering for discussion and distribution of works. Last year, unseasonal rainfall heavily damaged water harvesting structures,” said Irfan Shaikh, project head, Manavlok Ambajogai in Maharashtra’s Beed district.

He added, “It is not only water conservation that will be hampered but the watershed implementation organisations as well. We had made an advance payment to the machine providers for major digging activities.”

Watershed activities also provide livelihood opportunities to villagers, particularly in the lean season. In many cases, the work helps villagers purchase seeds and prepare their farms for Kharif season.

 “MGNREGA is a standalone scheme that fuels watershed work in the country. An analysis of the last few years suggests that the April and May were the most engaging months under the MGNREGA with most activities under water conservation head. But the lockdown almost completely halted i,” said Ashwani Kulkarni, director, Pragati Abhiyan and core member of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) consortium.

He added that the lack of earning opportunities may potentially throw farmers in the vicious cycle of informal loans.

A further extension of the lockdown may take a heavier toll on the country’s rural economy.

The non-implementation of watershed activities may lead to poor availability as well as accessibility of water for domestic as well as agricultural needs. At the same time, it may prompt lower investments in Kharif crops, putting the landowner as well as landless farmers in huge financial crisis.

“We have lost a year. The hard rock areas (basalt belt), especially in Maharashtra, will be the most affected. Both ecology and economy will be affected,” said Bakka Reddy, director, Watershed Support Services and Activities Network.

Life and livelihood are at crossroads. It will be advisable to encourage implementation of on-farm watershed activities with minimal scientific measurements and administrative monitoring with the help of MGNREGA.

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