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A pilot project in Kothapally, Telangana, by International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics to build climate resilience has been successfully replicated across Asia and Africa

A check dam at the Kothapally watershed in Telangana (Photo by Srujan Punna)

A check dam at the Kothapally watershed in Telangana (Photo by Srujan Punna)

Around 60% of all farms in India are in semi-arid areas. Farmers here are the first victims of climate change, as water supply becomes more erratic. But some have turned themselves from victims to winners with improved watershed management, working in partnership with Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). They are now teaching their brethren across Asia and Africa to do the same.

In 1976, ICRISAT started on-site trials near its headquarters. Since then, it has introduced watershed management in more than 300 locations across Asia and Africa. A science-backed proven model is now driven by the communities themselves.

The people living in the Kothapally watershed in Telangana are among those with whom ICRISAT worked closely from 1999. The key to the success has been ensuring the community is empowered to drive the innovations with ICRISAT taking a catalyst role and providing scientific backing to the interventions.

Pigeon pea harvested in the Kothapally watershed. Wilt-tolerant pigeon pea was one of the early interventions and part of the holistic approach for the watershed work (Photo by Srujan Punna)

Chickpea harvested in the Kothapally watershed. Wilt-tolerant chickpea was one of the early interventions and part of the holistic approach for the watershed work (Photo by Srujan Punna)

Over the decades, the village has prospered and a holistic approach developed as more innovations were introduced. These started with water and soil management and improved crop varieties and diversity on farm, and later expanded to include livestock integration, linking farmers to markets, building alternative livelihoods, wastewater treatment, self-sustaining filtered drinking water and more.

Recognising climate change

Along with the recognition of climate change, other interventions and scientific approaches were required to be introduced to watershed management. The drylands in particular are to be most affected by climate change, becoming hotter and worsening droughts and even floods.

The Kothapally site incorporated weather management controls and even schoolchildren were engaged and taught how to record changes. Through capacity building, farmers are now able to make better on-farm decisions.

To celebrate ICRISAT’s 40 years in watershed management, the institute has launched a timeline of the Kothapally story — an e-timeline and an overview of the whole timeline.

Suhas Wani, recent awardee of one of the top global water management specialists, has provided a succinct account of the key lessons learnt on watershed management.

Doing it on a large scale

Once a proven model was in place, the next challenge to take on was how to do this on a large scale. First the Kothapally model was taken to 28 more regions in four other states in India —Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

More areas are now being reached as many companies focusing their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in rural areas are concerned about the extreme water scarcity in the drylands of India, which covers more than 60% of the farmed area. ICRISAT is working in more than 60 villages in India implementing watershed management for companies.

ICRISAT sees the future for CSR is to form clusters to create broader watershed areas and achieve more impact from the same resources, coupled with taking a more holistic approach to agricultural development, looking at the whole value chain and facilitating developments from water management all the way through to market linkages.

The biggest challenge in watershed management came when ICRISAT was tasked with reaching 4.3 million farmers in Karnataka within three years (2009-12) with the aim of increasing productivity 5% every year. Watershed had to be only one part of the solution and a holistic approach to agricultural development taken.

Although the principles of being community driven and having science backed solutions were the same, new communications technologies were needed to reach and engage so many farmers. As many as 10,000 farmers were trained to be farmer facilitators. They were paid a nominal fee by the government to take on this additional role and as part of this they were provided tablets with customised information for their area to share with farmers. The farmer facilitators also produced video interviews with farmers and ensured interactive video sessions throughout villages to show successful technologies. Mobile based voice and text messages were also part of the communications to farmers.

The huge success has led to the government of Karnataka supporting a second phase (2013-17) to reach five million famers aiming to increase productivity 20%.

Across Asia and Africa

Now these decades of experience have been taken to other Asian countries and to Africa. The core of the approach remains the same in the different countries, as noted by Tilahun Amede, Principal Scientist with ICRISAT: “Our ‘approach’ was just as critical as the technical solutions. Any efforts had to be both community driven and led by the local authorities and specialists. It was essential that ICRISAT take a catalyst role and provide any technical back up needed.”

Although watershed development had been introduced many years ago in Ethiopia, these were mostly seen as environmental projects to protect natural resources. ICRISAT added a whole new dimension in Ethiopia by integrating agricultural development.

This site in Africa is now becoming a learning site and a showcase where extension agents are getting trained and policy makers learn the costs and benefits of integrated watershed management. This same community was awarded 1 million birr (about USD 50,000) by the regional government to continue improving their watershed and production systems.

The tough environment of the Yewol watershed in the highlands of Ethiopia. (Photo by Joanna Kane-Potaka)

The tough environment of the Yewol watershed in the highlands of Ethiopia. (Photo by Joanna Kane-Potaka)

Farmer Ahmed from the highlands of Ethiopia notes, “When we built terraces, they were as tall as us. Now the terraces are half our height. Our soils were feeding the Nile before. I had seen carrots in the markets but never tasted them. We couldn’t afford to eat what we grow. Now with the watershed work we have grown carrots and potatoes and now are trying cherry trees. I have now eaten carrot and so many more foods.”

With four decades of lessons learnt and proven successful approaches, ICRISAT now needs to reach more areas and more people, especially in the drylands, where 2.5 billion people live.


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