A simple way to trap India’s monsoon rain can boost output 300%

Monsoon ponds, constructed using a ratio of 8 to 10 feet deep and 1 hectare wide to irrigate every 8 to 10 hectares of land, result in yield productivity increases of as much as 300%


Unprecedented declines in water levels at the nation’s reservoirs have driven hundreds to seek refuge in cities, even as the government has spent $1.5 billion on drought assistance. Photo: Vivek Nair/HT
Unprecedented declines in water levels at the nation’s reservoirs have driven hundreds to seek refuge in cities, even as the government has spent $1.5 billion on drought assistance. Photo: Vivek Nair/HT

New Delhi: Prem Singh Khinchi, 78, walks with habitual ease over wet, lumpy soil to stand on the edge of his farm in central India and survey his soybean saplings. He gestures with a satisfied smile toward his man-made pond as big as an Olympic pool and declares that the monsoon rainwater he’s collected on his previously parched land will last him a year.

“We’ll have more than enough water,” says Khinchi. He and another farmer were among the first to dig irrigation ponds a decade ago at the behest of a district official who came up with the idea. As Khinchi reaped three crops a year from his irrigated farm instead of two and boosted his income three times over, imitators followed, digging more than 4,000 rain-collection holes in the Dewas district of the state of Madhya Pradesh alone, where water trains used to have to carry in vital river water from far away. “You can look around and see what a difference our farm ponds have made to our lives, our incomes and our fields,” Khinchi says.

India now plans to replicate the Dewas model across the entire country. The goal is 1.2 million by March 2017, more than double the current 500,000, according to Amarjeet Sinha, the top-most bureaucrat in the ministry of rural development. While the initiative began before the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his administration has sharpened its focus and set solid targets.

Two years of deficient rainfall have affected more than a third of India’s 1.2 billion people and forced 11 states to seek financial aid. As crops failed, higher food prices have stoked inflation, which exceeded 6% in July. Unprecedented declines in water levels at the nation’s reservoirs have driven hundreds to seek refuge in cities, even as the government has spent $1.5 billion on drought assistance. With India expected to experience increasingly wide rainfall variations, digging farm ponds to trap monsoon rain that previously ran off quickly from parched land can offer some measure of relief—and increase land productivity as much as 300%.

It all started with a man seeking a simple solution to Dewas’s water problems.

“When I came here, all I heard from people were stories about lack of water, about how water was brought here by train and how this is essentially an arid, difficult area,” said Umakant Umrao, the former district official, who had trained as a civil engineer and managed to convince Khinchi and ultimately thousands of other farmers that they’d only have to give up a small amount of their land for a pond in order to irrigate the rest of it, and that they could recover their investment in a little more than two years. “The experiment was a big success, and it is spreading. We have farmers teaching farmers how to harness rainwater for irrigation.”

Umrao initially offered his own salary as collateral so that a bank would give loans to the first farmers so they could afford to dig the ponds. Now the birds that had fled Dewas because it was too drought-stricken before have returned, said Umrao, who currently serves as Madhya Pradesh state’s secretary for higher education.

Government policies such as cheap electricity for farmers have led to unfettered groundwater exploitation and have unwittingly fueled inflation, according to a July report by Societe Generale SA. Farmers account for 70% of India’s water usage, according to government data.

Man-made

“Our challenge is entirely man made,” said Shashi Shekhar, the secretary of the ministry of water resources. Not enough attention has been paid in the past to conserving the water table underground and managing India’s water resources as an entire ecosystem rather than as a system of individual rivers and lakes administered on a state-by-state basis, he said.

India’s 120-day monsoon season typically sees intense rain showers for about 40 to 50 days.

“Erratic weather is giving rise to new normals. We seem to have intense rain for fewer days during the monsoon, and farmers are increasingly unsure of rainfall,’’ said Vineet Kumar, climate change researcher at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “The need for rainwater harvesting structures is higher than ever.’’

Stopping rainwater from flowing away into rivers and then the sea helps reduce desilting in the hills and recharges groundwater aquifers in the plains, said Narendra Patel, who trains farmers at the Dewas-based non-profit organization Samaj Pragati Sahayog, which means Cooperation for Community Progress.

“We say the rainwater is our guest,” Patel said. “We believe if we can stop water from flowing away, we will ensure our guest stays with us a little longer.”

Monsoon ponds are now constructed using a ratio of 8 to 10 feet deep and 1 hectare wide to irrigate every 8 to 10 hectares of land, resulting in yield productivity increases of as much as 300%, according to materials provided by the Madhya Pradesh government.

Villagers have also come to realize the importance of pooling resources to solve water issues. About 60km south of Dewas, in the village of Kevatiyapani, a pond funded by four surrounding tribal villages holds drinking water for cattle. This tides them over during blistering summers when temperatures rise as high as 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), according to Deo Ram, 50, who watches over the more than 60 buffalo and cows grazing near the pond. In addition to villagers’ contributions, some funds and labor came from the government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005.

Rubble masonry

Almost all the hills of Kevatiyapani are pockmarked with rubble masonry and small, rectangular ditches to arrest rainwater flows. The structures were devised with help from Patel’s organization. The resulting rise in groundwater levels has helped sustain valuable teak trees in the arid belt and has helped tribal farmers like 50-year-old Badri Lal Kumaria grow pomegranates in addition to wheat and soybeans on his 1-hectare farm in Neemkheda village. Kumaria is among those who contributed time and labour to help build a small dam with the capacity to hold 200,000 cubic meters of water.

“There was Maoist violence in our area,” said Kumaria, referring to far-left militant groups active across 106 Indian districts. “There was no employment and no work, so naturally there was unrest. But now that watershed work we started around 2004 is complete, all violence has stopped.”

The roots of India’s groundwater crisis can be ironically found in its so-called green revolution, said Mihir Shah, founder of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, who advises the Modi government on water. The green movement of the 1970s, when India adopted modern farming practices including hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers, coincided with depleting water reserves, he said. States such as Punjab and Haryana, which gave farmers free water and electricity, have seen groundwater vanish.

“Groundwater fueled India’s green revolution,” said Shah. “There’s no doubt it gave India food security, but the way I put it is, don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

State-appointed “master trainers” from Dewas, including Khinchi, now teach visiting officials and farmers from neighbouring drought-hit states including Maharashtra and Rajasthan. More than 400 farmers from Latur, Maharashtra’s worst-drought-affected district, travelled to Dewas this year to learn to dig monsoon-collection pools. Dewas was mentioned in Modi’s radio address to the nation earlier this year, after his government announced plans to expand the farm ponds program past the 1 million mark by 2017. Farmers from Dewas have received awards from India’s president for conserving water.

“Out here in Dewas, we aren’t just focused on holding back water from flowing,” said Mohammad Abbas, a Dewas agriculture department official who accompanied two farmers he helped train to New Delhi to receive the honours. “Like a farmer sows seeds, we’re sowing water so that our future generations can reap a harvest of water.”

Farmers are now planting water-intensive crops such as watermelons that they could never grow before, said farmer Khinchi.

“God willing, Dewas won’t ever need trains to bring us water again,” he said. Bloomberg

READ MORE