The Answer To India's Water Woes May Lie In Its History - Homegrown

The Answer To India's Water Woes May Lie In Its History

The fate of nations rarely hinge on single-weather events as dearly as India, which depends on the annual monsoon. The seasonal rainfall acts as the lifeline for a country where a bad monsoon season spells economic and social doom—none quite as tragic as farmer suicides—while a good season might ensure promising growth and higher functioning, a fact that becomes critical in 2015.
The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted that the June-September monsoon season may end with a 12 to 14 percent deficit in rainfall, making it one of the three worst monsoon seasons in the past 30 years. The erratic monsoon will now render havoc on the country's fragile agricultural and economic system, which despite high levels of irrigation, depends primarily on the unpredictable monsoons. Population explosion has aggravated the situation to the level that India's ground water resources have been stretched to its limits too.
While the general push in agriculture and other industries calls for innovation and adoption of modern technology, the solution to India's monsoon and impending water crisis lies in perhaps the most favourable form of throwback. The Hindu texts such as the Puranas, Mahabharata and, Ramayana along with various Vedic, Jain and Buddhist works are said to contain various references to canals, tanks embankments, wells and archaeological excavations from the Indus Valley civilisation that have revealed the use of reservoirs by the inhabitants. Thus, water conservation and harvesting can be said to be as old as Indian civilisation itself.
In fact, every village or district in India has developed indigenous water conservation methods and setups, some of which have been used for centuries. The methods across different regions and ethnicities are united in their cost-effectiveness and ability to dramatically transform the lives of those who rely on them. With the central government looking at means of reviving these traditional systems, we thought it pertinent to investigate a little further and draw up a list of some of India's most unique water conservation methods—and the communities that have successfully championed environmental conservation decades before the climate change and global warming debate even existed.

I. Pat System of Madhya Pradesh

A system of the Jabhua District of Madhya Pradesh, the Pat system seems to have been created after the displacement of the Bhil tribe of the region where the tribals used the peculiarities of the terrain to divert water from hill streams into their own irrigation channels. The creation of  the state of Madhya Pradesh saw the Bhils being asked to establish a permanent settlement on a particular piece of land and cultivate it. This led the tribe to innovate the Pat system, with the village of Bhitadia having perfected the system.

Diversion bunds across the Kari stream near the village were made by piling stones lined with teak leaves and mud to make them leak proof. The Pat channel had to pass through the nullahs or deep ditches which joined the stream for which stone aqueducts were built to span the nullahs in a manner similar to the diversion bunds. The narrow channels were skilfully cut in the face of stone cliffs to give an irrigation system which the villagers used in turns. The Pat required about two weeks to start flowing and required constant maintenance by the villagers. But given its incredibly un-invasive nature, it proved to be highly effective, not just for the tribals but also the environment.


II. Ahar Pynes Of Bihar 

The southern region of Bihar is marked by sandy soil, which cannot retain water—and with low levels of groundwater, floodwater harvesting presented itself as the only viable alternative for the residents of the region. The technique consisted of a channel, locally known as pyne, which diverted the river water to a tank or ahar from where it was distributed to the fields. The ahar functioned like a catchment basin—embanked on three sides with the fourth being the natural gradient of the land itself. The pyne started from the river and traversed the fields before making its way to the ahar.

The Ahar-Pyne system, which was suitable for both the rabi and kharif crops, suffered a big blow during the colonial era. In fact, a flood advisory committee which was investigating the continuous floods in the Gaya district in 1949, stated, 'the fundamental reason for recurrence of floods was the destruction of the old irrigational system in the district'. There have since been continuous efforts by various NGOs to revive the Ahar Pyne system in the region with limited success.


III. Johads Of Alwar District

One of the shining examples of water conservation and ingenuity comes in the story of the Johads of Rajasthan. The small earthen check dams, which not only helped retain rain water but also replenished ground water, transformed Alwar, one of the driest districts in India, resurrecting it from the clutches of  near migration and abandonment, to prosperity. The credit for this turnaround is given to Rajesh Singh, the 'Jal Purush' of India who won the Nobel Prize For Water in 2015.

The erstwhile Johad were lost, like many of India's traditional water systems, until Singh's arrival in 1985. He encouraged—and led—the building of the Johads in the district with the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh. The most shining achievement in Singh's cap was the construction of Johad at the source of the Arvari river in 1986, which till then had been completely dry. The building of 375 johads on the river saw it being transformed into a perennial river. In fact, with Singh's help, the nearby villages built 8,600 Johads in between 1985 and 2007, with the resultant impact of a decrease in groundwater drilling from 100 meters to a range of 13 to three meters. The crescent-shaped structures required constant maintenance and community support, something which hasn't stopped its adoption by 1,000 villages whose lives have changed for the better.


IV. Kunds Of Thar

Another instance of water conservation success and revival from Rajasthan with application in few regions of Gujarat, kunds are described as upturned cups in a saucer. The first known construction of kunds was done in 1607 by Raja Sursingh in the village of Vadi Ka Melan, though its speculated that kunds or kundis were being constructed even before. A kund consists of a saucer-shaped catchment area, which has a gentle slope towards the centre where a circular underground well is situated. A wire mesh across the inlets prevents debris, birds or reptiles from entering the water and the well is covered with a lid from which water is drawn using buckets.

The traditional build of kunds requires that the well pits be covered in disinfectant lime and ash, though many modern kunds are now being constructed simply with cement and have flat roofs. Ran Singh, the man credited with building 350 traditional kunds disagrees with this new wave, blaming it on the present penchant for instant results and gratification, and points out that these new kunds are not as durable as the traditional ones.


V. Zings Of Ladakh

The zings of Ladakh refer to small tanks which collect melting glacial waters. A network of guiding channels diverts water from the glacier to the tank as the day progresses. The dripping, melting water of the early morning turns into flowing water by noon and the water collected by evening is used the next day. A water official called a Chirpun is responsible for the equitable distribution of water in a region that receives scant water and has to rely on the melting glacier water of the summer.


VI. Bhanadaras And Phad System Of Maharashtra

Check dams or diversion weirs, bhanadaras were traditionally built in Maharashtra, though their use has been drastically reduced in recent years. The presence of these dams elevated the water level of the rivers to ensure that they flowed into channels. The bhanadaras are also used to impound water to form large reservoirs as a part of the Phad system.

Phad refers to a block of land under irrigation, a system under which the water elevated by the bhanadaras would make its way to kalvas or canals, with distributaries and field channels spreading the water across the fields. Sandams or escapes would ensure the excess drain water was removed along the distributaries and field channels. A decision is taken by the village each year on which phad is to be used and which is to be left fallow, with one crop, usually sugarcane being cultivated on one and a seasonal crop on the other.

VII. Kuhls Of Himachal Pradesh

The surface water channels, called kuls in Spiti Valley and kuhls in Kangra, mark an important tradition for the villagers of the region. An important cultural heritage, the kuhls of the Kangra Valley were built either through public donations or through donations from kings, queens and British rulers. The channels carried the glacial waters from nearby streams into the fields. The Kangra Valley system is said to be the most extensive, with an estimated 715 major kuhls and 2,500 minor kuhls irrigating more than 30,000 hectares in the valley.

A kohli would be designated as the master of the kuhl, and would be responsible for maintaining and checking it. He would commission a team of villagers to come and work with him to repair or maintain them. The patronage given by rulers, pre-dating colonial times has seen many of the kuhls being named after various rulers, though their condition has degraded in recent years.


VIII. Bamboo Drip Irrigation Of Meghalaya

An ingenious system of efficiency that has been practiced for over two centuries, the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills house the famed Bamboo Drip Irrigation system. The tribal farmers of the region have developed a system for irrigation during winter, where water from perennial springs is diverted to the fields using varying sizes and shapes of bamboo (for crops such as black pepper) through the use of gravity.

The construction of this system requires a small local axe called dao, bamboo strands of various sizes, forked branches, bamboo shoots, and two willing workers. The drip system is best suited for crops with lesser requirement for water, with the system ensuring that small drops of water are delivered directly to the roots of the plant with an estimated 20 to 80 drops per minute at the site of the plant, a dissemination of 18-20 litres of water after its journey across hundreds of meters.


IX. Zabo Of Nagaland

The zabo system of Nagaland combines forest, agriculture and animal husbandry with soil and water conservation. The Kikurma village where zabo is extensively practiced has no river source, though the region receives adequate rainfall. Zabo means the impounding of water and involves the creation of channels which takes water from the forests on hilltops that act as catchment areas. The channels run along the main roads and deposit water into large artificial ponds.

The terrace landscape of the system means that the run off through the channels collects the urine and dung of animals as it traverses through the cattle yards and into the fields. The paddy fields are also home to fishes with 50-60 kg of fish being reared as output per hectare of land. The ponds are constructed in a manner that ensures equitable distribution—and the bunds on the sides of the pond foster the growth of herbs and medicinal plants.

X. Eri Of Tamil Nadu

The Eri system of Tamil Nadu represents one of the oldest water management systems in the country—one that is still widely practiced in the state. The state has no perennial rivers and is dependent on the monsoon to replenish the seasonal ones. The Eri system enables the complete use of  river water for irrigation before it drains into the sea by  digging earthen channels that divert river water to the eri, or tank. Each tank is inter-connected in order to enable access for the farthest village and to balance out the water level in case of excess supply.

Eris can either be a system eri, which is fed by streams of rivers through a channel, or a non-system eri, which is an isolated tank fed solely by rain. The Eris ownership is dependent on the area irrigated by them. If an eri irrigates less than 100 acres, it comes under the control of the local panchayat as a union/block level tank while eris above 100 acres are managed by the state Public Works Department. An estimated 39,000 Eris exist in Tamil Nadu


XI. Jackwells Of Nicobar Islands

The Shompen tribe of the the Great Nicobar Islands lives in a region of rugged topography that has been used to devise an ingenious form of water and irrigation system. The low-lying region of the island is covered with bunds made using logs of hard, bullet wood with water being collected in the resulting pit. A full-length bamboo is cut longitudinally and placed on a gentle slope with the lower end leading the water into a shallow pit called a jackwell. The bamboos are usually placed under trees to collect the runoff water from leaves and deposit it drop by drop into the jackwell with a series of bigger interconnected jackwells being built using more bamboos to collect overflow from one pit to another.

Words: Devang Pathak


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