Small villages in India are showing how small dams, built by the people and for the people with the help of non-governmental organisations, have helped to improve the lives of all those living and farming in the surrounding areas. The technology is based on ancient practices that are now undergoing a revival as villagers all over India grow disenchanted with large-scale government water projects.

By Patrick McCully

March 1999

'Now that we have more water our lives are much better,' says Sakarben, a strikingly dignified Rabari woman in her early 40s. The Rabaris - traditionally cattle herders but now mostly farmers - live in the semi-arid plains of Saurashtra, the broad stump of a peninsula jutting from the northwestern coast of India.

Before three small dams were built across a nearby nala or seasonal stream, Sakarben and the other women in her family had been forced to sell their gold jewelry, then leave Saurashtra to work as diamond polishers in Surat, one of the industrial centres of Gujarat state. But now, although there is still plenty of hardship in their lives, Sakarben's family can make a living from their own crops and animals, which can be supplemented as necessary with income from working on neighbouring farms.

The technology that improved Sakarben's life is very simple, relatively cheap to build, and easy to maintain. It consists of a well and three small earth embankments, the longest roughly 50 feet across and 5 feet high. Each of these so-called 'nala plugs' impounds a small pond during the monsoon, which in Saurashtra occurs from June to September. After the monsoon, the pond gradually recedes. This year [1998] there was a lot of late-monsoon rain so Sakarben and her husband Nanabhai think the water may last until March.

The main benefit from the nala plugs, however, is not the surface water in which women can wash clothes, children can splash and water buffalo can wallow, but the water that seeps into the ground. Saurashtra, like much of the rest of India, is suffering from a groundwater crisis. Throughout the region, groundwater levels are plummeting, putting well water out of reach of those who cannot afford electric or diesel pumps.

In the worst-affected areas, farmland and even whole villages are being abandoned. Two-thirds of the villages in Gujarat now have no permanent, reliable source of water, mainly because of the over-exploitation of groundwater. In coastal areas, sinking water tables allow salt water to seep into aquifers. Nearly half the hand pumps in coastal areas of Gujarat were reported in 1986 to be yielding salty water.

Modern electrical or diesel-powered tubewells can draw water far faster and from far deeper than traditional dug wells. All over India, better-off farmers have taken advantage of government subsidies to install and operate tubewells, which raises their crop yields but has catastrophic impacts on groundwater levels and the livelihoods of their poorer dug-well-dependent neighbours. Eventually even tubewells become useless as aquifers are pumped dry or become saline.

Before the nala plugs were built, Sakarben had to walk to nearby villages to fetch water, and her crops were dependent on the always unreliable monsoon. A failed monsoon would mean a failed crop and destitution for her family. Today, the newly built well near her home provides easy access to water year round for her crops of corn, sorghum, lentils, tomatoes and chilies, her three precious cattle and the sheep and goats she somewhat dismissively refers to as 'smaller stuff'.

(Until a few decades ago Rabari families would often have owned hundreds of cattle, but the enclosure of common grazing lands and soil erosion have largely destroyed this basis of the region's pastoral economy.) Five other families also benefit from the groundwater recharge provided by the three nala plugs.

Sakarben lives near the market town of Savarkundla, which is the home base of the Kundla Taluka Gram Seva Mandal (Kundla County Villages Service Centre), a Gandhian non-governmental organisation whose work in the area dates back to the 1930s. The Service Centre started working on water issues in 1995 in response to the crisis caused by the over-exploitation of groundwater in the area. Since then they have built more than 1,000 nala plugs, and a number of check dams (slightly larger concrete versions of nala plugs) and percolation tanks (larger again) in around 35 villages.

Manubhai Mehta, a 60-year-old Gandhian dressed in the all-white cotton jodhpurs and long tunics typically worn by Saurashtrian men, heads the Centre's Water Resources Development Project. 'When we started work,' he says, 'water tables had dropped to around 50 or 60 feet, and in one village to 300 feet. Some of the wells were totally dry. The villages were suffering very bad shortages of water for drinking and irrigation in the winter and people were walking long distances to fetch water.'

Manubhai says that villagers first decide where a water-harvesting structure should be built, then an engineer from the Service Centre visits to discuss their plans and decide which type of structure would be most appropriate for their site and needs. The engineer then prepares design plans and a cost estimate. The villagers themselves provide the materials and build the structure with supervision from the engineer. Seventy-five to 80% of the cost of the structures is paid for by the Service Centre (which is government-funded), with the remainder and all costs of upkeep borne by the beneficiary villagers.

The villagers are encouraged by the Service Centre to set up user groups to deal with maintenance and other management issues. Every full moon Service Centre staff and farmers meet in a different village to discuss issues related to water-harvesting, an important forum for passing on the idea to new villages.

By the People, For the People

According to Manubhai, the success of the Service Centre's project contrasts sharply with government-built water-harvesting structures in the region - almost all of which have been washed out and abandoned. The small nala plugs are simple structures which can easily be eroded away if they are overtopped during floods. But where user groups are formed and have responsibility for maintaining the structures which benefit them, washed-out plugs are soon repaired.

'Our dams are built by the people and for the people, not for the state,' Manubhai says, 'so the people maintain them.' Manubhai says that when they reported the results of the first three years of their project, government officials refused to believe that so many structures could have been built with the 35 million rupees (approximately $830,000) spent to date.

The Service Centre claims that this investment has resulted in an annual increase in income for farmers in the beneficiary villages of around 73.5 million rupees. While most of Saurashtra suffered acute drinking-water shortages in the summer months before this year's monsoon, Manubhai says that only one of the villages where the Water Resources Development Project is working required water to be brought in by tanker.

Twenty-one earthern nala plugs and two concrete check dams have been built across nalas on land belonging to the village of Vartoda. One of these nalas had not contained water for around 10 years. This year the water collected during the monsoon to expected to last until January. Well recharge has enabled one local farmer to increase his irrigated land from less than 2 to 8 acres. In one nearby well the water level has risen from 65 feet below the ground to just 5 feet.

In Bhagada village, wells are being recharged by 61 nala plugs and 17 check dams. A village committee decides where the next structure should be built and a user group is then established for each structure.

Nathabhai Lavabhai Kolathia, head of the Bhagada committee, grows cotton, groundnuts, millet and oilseeds on his 8 acres. He says that his yields have doubled in the three years since a 6-foot-high concrete check dam was built near by. The dam has recharged eight nearby wells, and has also helped vegetation grow along the side of the nala which will provide villagers with fuelwood and fodder. The dam cost 105,000 rupees ($2,500), a quarter of which was provided by the user group in materials and labour.

'The increased production has lifted the need for labour in the village and daily wages have risen from 25 to 60 rupees,' says Nathabhai. 'Another improvement is that there is now farm work outside the monsoon.'

The Service Centre works to prevent the benefits of the structures from being monopolised by wealthier farmers by discouraging direct withdrawals from the impoundments. The water is only supposed to be used to recharge groundwater from wells, thereby ensuring that the beneficiaries are decided more by local geology and topography than by wealth.

'"Equal distribution and no privatisation" is one of our slogans,' says Manubhai Mehta. Another is 'water in the farm should in the farm, soil from the farm should stay in the farm,' which means that topsoil which would otherwise be carried off by monsoon floods is trapped behind the small dams and then spread out over fields during the dry season, a practice which helps maintain the storage capacity of the ponds and provides rich soil for the farmers.

The nala plugs and check dams being built by the Savarkundla Service Centre are a new technology to nearby villages, but are based on ancient practices that are now undergoing a revival as villagers all over India grow disenchanted with large-scale government water projects. In state after state, NGOs are trying to resuscitate traditional water-harvesting systems which have been almost totally neglected by India's water managers, who favour tubewells and big dams.

A 1997 report from the New Delhi-based Centre for Science And Environment, Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India's Traditional Water Harvesting Systems*, documents the incredible diversity of these systems around the Indian sub-continent. The report reveals that water-harvesting is nothing new to Saurashtra - ancient rubble dams found in the same district as Savarkundla are thought to have been used for trapping water and silt 5,000 years ago. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Patrick McCully is with the International Rivers Network. The above article first appeared in the World Rivers Review (December 1998, 'Harvesting the Monsoon - Small Dams Make a Big Difference in the Lives of Indian Farmers').

* For more information, contact Centre for Science and Environment, 41 Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi 110 062 India. Ph: 91.11.698.6399; Fax: 91.11.698.5879; email: .