Up the gross natural product

Anil Agarwal explains how community-based resource management can solve the ecological poverty afflicting the world’s poor.

High levels of ‘ecological poverty’ – defined as the lack of a healthy natural resource which is essential for human society’s survival and development – are a key cause of the economic poverty of the world’s rural poor. Conversely, healthy lands and ecosystems, when used sustainably, can provide all the economic wealth that is needed for healthy and dignified lives.

Ecological poverty is different from the economic poverty which modern economists revel in. As economic poverty is measured largely in terms of cash incomes, it is almost irrelevant in the biomass-based subsistence economy that supports most rural people. The approaches to dealing with ecological poverty and economic poverty are also vastly different. Economists normally talk of welfare measures to deal with economic poverty, but rural practitioners who have tried to deal with ecological poverty talk more of institutional, legal and financial empowerment with a strong emphasis on community-based property rights over ecological resources.

Basic necessities
According to the State of World Rural Poverty, produced by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 1992, more than 2.5 billion of the some 4 billion people of 114 developing countries, lived in rural areas; approximately 1 billion of these below the poverty line. These people lack such basic necessities as safe drinking water, adequate food and health care. Almost a third of the people in the developing world have a life expectancy of just 40 years. The IFAD report says that less than half the rural population have access to safe drinking water, and even less to irrigation water to ensure sustained agricultural production. For these people, poverty is a denial of the most basic of all human rights: the right to life. The ‘trickle-down approach’ has either failed to reach them or has not worked well enough. The massive persistence of poverty, particularly in rural areas, represents a serious problem both for poor nations and for the global community. The problem lies not only in the unintended consequences of the prevailing economic paradigm, but also in the viability of the paradigm itself.

Though poverty and its relationship with the environment was recognized by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, action on the issue remains largely neglected. It is no accident that many poor rural people live in areas of extreme environmental fragility where ecological changes have led to natural resource degradation. A large portion of the world’s rural poor now lives on highly degraded lands in China, South Asia, Africa and Latin America. For them, improvements in the gross natural product are far more important than improvements in the gross national product.

Ecological balance
Villages in the developing world are usually highly integrated micro-ecosystems. Each Indian village, for example, has its own croplands, grasslands, and tree or forest lands, and each of these land-use systems interacts one with the other. This entire village ecosystem is held in a fine ecological balance which can easily get split apart.

Over the 1980s, the ecological crisis in India has generated several outstanding community-based natural resource management initiatives. These show that community-based water management, aiming to harvest local rainwater, constitutes the key activity for initiating the restoration of the ecological and economic base of villages dependent on a biomass economy. Once water is available, croplands begin to produce more and become less susceptible to periods of low rainfall. Slowly, over time, animal-based production also begins to increase. Once people begin to manage their local water resources, they automatically begin to realize the importance of watershed protection.

The two villages that started this work in India in the late 1970s – Sukhomajri in Haryana and Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra – have today so increased their ecological wealth from agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry that they can earn $1 million a year on a sustainable basis. What is remarkable is the short time – some three to four years – that it takes to transform a poverty-stricken, destitute and ecologically devastated village into a relatively well-fed and green one. This wealth can be multiplied by regularly investing in resource management, leading to a cyclical system of sustainable growth.

Positive action
There has been nothing more heartening in the last two decades of the environmental movement than the transformation that these communities have been able to achieve. Bureaucratic resource management systems have either failed or have proved to be cost-ineffective, making them irrelevant in a world where financial resources are limited.
There is no need for doom and gloom unless we continue with the existing paradigm
When told this, people often ask in wonder: how much can you do with your local rainwater resources? The simple answer is: an amazing amount. Just consider this water arithmetic (unfortunately, hardly any modern water resource experts seem to be aware of it). How much water would you get if you were to capture a mere 100 millimetres of rainfall – the amount that you get every year in Israel’s bone-dry Negev – on 1 hectare of land? The answer is a million litres. Harvest all the rain that falls in your village and you will get not just enough water to drink, but also for life-saving irrigation. The result will be less poverty and improved food security and health.

This demands a fundamental change in current water management strategies. Two major discontinuities have emerged worldwide over the last 150-200 years. First, the state has emerged as the major provider of water, replacing communities and households as the primary units for providing and managing it. Second, there has been growing reliance on the use of surface water and groundwater; the earlier reliance on rainwater and floodwater has declined, even though they are available in much greater abundance than river water or groundwater. The growing water crisis of the 21st century is bound to force humanity to look at other ways of managing water resources, including going back to community-based water management using the technology of rainwater harvesting. The experiences cited above show that there is no need for doom and gloom unless we continue with the existing paradigm

Anil Agarwal is the chairperson of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (www.cseindia.org) and was a member of the World Water Commission.

PHOTOGRAPH: Kevin Lane/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Oral A. Ataniyazova: Ask us, involve us (Disasters) 2001
Chee Yoke Ling: No sleeping after Seattle (Beyond 2000) 2000
Cedric Schuster: Tradition matters (Oceans) 1998
Jeffrey A. Thornton: Something old, something new (Fresh water) 1998
Susan Hazen: Environmental democracy (Chemicals) 1997
Oscar B. Zamara: The real roots of security (Food) 1996
Jules N. Pretty: Sustainability works (Food) 1996
Jorge Illueca and Walter Rast: Precious, finite and irreplaceable (Water) 1996
Don de Silva: Grassroots: Pumping with life (Water) 1996
Somsook Boonyabancha: Creating the participatory city (Human settlements) 1996