A Systems Perspective to Drought Adaptation in Maharashtra, India

  • Adaptation should be flexible and focused on soft processes like institutional strengthening with lesser dependence on infrastructure with high sunk costs.
  • Today’s adaptation solutions should not be tomorrow’s problems, and potential externalities can be identified.
  • The shift to resilience thinking in adaptation to extreme events brings nature into focus, not as an adversary causing extreme events, but as the foundation of life, livelihoods and well-being.


“Water availability for drinking water is the most important. Without drinking water, there is no human life.” Shital spoke up. “But if we provide people with income through livelihoods, they will have something to live for. I think water for agriculture is non-negotiable” Ajit argued with Shital passionately.

Shital and Ajit were both participants of a workshop that I was facilitating in January. Yuva Mitra – the grassroots NGO that Shital and Ajit worked for – had organised this workshop for designing a new project on supporting drought adaptation in the command area of the Nandur Madhyameshwar Dam.

The Godavari river is called the “Ganga of the South” (Dakshinganga in Sanskrit). It is a 1500 km long river, which flows through fives states in peninsular India. The Nandur Madhyameshwar reservoir in the Upper Godavari basin was designed to supply water for irrigation to almost 45000 hectares of farmlands in Aurangabad and Ahmednagar districts of Maharashtra. The reservoir supplies water for irrigation to about 100 villages and is the lifeline for more than 55,000 farming families. However, it is currently only able to provide water to about 36000 hectares of farmland.

Maharashtra has been the epicentre of South Asia’s drought story. Stories of failed crops, empty dams and delayed monsoon from Maharashtra have gripped media in the last decade. Agriculture in large parts of the country is dependent on the South Asian monsoons. The timely arrival of the South Asian monsoon winds to the sub-continent is strongly linked to the ocean currents and global temperatures. The El Nino Southern Oscillations have strong links to meteorological droughts and the delayed onset of the summer rains. South Asia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with an increased risk of droughts. Drought-prone areas have increased in India by 57% since 1997. About 40% of the country faced a drought in 2019.

However, the regional climate impacts are but a part of India’s water stress. As a country dependent on monsoons, water scarcity for more than six months of a year has been a reality for agriculture in many parts of the country. This is further exacerbated by increased water demands in the country. In fact, demands are expected to increase to twice the supplies by 2030, according to government estimates. In June 2019, 65% of all reservoirs in India reported below-normal water levels and 12% were completely dry. Further, according to this study, India’s groundwater resources have been depleted severely due to over-abstraction from shallow as well as deep aquifers.

Discusssions on Linkages

Lessons from the Workshop on Adaptation

At the workshop, the entire team identified the core problems they wanted to work on and the dynamic relationships between these core issues that affect the larger socio-ecological system. Sufficiently healthy arguments ensued in the room to uncover varied mental models within one team. The team first came up with the following picture of the whole system. I facilitated the preparation of this Causal Loop Diagram, based on a tool called Group Model Building.

CLD Nandur Madhyameshwar Prject

The Process of Making the Linkages
  1. Adaptation cannot have a “one size fits all” approach.

Drought is a complex phenomenon, with multiple drivers, dynamic feedbacks. It affects not just physical water availability but accentuates inequity and natural resource governance issues within and between communities. Mitigation to droughts has extensive sunk costs and is rigid in nature. While adaptation is crucial to managing drought risk, rigid infrastructural solutions on the supply-side only end up exacerbating the impacts of droughts. Adaptation solutions, therefore, should be designed within a socio-ecological system framework.

Climate data from the countries of the Global South is notoriously scarce, and statistical downscaling of global datasets has high levels of uncertainty. Further, such decision-support systems are not accessible by grassroots organisations like Yuva Mitra. Adaptation, therefore, should be flexible and focused on soft processes like institutional strengthening with lesser dependence on infrastructure with high sunk costs. This allows communities and implementation agencies to adjust to the dynamics of climate impacts as new information emerges.

  1. Potential unintended consequences (or externalities) are easily identifiable through such a dynamic big picture approach to adaptation.

Traditionally, adaptation solutions have focused on a single cause-and-effect chain. For instance, before the workshop, Yuva Mitra believed that the water could reach more farmlands if they implemented water-efficient technologies for micro-irrigation in irrigated farmlands. However, evidence suggests that the unintended consequence of improved water use efficiency in agriculture is the expansion of the total area under agriculture. Water use efficiency, therefore, would not have ensured equitable distribution or reduced demands in the project villages, as the team found out when they saw the socio-ecological relationships in the Causal Loop Diagram.

  1. Removing the inherent supply-bias of solutions, by internalising water demands, use, and ecosystem water needs within the same system is important.

Droughts in India, therefore, are due to a combination of natural and anthropogenic causes. Drought policy by itself is a nascent subject in India. From the 1980s onwards, watershed interventions have been a focus of ‘drought-proofing’ interventions or mitigation efforts through various government schemes. While these interventions have been a mix of nature-based solutions and infrastructure-based solutions, there has been a “supply-side bias” and they are focused largely on augmentation of surface water storage capacity. The reactive, supply-driven and surface-water-oriented policies have led to the externality of groundwater depletion, and consequently groundwater droughts, in India.

  1. Finally, the shift to resilience thinking brings nature into focus, not as an adversary causing extreme events, but as the foundation of life, livelihoods and well-being.

Adaptation requires people to change behaviours to cope effectively with climate change. Adaptation requires unearthing of biases, of system relationships and the understanding of the community’s agency to act. Adaptation literature is largely focused on the role of solutions but does not discuss the operationalising of such systemic, transformative approaches. If adaptation is designed to restore resilience in the system, people and nature can cope better with the impacts of climate change. This resilience as an adaptation mechanism is focused on relationships and processes within communities, the communities’ relationships with nature and the conservation of the relationships within nature.


The Group Model Building Workshop was designed to lay the foundation of adaptation decisions based on a sound understanding of the socio-ecological system. This big picture helped them design better, integrated adaptation interventions which were process-oriented and in acknowledgement of people’s dependence on nature. When managing droughts, the team identified that it is key to change communities’ mental models of the relationships between nature, water and livelihoods (the socio-ecological relationships) and to strengthen institutions to foster collective action for demand management and conjunctive planning of surface and groundwater sources. For Yuva Mitra, not just the introduction of new technologies or infrastructure, but adaptation and restoration of beneficial internal systemic feedbacks are now part of the solution.

The Yuva Mitra Project Team with the Facilitator

An engineer, social scientist and a conservationist, Shuchi works at the interface of theory and practice. As a doer and thinker, her interests lie in the science-policy interface of water scarcity, conservation and climate adaptation. She also facilitates workshops on systems thinking in strategy and project design for organisations.

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