Rural India looks to past and present to meet growing water needs

by Stella Paul | stellasglobe | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 10:04 GMT

A woman farmer with an irrigation sprinkler in Poovula Doruvu village in Andhra Pradesh state, southern India. TRF/Stella Paul

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Indian farmers are adopting a combination of centuries-old water storage methods and modern irrigation techniques to adapt to increasingly dry conditions

HYDERABAD, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Farmers in rural India are adopting a combination of centuries-old water storage methods and modern irrigation techniques to adapt to increasingly dry conditions.

With funding from international donors, the government of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh is renovating thousands of medieval water ponds, and training farmers to use carefully targeted drip irrigation instead of flooding their fields with water.

One of the converts to this mix of old and new methods is 80-year-old rice farmer turned betel-leaf grower Murkhan Appa of Uduguru village. In the mid-1980s, Appa was the first person in Uduguru to dig a borewell to irrigate his 6-acre (2.4-hectare) farm.

Uduguru is in Anantapur district, one of India’s driest areas. The village receives just 450 mm of rainfall annually, leaving farmers entirely dependent on groundwater for their livelihood.

With his new well, Appa was able to pump large quantities of water to irrigate his fields. All the other farmers in the village followed his lead, sinking one or more wells on their land so they could flood-irrigate their fields.

But three decades later, Appa has become a staunch critic of indiscriminate groundwater extraction.

“Water is precious. We must use it wisely,” is what he tells the Water Use Association (WUA), a village-based citizens’ group he heads that campaigns for sustainable use of water in agriculture.

According to the recently released World Water Development Report 2014, 70 percent of all water withdrawn globally is for agricultural purposes, and this is likely to increase another 20 percent by 2050. This will further deepen the current water crisis, warns the report.


Massive extraction has rapidly depleted the groundwater table in Anantapur. According to Purushothama Reddy, deputy director of the district’s groundwater department, 50 percent of borewells have gone dry.

“Of the newly drilled borewells, 70 percent are failing to draw water,” Reddy said.

That is why Appa and other WUA members are practising sustainable water use, including drip irrigation, water sharing, rainwater harvesting and changes to their cropping patterns.

On his farm, Appa has built a 10-foot square tank which he fills every other day with water pumped from his borewell. He now drip irrigates his land instead of flooding it.

“Using the tank helps minimise the extraction. Earlier, I pumped water every day for two hours. Now, I do it every (other) day for 45-50 minutes,” he said.

To help farmers like Appa, the state government is implementing the Andhra Pradesh Community Based Tank Management scheme, a World Bank-funded project that promotes sustainable use of water for irrigation in rural areas by restoring old “water tanks”.

There are about 77,000 such tanks in the state of Andhra Pradesh, according to Vinay Kumar, the project’s director. Looking more like ponds or small lakes, they were created by the state’s ruling families in medieval times. They were the main source of irrigation for local farmers, but fell into disuse and disrepair with time.

Since 2006, the tank management scheme has been renovating the ponds so that farmers can once again use them for small-scale irrigation. So far 3,000 have been restored, Kumar says.


In late March, the project was selected as a finalist for the “Water for Life” prize by UN-Water as part of its World Water Day programme. The prize is awarded to the best examples of integrated water management.

“What we have here is a truly participatory model of integrated water management,” said Kumar. “We work along with over 50 civil society organisations and village communities that are also the direct beneficiaries.”

The project trains villagers to maintain and manage the tanks, monitor and collect data on water availability, analyse the data, and adapt to evolving conditions using sustainable practices.

At Uduguru, the village tank has been restored and the community is being encouraged to use it collectively. According to Appa, the WUA will invest 200,000 Indian rupees (about $3,300) to keep the tank filled with water from local borewells. “It will be shared by all,” he promised.

Drip irrigation, water sprinklers and furrows are also gaining popularity among small-scale and marginal farming communities in the state’s coastal region.


In one such village, Poovula Doruvu, villagers are investing collectively in sprinkler irrigation kits under a European Union-funded climate change adaptation project called Adaptcap. Three or four families share a kit comprising an electric pump, sprinkler sets and enough hose for about an acre of land, at a cost of about 400 rupees ($6.60) per family.

“Every year, we have floods and cyclones which have increased salinity in the soil. Also monsoons are irregular these days. So instead of drilling a borewell, which is very costly, we formed a self-help group to buy and manage the sprinklers,” said villager Devadanam Aragela.

According to Aragela, the families now use just a couple of borewells and are saving money on electricity as well as the fruit and vegetables they grow.

Shailendra Kumar Mandal, a researcher at the National Institute of Technology in Patna who has studied the community water management activities at Poovula Doruvu, said the initiative is helping them save nearly 95,000 cubic metres of water and 35 kilowatts of electricity every year.


Hydrologist Joseph Plakkoottam, who has advised several water management projects, including the tank scheme, said it is important that rural communities reach consensus on adapting their agricultural practices to the changing climate.

Plakkoottam cited the example of Gollamada in Adilabad district where the entire village adopted integrated water management to improve their livelihoods.

Though Adilabad receives adequate rainfall overall (more than 560 mm), the district began developing dry pockets like Gollamada. The groundwater table in the village was declining, and drilling borewells would aggravate this.

“It costs at least 80,000 rupees ($1,300) to drill a borewell. Few of us could afford that. So we decided to grow jawar (sorghum), red gram and sesame, which grow well in a dry climate, unlike rice,” said villager Gongula Padma.

Besides trying out new crops, Gollamada villagers have renovated ponds and tanks to catch rainwater. They have also started a collective cattle farm, enabling them to boost their incomes from milk sales.

“Integrated management of resources is all about overall improvement of livelihoods. This village has proven that successfully,” said consultant Plakkoottam.

Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.

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