Water Management and Sustainability of Agriculture in the Himalavan Mountains, India: An Overview


Water management in the Central Himalayan agriculture is confronted by too-muchand-too-little water syndrome.  Monsoon pattern of rainfall leads to runoff, washing away soil and nutrients from the tiny terraces, leaving rest of the year dry.  This situation limits rainwater management in the rainfed agriculture.  Under the irrigated agriculture, however, people practice intensive water management.  The government instituted irrigation schemes largely fail to utilize the vast potential of water resources of this region.


Water is an integral part of all facets of life.  Water being a critical resource, next in importance only to air, it is essential to ensure that there is enough of it to meet the demand of people for drinking and household consumption, irrigation and other uses (National Water Policy, 1987).  But scarcity and misuse of this life supporting resource pose a serious and growing threat to food security, human health and development (Pisani, 1995), The problem arising out of increasing and competing demands for water are becoming more and more acute in terms of availability, quality, management, data acquisition, laws, institutions and investments.  More so, the serious aspect of the water crisis is the misconceptions about solution now proposed (Frederiksen, 1996).

The Garhwal Himalayan region of U. P, State in India (29 ‘ 26′- 3 1′ 28′ N Lat. and 77′ 49′-80’ 6’E Long.) is spread over 30,090 sq. km, with only about 10% area under agriculture.  This region receive about two-thirds of the annual rainfall (150-250 cm) during monsoon season (mid-June to mid-September).  This region is the storehouse of enormous renewable water reservoirs of snow and ice.  Many important rivers of northern India originate from this region.  The annual flow of the Ganga river with headwaters in this region has been computed to be 23900 million cubic metres/year (Valdiya, 1987).  Despite of the vast potential of water resources, only about 15% of the agricultural land is irrigated in the mountainous tract if this region (Action Plan for Himalaya, 1992).  The present paper deals with a state-of-art-report of the irrigation practices and some management options in this region

 Outlook on Agriculture

Agriculture is the primary occupation of inhabitants in the Central Himalayan region.  On an average, only 0.8 ha land is available per household of 5-6 family members, about 85 percent of which is rainfed.  The small parcels of land distributed over rugged hill slopes yield low relative to inputs.  In the rainfed cropfields, three crops are grown in two-years time, whereas in irrigated fields two to three crops are grown in one year time; yet the agronomic production is very low (1 t/ha/yr), and meets only about half of the demand of the people (Singh and Singh, 1991).  In nutshell, present form of agriculture of the region is unsustainable both ecologically and economically.

 Traditional Practices of Irrigation Water Management

In this region flood irrigation is the major mode of irrigation, which is confined to valleys where perennial streams flow near the cropfields.  The irrigated cropfields are intensively managed to achieve food security.  Irrigation is managed mostly by diverting stream water through cement lined canals or mud lined canals (gul or kuhl).  Although other methods of irrigation are also in use, yet they are feasible only under certain conditions, and irrigate smaller area.  The guls are mostly community managed.  Peasants determine irrigation schedule keeping in view the availability of water, types of crops and area to be irrigated.  Some indigenous methods of irrigation water management are summarized in Table 1.

In the rainfed cropfields rainfall is the only source to replenish the soil moisture.  As rainfall is highly seasonal, most of the rainwater runs away in the form of overland flow from the outward sloping tiny cropfields in the want of water management and conservation devices, causing sheet erosion and gully development and consequent losses of top soil (Negi and Joshi, 1996).  On average, the soil loss have been measured to the tune of >10 t/ha/yr from the agricultural watersheds of this region.  Peasants employ in-situ water conservation measures (Table 2), and cope with the problem of soil moisture by cultivating drought resistant crops which are regarded as low risk crops from yield stability point of view in rainfed land.  Farmers have developed local varieties of wheat and paddy (the staple food crops) for the rainfed and irrigated conditions after long period of selection and trial and error.  Given these complexities of fa@ng conditions, peasants have become less responsive towards crop varieties introduced by the Government agencies which require irrigation and fertilizers (Negi, 1994).

Bottlenecks in Irrigation Water Management

There are two types of canals in this region.  Large canals (> 1 km length) are constructed and operated by Govermnent irrigation department and small canals (guls) and other irrigation structures (e.g., tanks, hydram, hauj, pump sets etc.) by the minor irrigation department and other developmental agencies.  The large canals are watched by Govermnent employee for irrigation scheduling, cleaning for silt and minor repairs.  The guls and other minor irrigation means once built by Government are handed over to the user community for water management and maintenance.  In general, most of the canals in the mountains are dysfunctional and do not irrigate the entire command area (data not presented).  Many factors are responsible for this situation. Diminishing discharge in the streams due to hydrological imbalances (Valdiya and Bartarya,1991) and water use for purposes other than agriculture in the populated urban centres, has emerged as a major limiting factor in the recent years.  Among the other factors, seepage and other losses, siltation of canal, low availability of funds to repair the canals, use of canal water for domestic purposes, encroachment for building and road construction thereby choking the canals by debris deposition, loss in community feeling to regulate and rational use of water and general apathy of people etc. can be found out.  Furthermore, tax levied on irrigation is very low which does not permit major investments on these canals from the Government side.  The community managed minor irrigation schemes also suffer from the above disorders.  In the absence of any vigil from the Govermnent, the structures once damaged are hardly repaired.  Social conflicts for water present another flustrating aspect of this problem.  People have now realized the uncertainty attached with the irrigation water and they are either compelled to cultivate water stress tolerant crops (which yeild low compared to crops sown under irrigated condition) or abandon cropfields, in the want of water.

Future Prospects

There is ample scope to tap the numerous small perennial streams for flood irrigation in this region.  Realizing the gravity of the problem, various developmental agencies, research and voluntary organizations have now started to focus their efforts to design and advocate new technologies and ways of water management to help farmers to cope up with the shortage of water for irrigation, Many devices such as low-cost poly-pits, rain water harvesting (Kothyari et al., 1991), drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, in-situ moisture conservation methods etc. are coming up.  However, these devices are often not feasible and success of any such measures is yet to be witnessed.  Despite all these concerns peasants struggle not only for irrigation water but also for drinking water (Negi and Joshi, 1996) is underway in this popularly known Water Tower of the Earth.


Thanks are due to Director of the Institute and Er.  K. Kumar, Head, Land and water Resource Management Division for encouragement and facilities.


Action Plan for Himalaya: 1992, G.B. Pant institute of Himalayan Development, Kosi-Almora, Shyarn Printing Press, Almora.

Frederiksen, H.D.: 1996, Water crisis in the developing world : misconception about solutions. J. Of Water Resources planning and Management 122 (2), 79-87

Kothyari, B.P., Rao, K.S., Saxena, K.G., Kumar, T. and  Ramakrishnan, P.S.: 1991,

Institutional approaches in development and transfer of water harvest technology in the Himalaya, in G. Tsakiris (ed.), Advances in Water Resource Technology, A. Balkema, Rotterdam.

National Water Policy 1987: Wastelands News 3(2).

Negi, G.C.S.: 1994, High yielding vs. traditional crop varieties:    A socioeconomic study in a Himalayan village in India. Mountain Res. Dev 14, 251-254.

Negi, G.C.S. and Joshi, V.: 1997, Land use in a Himalayan catchment under stress: system responses, Ambio, 26, 126-128.

Pisani, E.: 1995, The managemneet of water as an essential and  rare commodity, Waler International, 20 (1), 29-31.

Singh, S.P. and Singh, J.S.: 1991, Analytical conceptual plan to reforest Central Himalaya for sustainable development.  Environmental management, 15,369-379.

Swarup, R.: 1991, Agricultural economy of Himalayan region, I & II, Himvikas Publications, Gyanodaya Publications, Gyanodaya Prakashan, Nainital,  India.

Vaidiya, K.S.. 1987, Environmental Geology Indian Contest, Tata McGraw-Hill Publication, New Delhi.

Valdiya, K.S. and Bartarya, S.K.: 1991, Hydrological studies of springs in the catchment of Gaula river, Kumaun Lesser Himalaya, India, Mountain Res. Dev, 11, 239-258.

Table 1, Indigenous methods of irrigation water management in the Central Himalayan agriculture


Water source


Management practices




Rooftop water is guided to fall to supplement moisture to kitchen

garden crops


Spring water


Springs which are not tapped for drinking water are locally used for irrigation


Reuse of waste-


Around townships municipal waste water is water used to irrigate ve etables and other cash crops




Ponding of water is done raising mud and stone built wall in the stream and used to irrigate downstream cropfields or transported as head loads


Table II.  Indigenous methods of water conservation in the Central Himalayan Agriculture

Measures taken Advantages
Reduced tillage in rainfed Evaporation loss from soil is reduced cropland
Tilling cropfields immediately Soil moisture gained through rainwater is conserved in-situafter rains and leveling the soil
Cultivation of drought resistant crops varieties In rainfed conditions this helps to reduce the water  demand and avoids risk of crop failure
Maintenance of cropfield Cropfield bunds support growth of grasses and act as barrier bunds (usually 0.5-1 feet  high  towards overland flow of water from the fields.)
Mulching cropfields with crop residue Rarely practiced in vegetable fields to check moisture  evaporation
Seed sowing after dipping in water overnight Water demand from soil for seed germination is minimized
FYM application Continuous FYM applicationincreases moisture holding capacity and release properties of soil





Land and Water Resource Management Division

G. B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and development

Garhwal Unit, Srinagar-Garhwal(U.P.), India


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