Traditional rainwater harvesting systems get a fresh lease of life

Effective management of water resources is crucial to sustain agriculture, farm incomes and livelihoods. By renovating traditional water harvesting structures like khadins and nadis, farmers in Barmer have proved beyond doubt that rain-fed farming, even with minimum annual rainfall in the 200-250 mm range, can contribute to the food security and enhance the quality of life of the people.

First rain harvested in Uttarlai Nadi. Photo: AuthorsBarmer district, located in western Rajasthan bordering Pakistan, is part of the Great Indian Desert or Thar Desert, its terrain dominated by sand dunes, low infertile hills and scrub vegetation in community protected areas. This inhospitable desert ecosystem supports a population of 2.6 million people in Barmer district (Census 2011) with 93 percent living in rural areas. In this land of scorching summers and dust storms, chilly winters, droughts and erratic monsoons, agriculture is the primary occupation of over 82 percent of the population living in rural areas. Around 80 percent is under rainfed agriculture.

During the summer months, the availability of water, for drinking as well as for agricultural purpose, is a matter of serious concern. The district receives an average of about 270-300 mm rainfall which is generally spread over 15 days in a year. If rainwater is not harvested and stored during these 15 days, availability of water through the year becomes a challenge. In Barmer, every drop of water counts.

Traditional ingenuity

Khadins helped in bringing about 300 hectares of additional land under cultivation.

A striking feature of the Barmer landscape is the “khadin”, a traditional rainwater harvesting system, said to be in use for more than 500 years. The design is attributed to the Paliwal Brahmins who lived around Jaisalmer. In this system, a long earthen embankment, a bund measuring about 300m, is built across a slope to collect surface runoff water during the rainy season.

The khadin harvests rainwater for crop production and restores the land where it is captured, enhancing fertility. The design incorporates spillways and sluices to drain out excess water.

The khadin is a classic example of the integration of agriculture and natural resources management, with agricultural production greatly contingent on efficient rainwater harvesting. Maintaining khadins can be difficult, requiring men, materials and money at the appropriate time and in good measure. Over the centuries many such structures had been neglected, or were poorly managed.

The great flood

In Rajasthan’s usual weather cycle, a good monsoon in one year is followed by three-four years of drought, but exceptional rainfall and flooding takes place once in 75 to 100 years. In the last week of August 2006, the heavens opened and dumped 750 mm of rain on Barmer – four times the district’s average annual rainfall – all in one week. The inundation was compounded by rainwater flooding in from neighbouring Jaisalmer. Barmer district became a lake district, its topography suddenly featuring some 20 new water bodies that had literally surfaced out of the blue. Kawas and Maluva villages were the worst-hit, with 102 people losing their lives, houses going under 15 feet of water, and extensive damage inflicted on Barmer’s network of khadins, tankas and anicuts that got washed away. Barmer has a subterranean layer of gypsum that prevents rainwater from seeping down or draining away, and this aggravates water logging.

The villagers had to work all over again to restore the water harvesting structures. The bad news notwithstanding, many environmentalists then felt that the floods could be a blessing in disguise for the region, with the floodwaters possibly increasing the region’s groundwater levels in the long run. Oil companies operating in the region weren’t too upset either, with experts of the opinion that when floodwater seeps down, it forces oil to move up.

Barmer Unnati

Cairn India implements a wide range of CSR welfare programmes with a focus on the overall socio-economic development of the area through interventions in health, education, skills and capacity building training and through identifying employment and sustainable livelihood opportunities. Around 140 villages in the Cairn operational area in Barmer have been adopted with all households targeted to ensure inclusive growth. Since October 2013, Cairn India has partnered with TechnoServe in a strategic corporate social responsibility programme to transform the lives of farmers in Barmer.

TechnoServe, a non-profit organisation with operations in India, Africa and Latin America, develops business solutions to poverty and is currently implementing agri-based interventions and catalysing local economic development under the “Barmer Unnati” project. The project aims to improve agricultural production and productivity, and improve the overall economic status of 10,000 farming households over a period of five years, with substantive increase in revenue from agriculture. This is being achieved by implementing agri-based interventions, enabling natural resources management, assisting capacity building, and by creating a permanent human resource base by enhancing the skill of the rural youth and building rural enterprises.

Destiny, refuelled

In January 2004, oil exploration by Cairn Energy of the United Kingdom yielded the Mangala field in Barmer, the largest onshore oil discovery in India in more than two decades. With this breakthrough, the economy of Barmer took a new trajectory. Overnight, Barmer, the district headquarters, became a boom town with rapid property and infrastructure development to support the energy industry. Today the Mangala, Bhagyam and Aishwariya fields – major discoveries in the Rajasthan block – form part of the assets of Cairn India, one of the largest independent oil and gas exploration and production companies in the country, operating 27 percent of India’s domestic crude oil production.

In just over a decade, much has changed in the urban areas of Barmer, yet by all social indicators, the district remains amongst the most backward regions in India. Social amelioration is obligatory for the corporate entities in the region, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an integral part of Cairn India’s operations in Barmer, considered essential for the holistic development of communities in the area.

Water harvesting – key to livelihoods

Natural Resources Management (NRM) is a significant component of Barmer Unnati and NRM activities have been taken up on a large scale, with substantial results observed within two years from the start of project implementation. Under this project, more than 1000 NRM structures and units will be established or renovated across the district.

In less than two years, 155 NRM structures have been established by TechnoServe in cooperation with local NGO Gravis and local communities, comprising 150 farm-level khadins, two group-level khadins, two community Nadis renovated and one SPU (Silvi Pasture Unit) developed. The scope of work includes convergence with NABARD for the construction of 15 khadin structures.

A khadin is constructed on an individual farmer’s field covering about two hectare (five acres) land area, where an average 1000 cubic meter (approximately 10 Lakh litre) water is harvested. The khadin constructed on an individual farmer’s field redirects excess water to nearby fields and a pond. The water is absorbed by the soil till it is ready for sowing and no further irrigation is required post sowing.

The Barmer Unnati team worked with Chatur Singh to build a khadin on his 2.8 hectare farm in March 2014. The total cost of the khadin was Rs.45,000, of which Chatur contributed Rs.12,000 in unskilled labour. The investment paid off when Barmer received less than the usual rain during the kharif season just a few months later. Due to water shortage, many farmers in the area experienced total crop loss. However, due to the rain water retained by his khadin, Chatur successfully raised bajra, moth bean, moong and guar crops, grown for sale, home consumption and feed for his animals. The total value of Chatur Singh’s crop was Rs.48,396, despite the severe drought in Barmer. With proper annual maintenance before the onset of monsoon, Chatur Singh will benefit from his khadin for many years, making this an important and worthwhile investment. Neighbouring farmers, convinced on seeing Chatur Singh’s success, came forward with requests to build khadins on their own land.

During the monsoon season of year 2014, a total of 37 farmers who had constructed khadin on their farm cultivated bajra, guar, moong, mothbean crops and earned additional revenue of Rs.20,000 each. The farmers aver that “Khadin construction has brought at least two hectare land area for each farmer under assured cultivation for atleast 20 years.” As of July 2015, 150 rain-fed farmers have benefitted and about 300 hectare land area has been brought under cultivation.

Long-term benefits

Under the Barmer Unnati project, renovation of other traditional water harvesting structures such as the “Nadi” is also underway. Nadis (ponds) serve as the principal drinking water source for the surrounding villages, but are prone to siltation since the runoff water comes from sandy and eroded rocky basins and large amounts of sediment gets deposited along with the torrential rain.

Renovation work at two Nadis has been completed, and these two Nadis will benefit about 7000 households residing in 31 villages. The Nadis are expected to collect at least 9 crore litres of water in four to five normal rain showers annually. During the current monsoon, with the initial two rain showers in June and July 2015, about 500 lakh litres of water has been harvested in these two structures. The renovated Nadis will be able to collect twice the amount of water as compared with the estimated capacity, which gives the flexibility of holding excess water in heavy rainfall conditions. With community and project contribution, these structures will continue to benefit the region for about 15 years.

One Silvi-Pasture Unit (SPU) has been developed at village Bhadka in Barmer district. After conducting meetings and getting consent and cooperation from the village community and Gram Panchayat, SPU has been developed on 16 hectares of common land. Here around 10,000 trees will be planted and local species of grasses like Sewan and Dhaman will be cultivated. The SPU, once fully established, will not only provide sufficient fodder for animals, but will also become a model site to demonstrate development and management of common grazing lands.

The Barmer Unnati project has created a strong impact with a strategic focus on natural resources management interventions and has considerably raised awareness of water conservation techniques and practices amongst the farmers in the rural areas of Barmer. A consultative process involving the local community, professional inputs and expertise, and persistent efforts in the field have now proved beyond doubt that rain-fed farming even with minimum annual rainfall in the 200-250 mm range is possible, contributing to food security and enhancing the quality of life of the people of Barmer.

Ravdeep Kaur, Prafulla Behera and Aparna Datta

Ravdeep Kaur and Prafulla Behera
Senior Project Managers
TechnoServe Project Office in Barmer, Rajasthan.

Aparna Datta
Communications Lead, TechnoServe India. Unit 6, Neeru Silk Mills, Mathuradas Mill Compound 126 N M Joshi Marg, Lower Parel (W), Mumbai – 400 013

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