Research:Exploring Knowledge repositories on Water resources in India
This research study explores Knowledge Repositories on water resources in India, how has the digital transition impacted the process of creation & access to these resources and possible collaborations to build open digital repositories around water. The research was undertaken by Subodh Kulkarni, with editorial inputs by Puthiya Purayil Sneha, and Chiara Furtado. This is part of a series of short-term studies undertaken by the CIS-A2K team in 2021–2022.
Water is the most precious natural resource for the existence of all living organisms on earth. As human beings have not treated it respectfully in recent years, there are increasing challenges with accessibility and availability of water across large parts of the world today. In India, the groundwater levels are depleting at an alarming rate due to over exploitation. The quality of surface water reserves is degenerating due to pollution caused by discharge of wastewater, sewage and untreated industrial effluents. The condition of rivers is getting worse due to illegal and unregulated use of these resources across India. Due to damming almost all the rivers flow for only 8-10 months in a year. Above all, the pollution caused due to solid wastes and effluents have destroyed living organisms and aquatic life. Therefore most of the rivers in India are called ‘dying rivers’. There have been several discussions and debates happening around this degradation of rivers, especially in the last decade.
Efforts by various organisations are afoot to document the state of affairs, spread awareness and undertake activities on the ground with community participation. Citizen-led efforts have also been instrumental in strengthening several water conservation efforts in India. It is seen that these peoples’ movements have been further strengthened due to empowerment through enhanced awareness of these issues around conservation, and better access to knowledge on the subject, especially through scientific studies.
CIS-A2K has initiated Project Jalbodh in 2017 in collaboration with a few organisations to generate water related content. During one of the ‘River dialogues’, a CIS-A2K member was invited to introduce Wikimedia projects to the organisations working on water resources. In the discussions, it was revealed that there is negligible content about rivers, water pollution, floods, irrigation system etc. in Wikimedia projects. Following this, an analysis of content on these subjects on Marathi, Hindi & English Wikipedia and media on Wikimedia Commons was undertaken. The need to develop structured categorisation of content was also felt. As the organisations are trying their best to disseminate knowledge about water issues, they realised the potential of Wikimedia projects due to the high level of searchable content available on these platforms which can be accessed by the general public. In keeping with these objectives, over the last two years, various workshops were conducted with organisations working at the grassroots to develop the structure of articles, categorisation and re-licensing of source material on these topics across various Wikimedia projects. Tarun Bharat Sangh is leading this process, and has uploaded 90 books & reports on Wikimedia Commons under free licences, and created articles on rivers in Marathi, Hindi and English Wikipedia projects.
During these content generation events it was realised that the organisations are working closely with communities which are conversant mostly with local or regional Indian languages only. The availability and access to water related resources in these languages is therefore an important issue. The communities are in need of simple, accessible and ready to use content in various forms. They also require a platform on which they can document/archive their water conservation efforts for other communities to take lessons and motivation from these projects.
This study was framed by the following questions:
- How has the digital transition impacted the process of creation and access to water related resources in India.
- What are possible collaborations and processes to build open digital repositories around water, with special reference to rivers.
The study adopted a qualitative approach, with the method comprising online/offline, semi-structured interviews with organisations working in the water resources sector. Based on desk research and conversations with existing partners in the sector, a long list of organisations was developed.(See Annexure I). Further, eight organisations were shortlisted for interviews based on their experience and impact of work in the water conservation sector. Due to various constraints, eventually interviews with three organisations were completed. The interview questionnaire focused on the nature, objective and scope of the offline and online resources available, human resources involved, language aspects, documentation practices, methods of dissemination, utility, accessibility, training value of the material, intellectual property rights (IPR) policies and public outreach efforts. These interviews were conducted online and in-person and recorded with consent from the participants, along with a clear explanation on the objectives of the study and the data collection. As mentioned above, there were a few constraints with the research process and methods adopted, as well as external factors. These included restrictions on travel and in-person meetings due to the COVID 19 pandemic, and challenges with online platforms. Some of the organisations were not comfortable with online or telephonic interviews and insisted upon physical interactions. The online interviews were less effective with the organisations as they were unaware about the free & open knowledge platforms like Wikimedia, Internet Archive etc. In addition to this, introductory sessions were conducted to give them a background to the work of the programme and context of the study. A general challenge here was also logistical issues related to scheduling conversations etc. given that personnel were located across different departments.
Description of organisations interviewed
Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management [ACWADAM]'
ACWADAM is an organisation dedicated to establish a groundwater management agenda in India. It is a premier education and action research institution engaged in developing and disseminating knowledge on groundwater management. It is also involved in facilitation of projects on groundwater management through action research programmes, training and policy advocacy, with a collaborative, participatory approach.
ACWADAM's mission is to facilitate groundwater management programmes in partnership with various organisations spread across the country. Over the years, it has developed expertise on aquifer-based groundwater management based on the science of hydrogeology.
Action for Agricultural Renewal in Maharashtra [AFARM] AFARM was founded in 1969 as an apex Institution to coordinate programmes of voluntary organisations engaged in providing drinking water and agricultural extension services to villages in drought affected Maharashtra. It is one of the pioneering networking organisations in the country working in the areas of sustainable agriculture, irrigation, disaster relief and drinking water resource management. It acts as a platform for several civil society organisations for the promotion of sustainable and equitable development. The emphasis is on capacity building of organisations through action research, advocacy and field projects at grassroots. AFARM is providing support and consultancy at the policy level.
BAIF Development Research Foundation [BAIF] BAIF was established on the strong foundation of Gandhian values with the aim to improve quality of life through development research and capacity building. BAIF’s vision is to build a self-reliant rural society assured of food security, safe drinking water, good health, gender equity, low child mortality, literacy, high moral values and clean environment. It is striving towards the mission to create opportunities of gainful self-employment for the rural and tribal families with a focus on disadvantaged sections, ensuring sustainable livelihood, healthy environment, better quality of life and good human values. BAIF believes in field research, effective use of local resources, extension of appropriate technologies and upgradation of skills and capabilities with community participation.
Availability of digital datasets on water resource projects: Many organisations in the sector rely on online information and databases on sites such as – Census of India, IMD, Google Earth, Bhuvan, CGWB, GSDA, MRSAC, Bhumi Abhilekh, Survey of India, India Water Portal, Agriculture Department, Irrigation Department, Forest Department, Maharain etc. Many of the global datasets on water resources and related topics such as agriculture, population, topography, forestry, climate change etc. are also in the public domain. However, the updating of data is not done regularly. For example, we have to refer to census data for 2011 even in 2022. Many of the datasets are also at a macro level, providing very little granular data. The water resource projects mostly need micro level data which is collected through on-ground surveys.
Effectiveness of digital platforms, and challenges with internet coverage:
Organisations have found the use of digital platforms and tools effective for quick exchange of common training modules, process videos, drawings and manuals, as part of their water resource projects. The digital format has also been very effective for dissemination of advisories, alerts etc. through smartphones, which have enabled better access to information on gadgets quickly. However, two-way communication is necessary when timely solutions to queries of the farmers are to be provided, and that has been difficult to set up in a sustained manner through a digital format.
Many organisations in the sector also engage in capacity-building efforts for staff, volunteers and communities. When building these communities and mobilising them for action, the process needs spontaneous feedback, live conversations, reading the expressions and actual interactions with each other. All these things are completely missing from virtual interactions. These organisational processes and capacity-building efforts were grossly hampered during the pandemic due to a reliance on online meetings alone.
There are still challenges of internet connectivity in rural and remote areas where the communities are involved in water management projects. The consistency of bandwidth is a major issue when it comes to streaming of audio-visual content, uploading of content, online workshops, etc.
Lack of documentation skills, and challenges with language: Most of the documents used in water resources related projects are technical in nature. The technical team invests more time in the implementation, hence the time and skills required for documentation are limited. This gap between technical skills and documentation skills is challenging. There are ample structures, technological methods, apps etc. for collecting the data but at the same time, the resources for data collection or structured data development are not sufficiently provided. There are also several language-related challenges at the field level. Crucial parts of the training and awareness material need to be translated in the local languages as well.
Mobilisation and motivation for communities and wider public:
The offline and online content is not very effective to mobilise or motivate the people involved in action at the field level in water conservation efforts. The organisers are exploring all the modes of communication and content available, but there is no alternative for human leadership.
Some organisations like Paani Foundation have beautifully captured the success stories of these efforts in dramatic short films. These films inspire the public temporarily, but the content can not be used often. Also, the production costs of such content are high resulting in very few options for wider outreach to engage a general audience.
Negligible content about water sector in public domain or Wikimedia projects in local languages: All the organisations agree upon the lack of searchable content on water related topics on the internet and in the public domain through projects like Wikimedia. The activists looking for solutions on some technical issues, the community searching for good projects in other parts of India or the planners looking for some structured databases on impact of projects, all of them get very little content on the internet. The local language content on water resources has almost negligible presence.
Need for a comprehensive portal giving information to stakeholders at different levels: The different stakeholders concerned with water resources seek information and data on various levels and diverse formats according to application and purpose. As of now, no such comprehensive platform in multiple languages exists which caters to these needs. The requirements include a wide range like, sample design of water conservation structures, contour maps of region, rainfall data, estimates of raw material, ground water aquifer maps, water pollution parameters, operation of dams, irrigation systems, water policies, water treaties, government notifications, etc. A well structured and categorised knowledge repository and database on water resources is the need of the hour. Such a knowledge base would strongly support the actions on the ground.
Developing a Process Documentation Strategy: The continuous changes in knowledge resources and data regarding various topics related to water resources need to be documented from time to time. The dynamic nature of water related issues requires a proactive process documentation strategy for the organisation as well as the citizen science groups in the society. The ideal example is the trajectory of the monsoon season in India every year and the rainfall in various agro-climatic regions. The watershed conservation projects, river rejuvenation programs, pollution control projects are long term processes with long term impacts. The journey of several years is painstaking, needs patience and struggles on the ground with constant motivational efforts. The persons directly engaged in these efforts may not be able to spend time on documentation of the many resources that are a result of these efforts. Hence, a solid process documentation strategy is required. The process documentation is also crucial for assessment of project impact on environment, livelihoods, economy, geography and people. There are also citizen movements which have been active for a long time, which are instrumental in giving birth to new laws, rules, guidelines, notifications, etc. The different milestones and turning points in these processes are to be documented in time. This documentation can guide the larger citizens’ movements to design their strategies and to resolve issues arising during the course of this work, and across different thematic areas as well.
Accessible datasets open for all in the public domain: There is an important need to compile the datasets on water resources developed by different agencies with people’s participation and government funding for the planning of public works or schemes. The open access to such reliable and factual datasets in the public domain serves the purpose of transparency and accountability of public infrastructure programmes. This facility for society would provide impetus to rigorous analysis, studies, research and innovative designing of public infrastructure. The processing and presentation of data in visual formats, including infographics can boost understanding, awareness, and logical thinking processes among enthusiasts who would like to engage with water conservation efforts. Different perspectives can emerge after relating and comparing datasets. The networking of agencies, organisations, experts and citizen forums would further develop complementary datasets. This synergy will definitely create a community data pool beneficial for everyone.
Digital and open access content development for capacity building of field level activists: Various organisations have developed training material for field level activists in different formats. Most of this is not online or digitised. Through networking efforts, the integration could be done to develop systematic modules for capacity building. The modules would be hosted as Open Educational Resources (OERs) on Wikimedia projects or other free knowledge platforms. The topic wise categories will make the selection easier. These categories can include local water source, rivers, waste water disposal, pollution, water based livelihoods, water conservation treatments etc. The format combining course work with some hands-on experiments is beneficial to facilitate the process of self-study, self-assessment and self-design. This online repository can be accessed by the field activists working on water resources anytime, anywhere when they need guidance to resolve issues or trouble-shooting on site.
Orientation of organisations towards free knowledge platforms and Wikimedia projects: Over the years, the organisations working in this sector have created valuable material for wider circulation to create awareness and empower communities. These resources have been used effectively and in a few locations for a certain period of time. The outreach and dissemination through integration of these resources will have more impact in the coming years if digital platforms are utilised efficiently. The basic orientation of the organisations regarding such free knowledge digital platforms, including copyright issues, Creative Commons licences, digitisation process and internet technologies is necessary to kick start this knowledge dissemination movement. Some pilot projects could be executed to demonstrate the potential of Wikimedia projects in database generation, documentation of case studies, audio-visual repositories and reference libraries.
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