Water in the Land of Extremes: Marwar’s People Find Solutions to Water Scarcity

Women filling water from Hemajal Nada
Women filling water from Hemajal Nada

UNDP project has reached out to water-scarce communities in 200 villages across Pali, Barmer and Jodhpur districts of Rajasthan to address the water-related vulnerabilities.

More than seven million people rely on agriculture and animal husbandry in the Marwar region of the western Indian state of Rajasthan, one of the world’s most densely populated deserts. Water is a scarce resource for the villages in the region, many of which do not have even a single source of safe drinking water within a 1.6 km radius of their homes. On average, this region witnesses six drought years in a decade. It is no wonder that Marwar is known as the land of extremes - with low annual rainfall, non- perennial rivers, that flow only during certain times of the year, saline groundwater and extreme temperatures.


  • UNDP in partnership with the Italian Development Cooperation is helping reduce vulnerabilities of communities in Marwar region of Rajasthan
  • The project reached out to 300,000 people in 200 villages and led to a 140-percent decline in expenditure costs per household
  • Water harvesting structures increased water storage capacity by two million cubic metres

In 2005, the United Nations Development Programme entered into a five-year partnership with the Italian Development Cooperation to reduce the extreme vulnerabilities of communities in this water-scarce region by empowering them to take the lead and indeed overcome a long struggle to access drinking water.

Implemented by the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, the project reached out to water-scarce communities in 200 villages across Pali, Barmer and Jodhpur districts of Rajasthan. In doing so, it addressed the water-related vulnerabilities of close to 300,000 people. Water harvesting structures succeeded in creating additional water storage capacity of two million cubic metres in one of the most parched regions of India.

Project interventions have also had a significant impact on reducing household vulnerability. Overall availability and access to water has resulted in a 140 percent decline in expenditure costs per household. Work was undertaken to improve availability of drinking water through building water harvesting infrastructure, adapting technologies to meet unique needs of the region and its communities, encouraging sanitation and hygiene practices, generating livelihoods and establishing a water resource centre that serves as a repository of traditional knowledge on water conservation techniques and the environment.

The approach has been people-oriented – that is, the community itself developed solutions to water scarcity and assumed the lead in constructing and conserving water structures and sources. Communities were organised into groups to restore/build and manage water harvesting systems which resulted in restoring and building close to 300 water harvesting structures. The community approach also paved the way for decentralized social governance systems and community level social capital was created through managing and implementing micro projects by the communities themselves. Through the Jal Kosh or water development and management fund, communities maintained bank accounts to undertake sustenance and maintenance activities. Further, the facilitation of small water enterprises (SWEs) in villages as community- owned institutions has contributed to increased availability of inexpensive and safe drinking water.

For women in particular, efforts to build equitable access to water resources have paid off. Many were saved from the drudgery of walking long distances for water and families were able to access water during months of acute shortage. The proactive involvement of women in community activities have contributed to greater social inclusion in a predominantly patriarchal society. Further, the supply of water, mainly by women through small water enterprises has provided crucial sources of income and helped families achieve financial security. Importantly, the project has provided critical inputs to several state policies including the Rajasthan State Water Policy. The project has received recognition both at national and international fora including at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As India strives to make progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, partnerships such as this in the Marwar region can provide important inputs for future interventions by demonstrating the effectiveness of grassroots strategies to empower communities to manage water resources. As the threat of climate change looms large, global per capita water availability is expected to decline from 1,820 cubic meters per year in2001 to 1,140 cubic meters per year in 2050. The Marwar experience can provide important lessons on combating the impacts of this global challenge. This combination of collective action, traditional knowledge and inclusion can lay the ground for sustainable access to water, and represent a critical poverty reduction strategy for communities across India.

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