Water scarcity to abundance

Enhanced awareness among communities and self confidence among farmer groups to work collectively, coupled with support to implement water conservation practices that are replicable, transformed the village in the Wayanad region, from being water scarce to water abundant.

Wayanad, a picturesque hill station nestled amidst the southern Western Ghats of Kerala, is well known for its natural beauty and agricultural heritage. However, agriculture in Wayanad is facing a range of challenges at present – weather vagaries, human-wildlife conflict, labour shortage, lower returns, and changing socioeconomic conditions. Farmers are fast getting dissuaded from pursuing agriculture based livelihood activities. Decline in the availability of water is one of the many challenges being faced by them. The Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change 2023 (KSAPCC, 2023) too mentions Wayanad district of Kerala as vulnerable. As the region experiences frequent droughts, conserving water and using resources efficiently is critical for sustaining agriculture in the district.

Renovation of existing watre bodies significantly reduced adverse effects of flooding

Based on the geographical distinctiveness, the Wayanad region is classified into three Agro Ecological Units (AEUs). Among them, the Southern High Hills (SHH) unit is comparatively more prone to dry climate and climate varainces, thus, heightening the requirement of water for irrigation in such zones.

Noolpuzha Grama Panchayath located in the SHH, lies in the bordering region of Kerala and Karnataka. It is also the second largest populated region of Wayanad. The panchayath holds a significant area of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. It is highly vulnerable to water scarcity. Also, the region receives one of the lowest rainfalls. It has vast wetlands with major crops being paddy, ginger and fodder crops while coffee, rubber, arecanut, coconut and pepper are cultivated in the uplands. Natural streams and ponds form the major source of irrigation for farming. However, water scarcity has led to a decline in summer crops and increased fallow lands.  People’s livelihoods are centred around agriculture and allied activities. Droughts and high incidences of crop raids by wild animals have increased the farmers’ distress in the region. Owing to these challenges, farmers in the region have largely shifted to dairy farming, water intensive crops and allied activities, further heightening the water demand.

Against this backdrop, to enhance water availability, and safeguard the livelihoods of the farmers, the Integrated Watershed Management Scheme (IWMS) of NABARD was implemented by Community Agrobiodiversity Centre of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation during 2019-2022.

Prior to the intervention, owing to continous floods during 2018-19, the challenges included: Major and minor drainage systems filled with debris; fragmentation of wetland landscape; and lack of collective maintenance by farmers. During heavy rains, silt continued to get deposited in the wetlands, leading to reduced soil fertility and adversely affecting paddy cultivation. Due to lack of efficient bund structures and drainage lines, coupled with debris and silt deposition, water overflowed to adjacent paddy fields. Farmers who were used to growing ginger and yams in these uncultivated lands gave up that practice. Flooding affected crop diversity and livelihood crisis through displacements. Therefore, the project gave highest priority to strengthening the irrigation facilities; rejuvenating existing drainage structures; improving natural water bodies and traditional water systems.

The watershed consists of five mini watersheds (Karipoor 1, Karipoor 2, Vadakkanad, Valluvadi and Pachadi) in Noolpuzha Watershed, spread across 500 hectares. Village Watershed Committee (VWC), a grassroot level body was constituted for the planning, implementation and monitoring of the project. The committee was formed during a special Gramsabha conducted to from the VWC for the effective implementation of NABARD IWMS project at Noolpuzha watershed. VWC has 11 members including 3 women (one member from Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group Kattunaika community) and 8 men (one Scheduled Tribe, one Other Backward Classes, one Other Eligible Classes and 5 General). Members from all five mini watersheds were included in the committee.

The immediate task was initiating restoration of common water bodies like the sides of drainages lines and check dams which were encroached by farmers holding the respective patch of land. Therefore, the first responsibility of the VWC was to acquire the encroached land to widen drainage lines. Initially, the drainage line treatment of encroached lands was not preferred by the communities. Through deep awareness and sensitization processes with the help of opinion leaders, LSGs and influential people in the region, the communities gradually agreed. The VWC successfully implemented renovation of existing water bodies through consensus, thereby reducing significantly  the adverse affects of flooding.

Gradually, as part of the intervention, a range of structures were constructed to control soil erosion, improve irrigation and augment many soil & water conservation practices. Around 3990 m of drainage lines were desilted and drainage bunds were protected for efficient water resource management. In addition, construction of brushwood check dams, 15233 cu.m of earthen bunds, construction of 4 new and  restoration of 3 existing ponds, 13 well recharge facilities, 3910 percolation pits, 2442 units of centripetal terracing and renovation of five checkdams was also carried out. Earthen bunds construction helped in reducing soil erosion and retaining soil fertility by controlling the runoff of fertile top soil. Centripetal terracing and mulching helped in retaining soil moisture. Communities also felt that these measures  enhanced coconut yields in the area. Fodder crops planted near the bunds resulted in good yields owing to better nutrient availability, thereby providing sustainable feed support for dairy animals.

Besides the construction activities, awareness of the community was raised towards climate adaptation and mitigation. As part of training and capacity building of the communities, 11 Trainings were conducted on topics including organic farming, water literacy, water resource management,  climate smart agriculture practices, Integrated Pest Management, Integrated Farming System, livestock and poultry management, Financial literacy, mushroom cultivation and value addition. Exposure visits to model farms were organized.  These efforts resulted in enhanced awareness among communities and self confidence among farmer groups to work collectively- potentially forming a Farmer Producer organization in the future.

Restoration of ponds and renovation of checkdams assured water availability for wetland cultivation during summer season. Around fifity hectares of uncultivated land got converted into cultivated land, reviving the paddy wetland agroecosystem resulting in 20% increase in the area under paddy cultivation. Simultaneously, well recharge facilities, centripetal terracing and earthen bunds reduced drought intensities facilitating intensive livestock rearing. There was a 30% increase in water availability due to effective utilization of streams (concrete checkdams and loose boulder checkdams). Besides these, desilted and renovated ponds helped store 40% more water during rainy season. It’s also worth noting that water conservation measures have  reduced farmers’ expenditure on irrigation via pumping from far away sources.

These activities turned the intervention site as ‘water scarce to water abundant’ and helped in revival of agriculture in the region. Farmers in the region restarted their water intensive paddy cultivation in the erstwhile kept fallow lands since the area is not much suitable for other crops. Further, these activities altogether helped generate over 4690 labour days under the intervention.  A total of 905 farm families directly benefited through the project intervention.

Well recharges gave spectacular results. Well recharge was suggested first in the upper regions of the Panchayath. Thirteen well recharges were carried out. After two years, in a place named Kathangath, temple well got recharged after a span of twenty years! One tribal colony got improved water supply in Valluvady Kuruma colony, also, in the surrounding 4-5 wells in the colony.

A noteworthy development has been the development of linkages. In order to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of the activities and manage the fund constraints, linkages were established with MGNREGS, KSCSTE and Department of Irrigation to improve and upscale water conservation activities like drainage line treatment and construction of check dams. As a result of the success of aforementioned interventions, the local Panchayath also replicated the idea in areas with similar drought experiences and allocated separate budget for action. These efforts show that water conservation measures can be replicated further in areas with similar geo-climatic conditions for climate adaptation and mitigation.

Vipindas P, Archana Bhatt, Sujith M M, Noushique P M

Vipindas P, Development Coordinator

Archana Bhatt, Scientist

Sujith M M and Noushique P M, Development Associates

MS Swaminathan Research Foundation-Community Agrobiodiversity Centre

 Puthoorvayal, Meppadi PO Wayanad, Kerala – 673577


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