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How Going Glocal Could Help Fix Our Water Troubles

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By Dimple Roy, July 29, 2015

The need for water management has never been more critical.

In North America, the media spotlight has focused most acutely on California, which is facing one its most severe droughts on record. However, a look at the Global Drought Information System indicates the problem is wide-spread. We are experiencing drought in south-east Asia, north-west Africa, parts of western Canada, the southern Andes and many other parts of the world. There is, however, some good news: successful examples of how we can manage our water better. Local solutions and global frameworks offer complementary and promising solutions for a world with water troubles.

This summer, Rajendra Singh, the “Water Man of India” won the prestigious Stockholm World Water Prize. This recognition, considered the Nobel Prize for water, was awarded to him for community-based watershed management in rural India, which has resulted in the dramatic greening of a previously dry, water-stressed part of the country. He is attributed with having literally brought villages back to life.

Singh started this work in the 1980s in villages in arid Rajasthan where rivers and streams had been depleted due to overuse and lack of management. Communities there had not only lost their source of drinking water, but also water for food production and livelihoods. A way of life built around water was simply drying up.

Working with a local NGO, Tarun Bharat Sangh, he brought together community members to plan and implement actions that would harvest rainwater to renew the water flow in the rivers. His plan for watershed management—managing land and water to ensure ecological functions are healthy—was focused on bringing water back to communities. To this end, traditional water storage tanks known as johads were resurrected and rebuilt, water control structures such as check dams and bunds were set up to direct, store and use water that would otherwise quickly evaporate or seep into the ground. Today, this region is lush with farms and forests, water is regularly available and wildlife is returning. People have water for drinking, growing food, raising cattle, and supporting livelihoods. It’s a stellar example of how managing a watershed collaboratively is benefitting people in real and life-changing ways.

Learning from Rajasthan

I can draw several lessons from this exciting community-based solution.

First, the case for watershed management, and environmental management more generally, can be strengthened by moving it from the realm of the largely altruistic, to the realm of the useful and valuable by linking it to the management of tangible needs such as food, water, livelihoods, and economies.

Second is the importance of engaging communities. Ensuring their inputs in planning and implementation greatly improves the chances of success. We’ve seen from not only Singh’s case, but from others around the world, that watershed communities provide local intelligence and implementation power to a watershed management program.

From local to global: a role for ecosystem services

The key elements of watershed revitalization in Rajasthan are supported by the concept of ecosystem services compiled by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in 2005. The MA highlights ecosystem services as tangible benefits from well-functioning, healthy ecosystems that are critical for human well-being. Watershed ecosystems (which include all land and related features such as forests, wetlands, etc. where water drains into a shared water body) provide us with services such as clean water, soil formation, flood and drought protection, recreational space, and habitat and cultural ecosystem services amongst others. The MA framework makes a strong case for highlighting these benefits or services and, where possible, suggests assigning monetary values to recognize their importance and role. This serves as a starting point to understand and measure the benefits from environmental systems, and to know how valuable and often irreplaceable these systems are. And in a time fraught with water-related issues, we can use all the help we can get on effectively understanding and managing our water.

The World Economic Forum, in its annual Global Risks report for 2015, has highlighted water crises as the highest societal risk facing the world today. For a world experiencing floods, droughts and the unprecedented state of flux that human and climate impacts on water have created, the need for effective solutions is critical, such as the one in Rajasthan. These solutions need to be applied to different contexts and scales appropriately.

How would this work in practice?

A wetland, for example, provides critical ecosystem services, including water filtration, ground water recharge, habitat, food and medicine provision, recreational and cultural benefits and other benefits. Based on this, it should firstly be understood as an ecological feature providing these benefits and be managed for optimising these as best possible. One way to calculate the value of a wetland would be to use the cost of replacing these services through other means. In the early days of valuing prominent or example the cost of acquiring water through imported, bottled water, or desalinating sea water, and/or (in an extreme case) through the costs incurred in building a water treatment plant to replicate the service of providing clean water.

Towards glocal solutions

‘Glocal’ is a term used to combine the best of the local and global solutions. We all live in watersheds that may directly or indirectly provide us with clean water, food, habitat, flood and drought protection, recreation and cultural benefits (and a lot more) often with global implications. The MA global framework allows communities, decision-makers, water managers and others to understand and evaluate ecosystems and how and why they should be managed. Singh has shown us one celebrated and effective way of linking watershed management with tangible and valuable local benefits and implementing it by involving watershed residents. These local solutions and inspiring actions exist across the world and will help us build stronger and better watershed-based solutions to globally relevant local issues such as clean water, food and livelihoods.

The adage goes “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Well we definitely won’t manage what we don’t notice and don’t value (pun definitely intended).

Dimple Roy is director of IISD’s Water Program.