Project Sujala: Space for sustainable future

Project Sujala: Space for sustainable future


India’s semi-arid tropical (SAT) region is characterised by seasonally concentrated rainfall, low agricultural productivity, degraded natural resources and substantial human poverty. Now, scientists and planners are aiming to promote rainfed agricultural development through watershed development. A watershed is an area from which all water drains out through a common outlet, making it a suitable unit to manage water and soil resources for better production and conservation. Watershed management involves harmonising the use of soil and water resources between upstream and downstream areas within a watershed for natural resource conservation, increased agricultural productivity and better standard of living for its inhabitants. Identifying and addressing the significant externalities associated with a watershed are critical in achieving these objectives in a sustainable manner.

Utilising the benefits of space missions towards better life for the nations and people on Earth is one of the founding principles of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Along with Karnataka government, ISRO has been involved in optimising use of geospatial technologies for watershed development programmes for more than two decades. ISRO was actively involved in planning, monitoring and impact assessment of Sujala, a communitybased watershed development project, during 2002 – 2009.

Antrix Corporation, the corporate front-end of Department of Space (DoS), focussed on the use of technology to achieve the goals of the project with the help of a few scietists from Regional Remote Sensing Service Centre in Bangalore (RRSSC-B), Government of India. The company partnered with Project Sujala, implemented by Karnataka State Government in India to use modern technologies in the form of space imaging, participatory GIS and IT tools for effective community gains. The Watershed Development Department implemented the project in five districts of the state. Project Sujala has been a communitydriven, participatory, holistic and integrated watershed development project aimed at better natural resources management and poverty alleviation in predominantly rain-fed areas. The project sought to improve the productive potential of selected watersheds, enhance production and livelihood systems and strengthen community and institutions.

K R Sridhara Murthi, Managing Director, Antrix Corporation, India, reveals, “The watershed management project was triggered by the demand from Karnataka government and the World Bank to bring in the best use of technology for planning and development. They were keen on systems for process monitoring, input-output monitoring and also geospatial technology-enabled impact assessments, for which ISRO was well equipped. They were also keen to understand the sustainability aspect of the implementation, particularly with respect to natural resources management and the livelihood situation of local community, at the end of the project.”

Watershed prioritisation was carried out to select the areas for implementation through scientific criteria based on problems with respect to natural, environmental and social parameters. Landscape and climate changes as well as economic developments in watersheds stimulate a corresponding cascade of dynamic adjustments both in water quantity and quality at locations further downstream. Hence, it is very important to choose water-sheds based on specific/ well identified parameters keeping in view the agro-climatic and agro-ecological conditions. Selection of watersheds based on scientific parameters and socio-economic conditions goes a long way in addressing sustainability of various climatic variables in the long run.

The Sujala project concentrated on 77 sub-watersheds spread across five districts, namely Kolar, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Dharwad and Haveri, covering 1270 villages and impacting about 400,000 households.

Dr. P.G. Diwakar, Associate Director, EOS, ISRO, India, says, “While people with land automatically participate in activities involving development of their land, people without land also need to participate in this programme to make it participatory and holistic approach-oriented. Otherwise such a programme loses effective implementation and positive impacts. This project adopted a unique approach where people without land would also have a role in the making of an affinity group (self help groups – SHGs). The project would provide them the opportunity to participate as labour in land development activities. At the same time, these groups would get the benefits of skills development/ employment generation activities so that they can sustain themselves in the long run. This strategy to develop land and at the same time improve the livelihood conditions of the communities both with and without land through equitable development helped in sustenance of such a project.”

Sujala enabled rural communities to experience the benefits of space technology in building a sustainable future for them. “Space technology was optimally used in all the facets of watershed management, from planning to implementation to monitoring, particularly in watershed characterisation, watershed prioritisation, resource mapping, run-off estimation, capacity building, water resources action plan, land resources action plan, site selection for implementation, monitoring and evaluation and sustainability,” adds Dr. Diwakar.

Dr Ranganath, Project Director, M&E, explains how the space technology is being used. “We use high resolution satellite imagery and extract relevant information for land use, establish clear understanding on slopes/ gradients of the terrain and understand soil characteristics and various other features on the ground to specify locale-specific actions for conserving soil and water resources.”

“Evidence-based monitoring and evaluation were the most important aspects of the project as they made a big impact at not only project level but also at the community and NGO levels,” says Sridhara Murthi. Dr Diwakar elaborates Murthi’s view point. He says, “At regular basis we take satellite imagery from CARTOSAT and RESOURCESAT and make interpreted information available to all stakeholders and implementing authorities, clearly bringing out the situational status at field level and establishing transparency. As we had already made the base maps for all the watersheds in the study areas, comparison with respect to before project and present status was possible for anyone to see and understand. These were prepared in 2002-03. Subsequently we acquired and processed images and integrated them with the existing geospatial databases at regular intervals upto 2007 as part of project monitoring. Therefore we were able to establish the change detection quite firmly with the eye-in-the-sky concept. We also used participatory GIS at field level, WebGIS and MIS as an online monitoring tool and correlated the same with field observations to instil strong and effectively monitoring capabilities at various stages of the project. Monitoring and evaluation, unlike most of the other projects, got a unique status in this project wherein people started respecting our observations. Many field level functionaries were apprehensive of malpractice during the implementation stage. Our system ensured a systematic implementation and a lot of transparency. Another interesting observation is the confidence shown by the village community in our field level teams.”

“We evaluated the progress of the work at two levels. One was to update Web-based information system (the online MIS/ GIS tool) with the latest report which can be cross checked on-the-fly at any given point of time. Another was the use of these reports plus the process monitoring reports prepared on a weekly basis through audio conferences. We are fortunate to have had co-operative decision makers (watershed commissioners and district level functionaries). Whenever we reported wrong-doings, they took corrective actions and implemented the entire project in a very positive spirit. In fact, many NGOs were suspended and cases were booked on erring individuals,” adds Murthi.

Distribution of funds at the right time for effective project implementation was crucial. It is often seen in such projects that rich farmers get maximum funds, thereby going ahead and implementing things smoothly. But evidence-based monitoring prevented such a situation as the focus was on equity and inclusiveness which ensured that marginal and small farmers too could participate in the activity in an equitable manner, according to Murthi. He adds, “Youngsters (fresh graduates) were trained for process monitoring at field level. They demonstrated very high quality innovative work at ground level and strictly followed the objectives of the project while addressing monitoring and evaluation. They handled the local people very well and instilled confidence that all villagers would be able to enjoy the benefits of such a project. They created such a high level of awareness that even a common man could report to us on malpractices over mobile phones. The village community at many times worked as a self monitoring group and reported misdeeds from the field which could be addressed by the project from time to time.”

Impressed by the success story of Sujala project, the Government of Karnataka was given a go-ahead to use the same concept of watershed management under a new project funded through the Prime Minister Relief for Distress Districts which is presently being implemented in Karnataka. Murthi informs, “We have also provided assistance to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Senegal to adapt similar projects in their own countries. Senegal wanted to adapt the same technology and is in process of project formulation. The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, have been provided a series of presentations on this project which has enabled them to adopt the same in their own projects.”

Planning and development of watersheds calls for rigorous understanding of the occurrence and movement of water at surface and sub-surface systems, along with soil and nutrient losses in a watershed as the need arises for a proper watershed management of that area. In a country like India where removal of top soil is prevalent as a result of bad management of running water, it becomes pertinent to implement relevant watershed management technologies to solve such problems. It is also pertinent to observe that the local governments stand to gain a lot by systematically adopting the simple principles of watershed development to effectively fight the twin annual problems of droughts and floods.