India: Community watershed management societies in rural India (#132)

Initial success resulted in the joint forest management strategy in Sukhomajiri being expanded. Unfortunately the successes of the original project were not replicated and the scaling-up efforts ended in rapid siltation. This has led to a discussion of possible IWRM implementation in the area. The key lesson learnt from this case is the importance of community involvement for successful community activity implementation.  


In the late 1970s a successful joint forest management strategy was established in Sukhomajiri. By initiating a dialogue with villagers, key issues were identified which led to the construction of earthen dams for the provision of irrigation water.

This in turn led to increased fodder production that reduced the grazing pressure on nearby forests and therefore improved the forest condition, reducing sedimentation of a nearby reservoir.

With this success, the project was expanded throughout the region between 1990 and 1998. Unfortunately the successes of the original project were not replicated and the scaling-up efforts ended in rapid siltation with only 20% of the dams functioning by 2000.

The reasons for these failures are complex and were explored by a recent study of 28 community water user associations, or Hill Resource Management Societies (HRMS), in the Morni-Pinjore Forest Division of Haryana.

Primarily concerned with resource management institutions, the research revealed that heterogeneity of community groups, as measured by household endowment indicators (i.e. average land irrigated, size of land owned, number of livestock and family size), was a key factor in the success or failure of HRMS and IWRM.

Successful regions had clearly defined social roles, be it patron-client or caste-based, and often used a private contractor to allocate water resources and collect user-fees. Therefore a heterogeneous mix of household endowments, combined with interested stakeholders, is a positive precondition.

By examining the existing social institutions and physical conditions of an area, the possibility of IWRM success may be assessed. For example, participation and rule-compliance were affected by access to irrigation alternatives, e.g. tubewells; the distribution of land-holdings, i.e. at the head or tail of irrigation networks; and the share of household income from non-agricultural sources.

Once community resource strategies are in place, managers must be aware of the potential impacts that larger national policies (e.g. import reforms altering commodity prices and in turn, village income profiles) and changing internal dynamics (e.g. increased workload for women without participation in management decisions) can have on long-term success.

Lessons learned

  • Communities need to have an interest in the successful operation of dams and these interests are shaped by a variety of political, social and environmental factors
  • These preconditions, such as historical experience and natural endowments, are key to the success of collective action
  • Heterogeneous groups, with clearly defined social roles, experienced less management conflict than groups with homogeneous household endowments
  • The effectiveness of community water resource management can be affected by internal (e.g. lack of participation from women, despite large stake in outcome, may harm long-term sustainability of policy) and external (e.g. national trade policies which alter the values of water-related commodities) forces.

Importance of the case for IWRM

This case demonstrates that a successful IWRM project needs to align political, social, and environmental factors. Furthermore effective community involvement can gain from traditional social structures and yet must reach beyond customary roles, which may block certain groups such as women from participating.

Photo credit: McKay Savage