World Water Day 2024: Promoting Community-led Climate Resilient Water Security in the tea gardens of North Bengal

By Kaushani Banerjee and Damini Rathore

Against the backdrop of critical water shortages, exacerbated by climate change, rapid urbanization and burgeoning population, ICLEI South Asia’s latest project is a call to action to recognize the importance of bringing communities together to promote water security and to invest in solutions that are both-innovative, inclusive and sustainable.

Nestled in the idyllic hills of North Bengal, Darjeeling and Kurseong are regions known for their sprawling tea gardens, a legacy of the colonial era that continues to shape the local economy and culture. However, beneath the lush greenery and serene landscapes lies a pressing challenge that threatens the fabric of these local communities, especially workers in the tea garden — water security. Climate change, coupled with unsustainable agricultural practices, has intensified water scarcity, affecting not just the tea production but also the lives of thousands of workers and their families who depend on these gardens for their livelihood.

World Water Day 2024 serves as an opportune moment to highlight the support provided by ICLEI South Asia for building water resilient communities in North Bengal with support from the Oak Foundation.

The Community Led Action Plan (CLAP) project for Climate Resilient Water Security acknowledges that embracing a climate resilient water management is imperative in the region whose economy is primarily dependent on tea gardens with a large migrant population, who are vulnerable due to several reasons including socioeconomic status, health conditions, gender, age among others. These vulnerabilities make them more susceptible to poverty and exclusion. CLAP seeks to champion efficient water resource usage, system resilience in the face of climate variations, and social equity. It seeks to build and promote strategies which could safeguard health and prosperity and ensure environmental sustainability, particularly in the tea gardens wrestling with resource scarcity and inequality.

Additionally, CLAP aims to develop and promote an impactful model that would empower local communities, particularly women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds, to lead the charge in securing their water future.

The Challenge at Hand

Research paints a grim picture of the situation in Darjeeling and Kurseong, where the availability of clean, reliable water is becoming increasingly scarce. Climate change impacts, documented by the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) in 2010 and the West Bengal State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) in 2017, reveal a decrease in rainfall and an increase in temperatures. This shift has led to a greater dependence on already stressed local water reserves, streams, and reservoirs. A Central Ground Water Board report from 2014 and a study by Rai et al., 2016 suggest natural springs and their watersheds are inefficiently managed and facing degradation. Moreover, the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and agrochemicals, along with indiscriminate waste disposal, has further contaminated and degraded these precious water sources.

The Essence of CLAP

To address these multifaceted challenges, CLAP plans to foster a collaborative platform including local governments, tea estate management, NGOs, and the local communities, especially women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds, thereby building on the collective strength and traditional knowledge of all the stakeholders. The project aims to not only improve the quality and quantity of water resources but also to develop and institutionalize sustainable, community-led Water Security Plans (WaSP) built around the principles of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM).  The project will work closely with the local communities, particularly women, migrant workers, tea estate owners and local authorities to identify pressing challenges and develop a list of possible interventions-including, both infrastructural and non-infrastructural measures-thereby also ensuring ownership towards the measures.

The key uniqueness of the project is the idea to build and nurture a cadre of ‘barefoot hydrogeologists’ from the women and youth of local communities through training and initial hand holding to support planning, implementation and sustainability of the WaSPs. This cadre of barefoot hydrogeologists will facilitate mapping of the status of water resources, and allied sectors such as solid waste management, sanitation, sewage and sludge management, delineate the catchment boundaries and develop water budgets for different uses.

This grassroots approach will ensure that solutions are not only locally relevant but also sustainable in the long run, promoting ownership and empowerment among the communities.

Transforming Lives and Landscapes

The potential impact of CLAP extends far beyond immediate water security. The project emphasizes the integral participation of local communities, especially women, throughout the entire process from crafting action plans to their execution, monitoring, and subsequent replication and expansion. By reducing the time and labor involved in water collection, enhanced access to sanitation, the project promises to lighten the physical burden on women for collecting water, offering them time to explore opportunities to further education, alternative income generation, and better quality of health.

Recently, a team from ICLEI South Asia conducted visits to the potential tea garden estates such as Kodobari, Makaibari, Sepoy Dhora, Dayal Thong, Maharani among others to understand the ground reality, prevailing challenges and also identify potential locations for on-ground interventions.

A Model for the Future

By focusing on traditional knowledge, participatory approaches, training and capacity building, ICLEI South Asia is not just aiming to address an immediate need for sustainable water management, but is also laying the groundwork for such collaborative community-driven approaches that can serve as a model for similar regions worldwide.

As the project unfolds it offers a beacon of hope—not just for the local communities in North Bengal but for all those seeking sustainable solutions to the pressing climate-induced environmental challenges such as water scarcity. In the serene yet vulnerable landscapes of Darjeeling and Kurseong, CLAP embodies a hopeful narrative of empowerment, collaboration, and sustainable development in our collective quest for community-led climate resilient water sustainability.

Kaushani Banerjee is a Communications Manager and Damini Rathore is a Project Officer at ICLEI South Asia.

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