The impact of watershed projects


Sometimes the government or bureaucracy suffers from an obsession to undertake national programs that have ambitious plans but often-unrealistic frameworks.

If national programs for the agriculture sector were the “real deal” in improving the lot of smallholder farmers, then we would not have widespread poverty in the countryside.

I also stated in my past columns that it is actually an illusion that national programs can reach all beneficiaries numbering the millions. In the case of the Philippines, the 2015 General Appropriations Act report showed that of the targeted 5.5 million beneficiaries of the government’s agricultural programs, only the first 1.5 million were adequately served.

So why not try community-based projects that have been proven by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to be effective in reaching their intended beneficiaries and be upscaled over a wider area. One good example is the community-based watershed projects that ICRISAT, then under my leadership, successfully implemented in various parts of Asia.

In 1976, ICRISAT already had initial works on integrated watershed management, and in 1999-2000 when I started heading the agency, it embarked on soil and water conservation projects at the community level at various locations in India.

In late 2000, at least two more locations in India and one in Vietnam and Thailand, and in 2003 one location each in China and India were hosts to ICRISAT-initiated watershed conservation projects at the community level.

In the Philippines, similar projects were initiated in 2004-2005 by ICRISAT in the provinces of Bulacan, Tarlac, Ilocos Sur and Bohol, and in 2005-2006 two locations in India were identified.

For the successful community watershed (CW) projects ICRISAT initiated, the usual entry point was the assessment of soil health. The CW projects were intended to support agricultural productivity that also allowed new science tools, methods and innovations developed by ICRISAT and other programs to be converged, tested and demonstrated on a field scale.

Also, the hydrology of the watershed becomes the entry point for integrating interventions in crops, livestock and collective actions. Capacity building was then dovetailed with the overall effort.

The objectives of the CW projects were simple: reduce soil loss by 60-75 percent; reduce rainwater loss by about 60-70 percent; and increase water recharge by 40 percent.

The impact of ICRISAT’s watershed conservation projects and programs initiated at the community level were very significant. For example, there was increased water availability in groundwater or 7.3 meters in Lalatora and Madhya Pradesh, and 4.2 meters in Kothapally, all in India.

In the 66 watersheds in India covered by the ICRISAT initiative, yields increased by 3-4 times. The introduction of CW activities also reduced migration by 8.2 percent in the Rajsamdhiyala watershed, Gujarat, India.

In the Tad Fa watershed in Thailand, seasonal run-off was reduced to less than half or 194 mm per hectare, and soil loss was less than 1/7th compared to the conventional system (473 mm run-off and soil loss 31.2 tons/ha).

Also, in the Tad Fa and Wang Chai watersheds in Thailand, farm incomes increased by 45 percent within three years.

The other impacts of the CW projects in India were: Literacy formation; women’s group putting up income generating activities like vermicomposting; instilling the concept of environmental protection and conservation among the youth; and capacity development where a critical mass trained undertook similar skill-building in satellite watersheds.

In South Asia, there was a raising in the consciousness on the importance of an integrated approach to soil and water conservation.

Eventually, proven programs at the community level can be upscaled to cover more areas or even the whole country. In the case of the CW projects initiated by ICRISAT, three components were employed: Island Approach; Multi-layered Partnerships; and Knowledge Sharing and Innovation.

Island Approach aims to establish benchmark sites that serve as “islands” or models for showcasing different biophysical and social interventions, and satellites where simultaneous activities take place to influence others.

The sites for the Island Approach have minimum requirements of 800-900 mm annual rainfall, 150-200 mm soil water holding capacity and 120-240 days growing period for crops. Because of the challenges posed by the Island Approach sites, there was excellent exchange of learning and honing of the potentials for research development.

Eventually, the Island Approach proved beneficial in promoting advocacy not only within the islands, but also in satellites and even neighboring villages. Also, strong links developed between the island and satellites that improved farmers’ confidence and trust.

Key features of the Island Approach were: sense of ownership inculcated among the locals; sense of inclusion; taking collective action; and enjoining certain degree of guidance from outsiders.

Multi-layered Partnerships were also initiated by ICRISAT that utilized its experience in building alliances among stakeholders and participants. Two very important lessons were learned from this: Trust will stand as a measure for creating relationships and how well these relationships are able to yield the support they need; and projects which do not aim to benefit the implementing body will not languish when direct financial support ceases.

Knowledge Sharing and Innovation also proved to be a vital component of cooperation for development, and this facilitated exchanges to open opportunities for partnerships and cooperation. Also, learning and insights were drawn from the experiences of the CW projects that were packaged through modern and conventional means.

Also, the importance of social networks was emphasized to create impacts.

In India, ICRISAT used Bhoochetana as its mission mode project over a wider scale. It uses soil health assessment as an entry point to plan science-based interventions that can lead to tangible benefits for farmers. This can be achieved through the convergence of sustainable technologies for increasing productivity of farm households with an effective integrated watershed management approach.

The results of the Bhoochetana efforts in India were: Increased crop yield by 20-66 percent; coverage of 3.1 million hectares and benefiting 4.4 million families; contributing to rise in agriculture growth of above 5 percent annually since 2009; resulting in a benefit-cost ratio of 3:1 to 14:1; and accruing a net benefit in four years amounting to $240 million or about P12 billion.

Also, the achievements under Bhoochetana were farmers conserved furrows and added to the soil organic materials, which led to better conservation of water. Also, their soils were saved from erosion and this was achieved by contour planting, green manuring, broad-bed and furrow planting.

Farmers also learned to use biocontrol agents, not pesticides that pollute the environment. And farmers learned to test their soils for lack of nutrients to determine the appropriate inputs needed.

ICRISAT also gave farmers high-yielding and drought-resistant new/improved varieties of chickpea, peanut, pearl millet, pigeon pea and sweet sorghum.

In the Philippines, the Yamang Lupa Program (YLP) is the adaptation of the Bhoochetana concept that covered 4,927 hectares in Quezon Province, Samar and Zamboanga Sibugay as of the first quarter of 2015.

So far, the YLP has succeeded in increasing yields by 23-50 percent after two years and net income of farmers by 153 percent. In rice areas, those covered by the program recorded 11-percent increase in yields.

The YLP also resulted in the development of 216 Soil Health Cards for all the areas covered.

With those impressive numbers, it should be a no-brainer that the YLP program should be upscaled in the Philippines.

Likewise, the construction of rainwater catchments (RWCs) in the secondary or tertiary tributaries or CWs along the 18 big watersheds of the country and other relevant areas must be invested in by government.

This could be done in partnership with local government units and concerned communities. The RWCs will help mitigate or reduce floods and soil erosion including loss of lives. It will also supply irrigation water in the production of high value crops during the dry season.


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