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Indian farmers pool groundwater to protect against drought

by Manipadma Jena | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 November 2010 10:42 GMT

p>HYDERABAD, India (AlertNet) Â? Until 10 years ago, the six acres of land Dappu Pulya owns with his younger brother in India's drought-prone state of Andhra Pradesh produced nothing but debt.

The brothers took out loan after loan to buy seeds, pesticides and fertilizers but their crops failed as the monsoons came late or less rain fell. After investing in two bore wells that drew no water, they migrated to Mumbai to work in construction.

But since they returned in 2000 to their hamlet of Malkaipet, in Ibrahimpur village some 100 kilometres from Hyderabad, things have been different.

With their earnings, they paid off their loans, dug another bore well that drew water and in 2008 joined 17 other farmers in a groundwater-sharing network.

The network is transforming agriculture in a region where chronically low rainfall and unpredictable rainfall patterns Â? exacerbated by climate change Â? have left many farmers in ruin.

Through the network, six bore well owners share their water, via a network of channels, with twelve farmers without wells. Farmers pay into a common fund to maintain the system, with those who invested in wells paying much less.

"Such community networks address the water crisis challenge by not only protecting the investments of bore well owners, but also by providing critical irrigation to those who do not have access to groundwater," said Suresh Kosaraju, director of the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), a Hyderabad-based non-profit.

"This will result in all-round protection of livelihoods as well as ensuring food security," he said.

WASSAN is supporting the Malkaipet network as part of India's National Agricultural Innovation Project, which follows pilot projects that began in 2005 under the Andhra Pradesh Drought Adaptation Initiative, sponsored by the World Bank.

The effort aims to introduce collective management of groundwater and to encourage farmers to adapt to the effects of climate change by moving away from water intensive crops like rice.

The goal is also to ensure protective irrigation of rain-fed crops when rains fail and to conserve water by using micro-irrigation methods such as sprinklers instead of flooding of fields.

The agricultural innovation project is being scaled up to cover the eight districts in Andhra Pradesh's "rain shadow" region. The area typically has low rainfall but changing weather patterns linked to climate change mean even less rain is falling and at unpredictable times, according to WASSAN.

No rainfall just after sowing or too much rain when lentil pods are forming, for example, can destroy a crop.

The need to irrigate at critical crop stages has led to overuse of groundwater in the region over the past 30 years, leaving many wells dry. Each year, farmers have dug deeper in search of water, incurring huge costs.

Debt has driven many farmers to suicide. Some 2,100 farmers committed suicide in 2008 in Andhra Pradesh, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau, many after accumulating a variety of agricultural debt.

Suicides, however, now appear to be declining as the government introduces relief programmes, including loan waivers and water management projects like the one at Malkaipet, development workers say.


At Malkaipet, farmers have named the groundwater-sharing network Duddalam Jalu, which in the local language of the PulyaÂ?s Lambada tribe means 'Goddess of flowing water'.

The network, set up under a formally binding agreement, covers 45 acres of farmland where farmers have an average land holding of two to three acres.

The six borewells are connected through a 1.6 kilometre (1 mile) pipe network with 18 water outlets distributed evenly across the 45 acres. Sprinkler systems - used only for winter or dry season crops Â? have proved particularly successful.

"With sprinklers, our previous yield of groundnut (peanut) of 20 to 30 bags per acre has doubled," said Pulya. "When the water was pumped in the past, it would take seven hours to flood only half an acre. With sprinklers, a whole acre is easily irrigated."

Pulya's income has also doubled since the sprinklers arrived in 2009, to 60,000 rupees ($1,400) annually.

In 2008, before the network was operating, just one of the 12 farmers without a well successfully grew an acre of groundnuts in winter, the area's second cropping season. The following winter, five farmers without wells harvested 1.5 acres of groundnuts each and in the winter of 2010, all 12 have planted a second crop.

Before irrigation, farmers were limited to one crop per season, during the summer monsoons.

Groundwater irrigation provides vital security for farmers to protect against the late onset of the annual monsoon and prolonged dry spells, farmers say.


With the network comes a new set of regulations. In winter, only crops that consume less water, like groundnuts intercropped with cowpea, are cultivated, said Khethabath Gomlibai, 52, a bore well owner and the only woman in the network.

The crops get eight days of irrigation over a 90-day crop cycle, supplemented by occasional rainfall. During the monsoon season, farmers now plant more lentils rather than water-hungry rice. Only six of the 45 acres had rice crops during the 2010 wet season.

Under the sharing agreement, farmers without wells pay 1,000 rupees ($22)per acre per year, while bore well owners pay 200 rupees ($4.50), towards maintaining the systemÂ?s pump motors, which frequently break down because of the unreliable electricity supply or because they suck in mud and sand.

There is a 10-year ban on new wells being sunk in the 45-acre area. If more borewells are sunk, the groundwater table recedes and existing wells dry up, farmers warn.

Despite its successes, the network has had its challenges and teething problems.


Varthaya Ramji, 61, whose land lies at the far end of the network, said he did not sow last winter. He was unsure whether two bore well owners would be willing to simultaneously divert water Â? a coordinated action required to push water to his distant field.

Ramji attends the network meetings but said he lacks the confidence to demand his water rights. Pulya said farmers without bore wells should form their own group and put pressure on well owners.

Similarly, Pulya's wife Sankeramma, 35, said she gave their bore well water to another farmer who then did not pay his share of the pump maintenance costs. Pulya said he paid 2,000 rupees ($44) from his own pocket to repair his water pump recently, although the entire network gets irrigation from it.

"It was not easy to convince bore well owners to share water," said Kummiti Kumaraswamy Reddy, WASSAN's senior field researcher at Malkaipet.

It took over a year of negotiations and bore well owners only agreed to share once the government added two borewells that helped irrigate distant portions of their land that were previously out of reach, he added.

Alarmed at the growth of groundwater usage in farming, which it says is unsustainable, the Andhra Pradesh government is working on legislation to address the growing water hunger.

The legislation, which could be approved within months, would update the existing Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Trees Act, according to sources from the office of the Special Commissioner for Rural Development.

Two measures being considered under the legislation include stopping private bore well drilling and training communities to generate maps and record data to monitor groundwater, the sources said.

Experts, however, say the government and farmers also need to rethink food production as the climate becomes more capricious. Growing food will be about 'more crop per drop', rather than getting the most out of acreages. Agricultural policies need to shift from a focus on 'land productivity' to 'water productivity', they say.

Manipadma Jena is a freelance development journalist based in Bhubaneswar, India.

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