Indigenous water management system by the farmers of northeastern hill region

A. K. Singh

 The northeastern region of India comprising eight states viz., Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. Most of this hilly portion is either owned, or controlled or managed by tribes, clans or village communities. Due to their ingenuity and skill, the tribal farmers of northeastern hill region have developed many efficient water management systems. These systems make judicious use of water in scarcity areas, undulating topographical situation, take care of minimizing soil loss through runoff and maintenance of soil health.

Water Management in Apatani Plateau

The Apatani Plateau is located in Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh and has an area of 26 km2. It is inhabited by Apatani tribe. The valley lies between Panior and Kamala rivers at an attitude of about 1524 m and is surrounded by higher mountains having an elevation up to 2438 m above mean sea level.

The Apatanis have developed an efficient system of water management for rice and fish culture. All streams averaging out from the surrounding hills are tapped, channelised at the beginning of the valley and diverted by a network of primary, secondary and tertiary channels. Some water is allowed to flow in the first feeder channel, which the stream continues its course. The feederchannel branches off at angles which leads water to terraced rice fields in a way that blocking or opening the connecting ducts (Huburs) any field can be flooded or drained as need be. The cross section of main and sub-channels vary in depth and width. These channels are pitched with boulders at the entry for checking their erosion due to high flow of water. The most important aspect of water management in lowland rice fields is to keep water up to desired level and the Apatani farmers drain off the water whenever required. Farmers, sometimes practice rice cum fish culture by making fish channels in the fields in a way that even if water is drained out from the rice fields the water remains in the fish channels. Apatani version of wet rice cultivation is one of the most advanced with an exceptionally high energy and economic efficiency. This system involves people’s participation for common works and the available water from natural streams is used most judiciously in a planned way for crop production. The system has remained sustainable since centuries.

The ‘Zabo’ System of Water Management

“Zabo” means impounding of water. The place or origin of this system is the Kikruma village in Phek district of Nagaland, located at an attitude of 1270 m above mean sea level. This system includes harvesting water from hill slopes, storing them in tanks and using it for crops. The rainwater from top hill slopes is diverted to dugout tanks. Usually there are one or two desiltation tanks where the runoff water is stored for desiltation before taking it to the main tank below. The size of these tanks depends on the expected water harvest. These tanks are desilted in periodic intervals and the material is put in the fields for improving soil fertility. Water from the desiltation tanks is taken to the main tank for storage. The water from the main tank is passed through animal yard before taking it to the fields for irrigation. The water carried with it the dung and urine of the animals to the fields and the soil fertility is maintained properly.

Bamboo Drip Irrigation

Bamboo drip irrigation system is mainly followed in Jaintia and Khasi hills of Meghalaya. This is a very good system for the area where the water is scarce, soils have poor water holding capacity, the topography is undulating and rocky and the irrigation is required for such crops whose water needs are low.


One can see beautiful rice terraces in many states of northeastern hill region which is locally known as Panikheti. Angami and Chakhesang tribes of Nagaland have developed a system of irrigating rice fields grown on terraces. Due to high rainfall in the region the growth of weeds in upland rice is a serious constraint for higher productivity.

The terraces are irrigated by channels which carry water from some stream or torrent. About 10 to 15 cm water which is maintained in the field and extra runs down from the one terrace to another through wedge type openings in the bunds. To maintain desired level of water in the field, an appropriate size stone is kept at the opening in the bund, which also helps in preventing the erosion of the soil around opening with gushing water from one field to another. The traditional practice followed ensure that there is no wastage of water while protecting the rights of farmers over water.


All the tribal system of water management is partly community managed and partly self managed. Once the systems are erected by the tribal people they run for years provided maintained properly. The methods adopted traditionally by the tribal farmers of the region due to their skill and
experience are simple, make use of locally available resources, require investment and are most
suitable for hilly terrains. These methods have combination of soil and water conservation
techniques and do not involve deforestation and, therefore, are eco-friendly and help in resource


Dr. A. K. Singh

Associate Professor (Agri)

North Eastern Regional Institute of Water and Land Management
Associate Professor (Agri)

(NERIWALM), Tezpur-784027, Assam, India


– Hutton, J.H. 1969. The Angami Nagas, Oxford University Press (Bombay).

– Ramakrishnan, P.S. 1992a. Shifting agriculture and sustainable Deveopment: An interdisciplinary study from North Eastern India. Parthenon Publications and Paris, UNESCO-MAB Series (republished by Oxford University, New Delhi 1993).

– Sharma, U.C., and Kumar S. 1994. In Potential Indigenous Farming system of NEH Region (Ed.
Prasad, R.N. and Sharma, U.C.) ICAR Research Complex, Barapani, Meghalaya.
– Singh, A. 1989. Bamboo Drip Irrigation System, ICAR Research Complex for NEH Region, Shillong,



Recently Published Articles

Women-led farm initiatives

Women-led farm initiatives

By using organic farming methods, developing connections with markets, generating income, and enhancing their own...


Call for articles

Share your valuable experience too

Share This