Management of land and water resources

Management of land and water resources


  • Land and water have been the basic elements of life support system on our planet since the dawn of civilization. All great civilizations, flourished where these resources were available in plenty and they declined or perished with the depletion of these resources.
  • In recent years, the land resource has been subjected to a variety of pressures. Still it is surviving and sustaining mankind. What is alarming in the way land is being used is the tendency towards over-exploitation on account of a number of reasons leading this pristine resource being robbed of its resilience.
  • Of all the species on the earth, man is the chief culprit of this degradation. He views land in terms of its utility, meaning the capability to meet his perceived needs and wants. The most easily categorised varieties of land from the utility point of view are – land fit for use, land with potential for use and land which appears useless at least in the foreseeable future.
  • Here probably lies the genesis of the problem of land degradation and erosion of ecosystems. Mahatma Gandhi had said -“The Earth has enough for everybody’s need but not for everybody’s greed”. Preserving, protecting and defending the land resources has been part of our age-old culture.
  • The respect for the importance of land resources is best depicted in the conventional concept of Panchabhutas – land, water, fire, sky and air that constitute a set of divine forces.
  • There are innumerable examples of the traditional conservation practices and systems, which are still surviving and are effective. But with the advent of modern age and the advent of newer forces, this tradition is fast deteriorating mainly on account of – consumerism, materialistic value systems, short-term profit-driven motives and greed of the users.
  • As a result, land has degraded, soil fertility depleted, the rivers polluted and the forests destroyed.

The Indian Scenario

  • India constitutes 18 per cent of the world’s population, 15 per cent of the live stock population and only 2 per cent of the geographic area, one per cent of the forest area and 0.5 per cent of pasture lands.
  • The per capita availability of forests in India is only 0.08 per ha. as against the world average of 0.8 per cent , thus leading to the pressure on land and forests. This poses a major and urgent concern.
  • In accordance with the National Remote Sensing Agency’s (NRSA) findings there are 75.5 million ha. of wastelands in the country. In has been estimated that out of these around 58 million ha. are treatable and can be brought back to original productive levels through appropriate measures.
  • At the moment, taking into account the efforts being made by all the various players in this field treating facilities are in place only for around 1 million ha. per year.
  • At this rate, that there is no further degradation and also assuming that our efforts are 100 per cent successful, it will take around 58 years to complete the process.
  • Watershed degradation in the third world countries threatens the livelihood of millions of people and constraints the ability of countries to develop a healthy agricultural and natural resource base.
  • Increasing population and livestock are rapidly depleting the existing natural resource base because the soil and vegetation system cannot support present level of use.
  • As population continues to rise, the pressure on forests, community lands and marginal agricultural lands lead to inappropriate cultivation practices, forests removal and grazing intensities that leave a barren environment yielding unwanted sediment and damaging stream flow to down stream communities.
  • Watershed is a Geo-hydro logical unit which drains at a common point. Rains falling on the mountain start flowing down into small rivulets. Many of them, as they come down, join to form small streams.
  • The small streams form bigger streams and then finally the bigger streams join to form a nallah to drain out of a village. The entire area that supplies water to a stream or river, i.e. the drainage basin or catchment area, is called the watershed of that particular stream or river.


  • Management of watershed thus entails the rational utilization of land and water resources for optimum production but with minimum hazard to natural and human resources.
  • The main objectives of watershed management are to protect the natural resources such as soil, water and vegetation from degradation.
  • In the broader sense, it is an undertaking to maintain the equilibrium between elements of natural ecosystem of vegetation, land or water on the one hand and man’s activities on the other hand.
  • When all possible inputs are obtaining, the man in the watershed still remains the most important component of the entire watershed system. The key issue is how far the people can be motivated, involved and organised to drive the movement. No significant improvement can be expected without the people being brought to center-stage.

A wide range of approaches have been employed to address problems of land degradation, some of which include:

  1. Prevention of soil loss from the catchments
  2. Promotion of multi-disciplinary integrated approach to catchment treatment.
  3. Improvement of land capability and moisture regime in the watersheds.
  4. Promotion of land use to match land capability
  5. Reduction of run-off from the catchments to reduce peak flow into the river system.
  6. Upgrading of skills in the planning and execution of watershed development programme.
  7. Increase of productivity of land affected by alkalinity for increasing sustainable agriculture production.
  8. Identification of critical degraded areas,
  9. Generation of data on land suitability and capability for regulating land use.
  10. Preparation of soil resource map and inventory of soil and land resources.
  11. Development of technical skills in soil and water conservation
  12. Building up and strengthening of land capability of State Land Use Boards.

Role of Ministry of Rural Development

  • The Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, has recently created a Department of Land Resources to act as a nodal department in the field of watershed management and development.
  • This has the mandate of developing the valuable land resources of India, which are presently under various stages of degradation and it also endeavors to prevent further degradation of these resources through appropriate management and necessary measures.
  • The Department of Land Resources, being the nodal department has taken up certain new initiatives to play a more pro-active role in the Land Resource management in the country.
  • At the conceptual level it has been realized that the management rather than the mere use of land is the central theme. There is no dearth of land, the real issue is management which should include: dynamic conservation, sustainable development and equitable access to the benefits of intervention.
  • The concept of sustainable development focuses on help for the very poor because they are left with no option but to destroy their own environment.
  • It also includes the idea of cost-effective development using differing economic criteria to the traditional approach; that is to say development should not degrade environment quality, or reduce productivity in the long run.
  • The greater issues of health control, appropriate technologies, food self-reliance, clean water and shelter for all are to be addressed.
  • Sustainable development should seek to maintain an acceptable rate of growth in per capita real incomes without depleting the national capital asset stock or the natural environmental asset stock.
  • Equitable access to the benefits of development could be achieved either through land reforms or a dedicated and institutionalized mode of people’s participation. Here, besides the Government, other players like the corporate sector, NGOs, various institutions and self-help groups can be involved.

Water Resource Management

  • In India the average annual precipitation is nearly 4000 cubic km (km3) and the average flow in the river systems is estimated to be 1869 km3.
  • Because of concentration of rains only in the 3 Monsoon months, the utilizable quantum of water is about 690 km3.
  • Quantum of ground water extracted annually is-about 432 km3.
  • Thus, on an average, 1122 km3 water is available for exploitation and is considered adequate to meet all the needs. However, the situation is complicated because this water is not uniformly available either spatially or temporally.
  • Six of the 20 major river basins in India suffer from water scarcity. Water has already become one of the most limiting resources in the country.
  • These shortages have exacerbated with rising demand for particularly irrigation. Contributing to the scenario is inefficient water management and use.
  • The efficiency of surface water irrigation is estimated as low as 40 percent and although overall groundwater exploitation is only about 50 percent, resource-threatening exploitation levels have been reached in several locations. Subsidies for canal irrigation and power have encouraged inefficient resource use.
  • Water quality issues compound the problem. Deep bore wells and hand pumps, expected to address quality problems associated with traditional sources such as open wells, have become problematic themselves. Arsenic, fluoride, sodium and nitrate contamination have been evidenced with groundwater extraction from deep aquifers.
  • Technologies for addressing these have been developed, but their applicability and cost in rural environments remain an issue.
  • Analyses of current problems point to inadequacies in the overall policy, legal and institutional framework. In India, the entire approach to water resources in the post-Independence period was geared towards resource exploitation through capital investments rather than equitable and sustainable water management.
  • It is within this questionable approach that many of today’s concerns are rooted. The deterioration of traditional water harvesting structures has been one major impact of this flawed approach.
  • The legal position, where water rights are aligned with land rights, offers little opportunity to correct the situation.
  • Landowners ‘mine’ water resources without any statutory control. Regulation of water has been a politically sensitive issue and a Model Groundwater Bill has been pending action for over a decade.
  • At another level, the legal framework has proved rather weak in addressing interstate water disputes.

Water Resources Management in Larger Aspects

  • India faces serious temporal and spatial water shortages that are worsened by rising demand, declining quality and poor water management and resource-use efficiency.
  • The present situation has been traced to a variety of reasons, of which the most crucial are:
  1. Traditional policy and institutional focus on resource utilization rather than management, and
  2. Lack of regulation (including self-regulation) on inefficient water use.
  • Government agencies, often uncoordinated, unsystematic and trapped in resource utilization modes, have been largely unsuccessful in addressing the situation.
  • The success of NGO and donor-driven watershed or water conservation interventions with community-centered processes offers some promise, but larger issues relating to sustainability and scale cast a shadow.
  • While water conservation initiatives appeared to gain percentage during the latter half of the nineties, the role of millions of farmers who actually manage groundwater resources has been limited even in these initiatives due to low levels of resource literacy on causes, consequences or choices.
  • In this context, there emerges a case for building upon the momentum generated by watershed and water conservation interventions through locally developed and agreed mechanisms for sustainable and equitable water use.
  • Water management at the local level offers opportunities for community involvement in analyzing, planning, negotiating and managing the resource.
  • This can correct the unsustainable and iniquitous use patterns arising from the earlier focus on resource utilization and development.
  • Most villages suffering water shortages are found in the upper parts of river basins. In these areas, small water harvesting structures are considered the most appropriate and viable.
  • These can potentially offer benefits of
  1. water availability during the end of the monsoons to protect against crop failure;
  2. groundwater recharge for improved drinking water availability during summer;
  3. protective irrigation for rabi crops.
  • Such local management systems have existed in several parts of the country but have been rendered ineffective over time by the dominant ‘resource exploitation’ mode of working.
  • At the local level, their resurrection (though challenging), offers opportunity to demonstrate innovative approaches, engage with Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and other related community institutions with fewer institutional complexities and resource demands

Key Issues /Conclusion

On the overall situation of water resources, the key issues can be summarized as:

  • The existing legal, policy and administrative frameworks do not operate in coherence with resource boundaries (basin, watershed) and IWRM would require changes in these to enable a resource-oriented approach.
  • Due to temporal variations in water resource availability, groundwater regulation assumes critical significance. Existing legal and administrative mechanisms for such regulation are inadequate.
  • The subsidization of irrigation and electricity supply has impacted water resources adversely for such subsidization offers no economic incentive for users to ensure end-use efficiency.
  • Watershed development programmed (during the eighties and nineties) have attempted to enable participatory planning and management of local water and land resources. However, experiences from these programs suggest that water conservation and management programmed need to pay more attention to:
  • Developing, negotiating and agreeing on equitable, sustainable water management and use practices at the village level.
  • Increase primary and secondary stakeholder capacities for water resource management and appreciate issues impacting participation, transparency, equity and sustainability levels.
  • Enhance inclusive village level planning processes based on systematic assessment of resource availability and demand.

Programmes and Projects For Water Resource Management

  • With domestic and external assistance, there are a number of important ongoing National programmes and projects supporting the implementation of recommendations of Agenda 21 in India.
  • Generally, the projects in the water resources sector are being implemented under categories of major, medium, and minor (surface water and also ground water) projects and schemes, flood control projects, and Command Area Development Programmes. Some of these initiatives include:
  1. guidelines for sustainable water resources development and management have been formulated;
  2. a hydrology project with World Bank assistance is under implementation for the systematic collection and analysis of data;
  3. Master Plans for river basins to optimize use and inter-basin transfers are under preparation;
  4. flood and drought management, and environmental and social impact assessments are an integral part of project formulation, implementation, and monitoring in various States and are continuous processes of all plans;
  5. documents on non-structural aspects of flood management in India have been prepared (a draft bill on the flood plan zone has been prepared and a National Flood Atlas is under preparation);
  6. human resource development is being implemented through water and land management institutes, and other organizations and agencies;
  7. Water Resources Day is being observed every year as part of a mass awareness programme;
  8. research and development programmes on different subjects in the water resources sector are being undertaken through Indian National Committees by universities, research institutes, and other organizations;
  9. pilot projects on recycling and reuse of waste water and artificial recharge of ground water are under implementation;
  10. guidelines on the conjunctive use of surface water and ground waters have been prepared and are under implementation;
  11. Command Area Development Programmes have been implemented since 1974;
  12. Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) through Water Users’ Associations and women’s participation is being actively encouraged and implemented;
  13. a network of hydro logical stations, hydro metric observation stations, and ground water measurement stations collect data, including water quality data, through organizations under the Central and State Governments on a continuous basis (water resource data are collected and transmitted through the network of the National Informatics Centre); and
  14. standardization is being carried out continuously through the Bureau of Indian Standards which participates in the International Standards Organization
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