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Water Sector Approaches to Combat Climate Change

1.0 Climate Change and Impacts on water

Every day, the humanity needs more water across the globe to produce food to meet the demands of about one billion people added every year. One of the very important aspects of the impacts of climate change relates to the equity implications of changes that have been happening as well as likely to happen in the future. And given the status of economic strength, institutional capacities and required capacities of the agrarian countries like India, the loss of livelihoods and opportunities to maintain even subsistence levels of existence might occur. Increase in temperature, changes in rainfall pattern, distribution and intensity is already observed which pose a serious threat to food security, livelihoods and shelter.

Climate change holds profound implications for irrigation and drainage in India. It alerts snow melt and spring flow inducing a corresponding shift in planting calendars as farmers try to avoid late season droughts. Increased evapotranspiration losses from lakes and reservoirs due to increased temperature, greater watershed erosion and consequent reservoir sedimentation due to intense precipitation and increased frequency of more intense storms which may force to increase the flood storage capacity in reservoirs or even redesigning spillways are the other major impacts. Water stored as fresh groundwater in coastal aquifers can also be contaminated by saline water intrusion in response to higher sea levels.

On balance, changes in water supplies are likely to be more pronounced and have greater impacts on irrigated crop production than increases in evapo transpiration. Reducing demand through more efficient irrigation technology has significant potential to help farmers deal with reduced supplies. Micro irrigation can be applied on a wide range of scales and would be an important adaptation practice.

With respect to drainage, the strongest impact is likely to be the need for increased drainage provision, particularly in lowland and deltaic regions. Also, floods bring epidemics in their aftermath. Two ways to overcome drainage impact are to provide increased drainage or change to flood-resistant crop or new varieties. Encroachments on flood plains also need to be reassessed and regulated.

Droughts have a direct negative effect on rain-fed agricultural production, including live stock production in addition to their impact on water supplies for domestic, industrial and irrigation purposes. In dry environments, the risk of wildfires will increase affecting livestock grazing, timber based livelihoods and watersheds supplying drinking water to urban areas, in addition to direct threat to human lives and structures. Catastrophic land slides are also possible in view of expected higher intensity rainfall. Many eco systems are stressed by land use changes due to diversion of water from rivers and widespread release of industrial contaminants. Alterations in temperature and hydrologic regimes resulting from climate change will add to these stresses and will likely lead to additional loss or displacement of habitat, loss of bio-diversity, extinction of species and increased desertification.

2.0 Tamil Nadu State – Water Resources

Though water is available in the universe in huge quantity in the order of 1400 x 106 km3, only 3% of the waters in the universe is fresh water. Tamil Nadu accounts for 4 per cent of the land area and 6 per cent of the population, but only 3 per cent of the water resources of the country. Most of Tamil Nadu is located in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats and hence receives limited rainfall from the south-west monsoon.

2.1 Water Balance

The Water Resources Organisation prepared a State Framework Water Resource Plan of Tamil Nadu. The annual water potential of the State including surface and groundwater is assessed as 46,540 MCM (1643 TMC) while the estimated demand is 54,395 MCM (1921 TMC) in 2001 which is likely to go up to 57,725 MCM in 20502. The various sectors are.

  • Domestic use (urban and rural) is projected to go up from 4 per cent to 6 per cent due to increase in population and due to urbanisation. The domestic requirement would increase by 55.72 percent.
  • Agriculture use will remain stagnant or may even decrease due to progressive urbanisation.
  • The share of industry may not change much, but in absolute terms the increase will be about 27.7 per cent.
  • Provision of 1600 MCM in 2050 would be made for minimum flow in rivers for ecological purpose, which is a new category for water resource planning.

2.2 Eco-System based Watershed Classification

The land is traditionally classified following the ancient land classification principles as Kurinji, Mullai, Marudham,Neithal and Palai. Considering the above said classification of lands in Tamilnadu, a Research Team from DHAN Foundation undertook a strenuous exercise of classifying all micro watersheds spread over 385 development blocks in the State, based on the watershed boundary from the Watershed Atlas and on the land use pattern in each block. After grouping the watersheds based on 500 ha treatment area, the total watersheds in each eco-system have been distributed among the cross cutting themes as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Eco-System based Watershed Classification

Land Classification Characteristics Total Number of Water Sheds
Kurinji Hilly and Hillside lands 3,370
Mullai Forest, interface rainfed agricultural, barren and wastelands 4,450
Marudam Plains, cultivated wet and rainfed lands 9,040
Neithal Coastal lands 1,930
Palai Desert lands 450
Total 19,240

The futuristic eco-system based watershed development with a focus on water security, integrated with local issues could be developed, based on the figures shown above. The State’s immediate effort may well be on development of a unique plan of saturating all micro watersheds through long term (say 20 years) context based approach. This would be possible only when People’s participation and implementation of watershed development take place as a “Movement” in place of contemporary target oriented, technology driven and top-down approach by the government agencies.

3.0 Perspective Plan for Integrated Micro Watershed Development

The perspective plan for micro watershed development envisages the conservation of water and land resources in a holistic manner. The research team termed the eco-system based watersheds, which are to be developed, as New Generation Watersheds. The treatment of these watersheds would ensure water security.
Relevance of New Generation Watersheds

  • No deviation/ minimum deviation between ideas and action while implementing watershed programmes
  • In order to have Sustainability and long Shelf Life, each watershed would require at least 7-10 years instead of the present 5 years constant term for development.
  • When the period of implementation extends upto 7-10 years, the additional resources needed can be met by having a judicious mix of grants and loans; Private and Public finance (eg.) Rural Infrastructure Development Fund
  • New Generation Watersheds need to be driven more by development focus rather than technology alone.

The New Generation Watersheds must look into integration of Tanks, Ponds, Streams and Springs (TAPSS) because TAPSS are ‘Living Eco-system’ situated within the micro watershed. Many of them are in a dilapidated condition. It therefore provides ample scope for undertaking tank based micro-watershed development at cascade/sub-basin level. Development or rehabilitation of tanks, ponds and other water bodies existing in the micro watersheds will provide immediate benefit to the people and livestock and in the long run, enhance the surface and groundwater potential which is the prime objective of any watershed development programme.

Finally, the watershed should integrate all developmental issues of the concerned watershed. Each micro watershed must be developed by the people formed into a watershed association instead of the present guidelines driven myopic watershed committee having selective representations within the watershed. Through incorporation of the ‘missing links’ in conventional watershed development, the New Generation Watershed might address issues like groundwater disaster and water rights.

The following are some of the priority areas for consideration:

  • Water Scarcity: Tamil Nadu is a chronically water starved state. Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation. Suggested measures are steps to both manage demand for water and to enhance supply without waiting for evidence of change of climate and precise estimate of its magnitude, since action will be beneficial even in the absence of climate change.
  • Knowledge base and analytic capacity is another important priority to expand the knowledge base on water resources, climate change exposure and impacts. Application of GIS and remote sensing technologies to the assessment process can enhance the extent of coverage considerably.
  • Water-Saving technology: Adaptation of water-saving technology like Micro irrigation, converting open, earthen channels to buried pipelines, adding control gate to free flowing systems and technologies for reducing and reusing water for domestic consumptions can be focused. We need to look at the contribution of International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) on a list of ten strongly effective technologies for increasing agricultural production with limited amount of water (www.icid.org)
  • Management and Governance Reforms: Management and governance of water distribution including transfers of irrigation system management responsibility from the state to farmers, private sector involvement in operating municipal water supply systems and, establishing reliable system of water rights etc., is the need of the hour.
  • Supply Augmentation: Treating urban waste water, the use of constructed wetlands for treating waste water from smaller communities in warmer climates, groundwater recharge through innumerable techniques available and used currently, must be up scaled up and rejuvenated.
  • Multiple uses of water: Integrated use of water for irrigated crops, livestock, poultry and aqua-culture as well as domestic needs and environmental needs can considerably save water and increase productivity of water.
  • Insurance Schemes: There is scope for insurance programs to smoothen the risks associated with climate variability. Primary targets would be risks relating to crop failure, livestock deaths and floods.
  • Awareness: It is important to raise awareness among policy makers, opinion leaders and the general public of the mechanisms that drive the problem and options available both to mitigate it and to adapt it at the local level. Policy roundtable, seminars, workshops, news features are all effective ways of doing this. Climate change can also be included in school curricula at all levels.

4.0 Climate Change : Priority areas for Coping and Adaptation

4.1 Augmenting Freshwater bodies

In Tamil Nadu state, there are 39000 minor irrigation tanks, innumerable local ponds drinking water Oorani and percolation tanks. The climate adaptation action plan should focus on augmenting storage capacities and strengthening hydrologic linkages between fresh water bodies in all 17 river basins. Priority must be given to tank intensive districts and coastal districts which bear the brunt of water scarcity and salinization in view of sea water intrusion. As suggested by International Water Management Institute, Colombo in their water policy brief , following are the options for adaptation and water storage options.

Fig 1: Options for Adaptation

Water storage focus and contextualisation

Sl. No. Eco-systems/Context Adaptation Focus Rehabilitation/Renovation/Conservation of Water bodies such as…
1. Rural Water Security

Food security

  • Minor irrigation tanks in cascades
  • Percolation/Cattle Ponds
  • Recycling Waste Water at Panchayat Level
  • Farm Ponds in catchment /rainfed lands
  • Artificial Recharge of potential aquifers through Check dams/anicuts
2 Coastal Preventing Desertification & Sea water intursion

Clean Drinking Water Access

Safe drinking water & Househould level

  • Enhancing storage capacity of irrigation tanks in coastal belt and diverting water going waste in to sea after giving care to biological needs
  • Constructing Farm Ponds/ Kondams
  • Drinking Water Oorani to be deepened in all costal villages
  • Bio-sand filters at Household
  • Sanitation improvement
3 Hilly terrains Afforestation

Preventing Erosion & Sedimentation

Preventing Wild fires

  • Checkdam/Gabions/ terraces and staggered trenches
  • Tree Plantation
4 Urban/Town Area Preventing Floods

Improving Drainage

Protecting Waterbodies

Penalising Water Pollution

  • Deepening Waterbodies after eviction of encroachment
  • Clearing Water Ways
  • Diverting Drainage with proper filteration into waterbodies
  • Roof Water Harvesting
  • Decentralized/ centralized Waste Water Treatment Plants

4.2 Preparing Village/Panchayat wise Disaster management Plans:

In all hamlets in all blocks should participate in developing a disaster assessment, disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation plans in both situation before occurrence of Climatic disaster such as Drought, Flood and cyclone (more relevant to coastal villages) and immediately after the occurrence of calamities. Early Warning Systems, Vulnerability Maps, Capacity Development of locals to cope and creating Calamity Fund at Village level with proper accountability should be thought of.

5.0 Way Forward in Climate Adaptation:

Water being a cross cutting issue, hydrological impacts of climate change is increasingly being addressed in projects in related sectors, e.g. in agriculture and resource management. Our water management and governance efforts so far have revealed the importance of integrating adaptation to climate change into routine government planning and management practices and of starting early to develop the capacity and knowledge base needed to support subsequent actions. The process of adaptation will involve a mix of private and public sectors. Ultimately adaptive actions will be the result of a multitude of individual decisions made by farmers, business people and consumers. It is the task of government to supply the collective goods (such as knowledge and infrastructure) needed for effective adaptation. Responsibility for coordinating adaptation action should generally rest with the ministry or department with a broad mandate such as planning or finance ministries.

Efficient water use can be supported through water saving technologies like drip irrigation, reducing water losses in water networks , agricultural lands and canals, reducing evaporation and runoff on agricultural land through crop cover (mulching) and cropland management, optimized water allocation, multiple use systems and methods of rain water harvesting. Protecting existing water resources through wastewater treatment and controlled land fills are other available technologies. Physical infrastructure will be most relevant to augment storage capacity and to flood protection. Storage Capacity can be increased through dams and reservoirs, constructing earthen enhancements along contour lines, protection of wet-lands and flood plains, artificial groundwater recharge and reforestation. Infrastructure and technologies may also support disaster prevention through construction of dams, dykes, improved regulation of reservoirs, flood plain management and flood protection facilities. Finally, information and monitoring systems including data collection, modeling and analysis are prerequisites for proper preparation of action plans.

6.0 Role of NGO’s in Supporting Adaptive Action

The NGO’s can support governments in formulating adaptation strategies and setting priorities. In setting priorities, it will be important for the NGO’s to target the most vulnerable regions, vulnerable groups and sectors most affected by climate change. Often, the marginalised society ( e.g. subsistence farmers, herders, fisher folks and landless laborers) are the most strongly affected by climate change due to strong exposure, and low adaptive capacity. The NGO’s can help the government in identifying such cases and create awareness to carry out necessary adaptive responsive actions.
While the role of NGO’s is very much helpful and needed in developing a sound strategy for adaptive action by the government departments, they can also play a vital role in assisting implementing adaptive actions through pilot projects.

The Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India has set up a large number of task forces at the State and Central levels to tackle climate change through adaptation and mitigation. It would be advisable for the NGO’s to get involved with these task forces for effective strategizing and integrating adaptive measures in the on-going development projects.

Lastly, the NGO’s can play a vital role in creating awareness among the public at the local level through village knowledge centers and participatory action studies.


  1. Environmental Planning Frame Work for Water Resources Management in Tamil Nadu, Final Draft, 2001, Public Works Department. Government of Tamil Nadu.
  2. Tamil Nadu Development Report, 2005, Planning Commission, Government of India.
  3. Economic Appraisal 2003-04, 2004-05, Evaluation and Applied Research Department, Government of Tamil Nadu.
  4. Ground Water Resources of Tamil Nadu, 2002, Public Works Department. Government of Tamil Nadu.
  5. IPCC.2007 a. Summary for policy makers. In Climate Change 2007: The physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, N, USA.
  6. Cline, William. 2007. Global Warming and Agriculture. Impact estimates by Country. Center for Global Development, Washington DC.
  7. GTZ .2008. Water and Adaptation to Climate Change: consequences for Developing Countries. Published by Climate Protection Programme for Developing Countries, Gtz,Eschborn, Germany.
  8. “Crossing Climate Change Implications: Adaptation with Community Managed Tanks and Ponds”, Lead paper for Madurai Symposium 2009 conducted by DHAN Foundation, A.Gurunathan, Programme Leader.
  9. CLIMATE RESPONSES AND ADAPTIVE ACTIONS IN HYDROLOGY AND WATER RESOURCES, Dr.R. Sakthivadivel, Emeritus Professor, Anna University, Chennai-25
  10. International Water Management Institute, Colombo (2009)”Flexible Water Storage Options and Adaptation to Climate Change”, Water Policy Brief (Issue 31)

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