UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Conjunctive use of water resources in Deccan Trap



Community health, community participation, groundwater, hydrogeology, hydrology, poverty alleviation, river basins, soil conservation, water, water management, water resources, water supply, water conservation


Introducing the practice

This practice resulted from a project carried out in and near the villages of Ambevangan, Manhere and Titvi, in Akole Taluka, Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra State, India. The community is made up of the tribal and rural people of three villages and outlying areas. They are on the lowest rung of the social ladder, with limited access to education, health and other social services. At the start of the project, the people lived in extreme poverty.

Subsistence agriculture was the main form of livelihood. The main crop in the kharif growing season (June to September) is rice. Cereals are the main crop of the rabi growing season (October to January). However, the quality of the second crop in the past depended very much on the availability of soil moisture. The project area is located on the eastern flanks of the western Ghats, about 5 km from Kalsubai (1,646 m), the highest mountain in the range. The upland areas near Ambevangan and Manhere reach more than 1,500 m above sea level. The terrain is rugged in the north and west and undulating to the east and south. The overall slope of the land is to the south. Numerous streams and their tributaries drain the area, flowing into the Pravara River. Many of the streams are ephemeral (dry until it rains).

Water was very scarce before the project. Rainfall varies from 2,000 mm in the west to 600 mm in the east. It occurs almost entirely during the monsoon period (June to September). There is little or no rain during the rest of the year. The driest months are April and May, when temperatures climb into the 40o C.

The monsoon rains used to flow as surface runoff, from the project area to lower elevations. The waters were laden with soil, eroded from the hillsides. These events provided continuity in a pattern of land degradation that began in the middle of the 19th century with the destruction of forest in the area by outsiders.

The water-related hardships of daily life were borne by women and older children. The people had health problems, such as dermatitis and gastrointestinal conditions, arising from the shortage of water.

The tribal and rural people of the partner villages adopted technologies for water harvesting and spreading during the period 1992-96. The technologies are in use all year round.

The practice employs a wide range of approaches to water conservation and utilization in demonstration sites. Various barriers (contour bunds, nalla bunds, check dams, gabions) and shallow excavations (contour trenches, farm ponds, reservoirs in bedrock), at right angles to the slope, arrest the flow of surface runoff. Contour hedging and the replanting of nonagricultural land were introduced. These measures complement the terracing of hill slopes for agricultural purposes. Shallow excavations improve the infiltration of water (recharge pits and trenches). Masonry tanks contain the water from springs and seepages. Wells that have been dug are deepened; other wells are re-bored, thus making better use of the aquifer. Water is also collected from the roofs of dwellings. Domestic wastewater is used to irrigate the small kitchen gardens adjacent to dwellings.

The technologies are sustainable and remain in use today. They are small-scale, relatively cheap to implement and easily replicated. For the most part, they take indigenous knowledge as a starting point and are compatible with local approaches to land use. Maintenance has not presented serious problems for the people.

The technologies for conjunctive use of water resources come from a comprehensive survey of ancient and modern approaches to water-resource management in other dryland regions of India and worldwide. They have undergone modification to fit local circumstances, especially with regard to water, soils, bedrock and topography.


Contents and approach

The aim of the practice was to improve the management of water resources by the tribal and rural people of Akole Taluka. This involved explaining the shortage of water in the area and providing a strategy for a year-round water supply. Activities in support of these objectives included hydrologic and hydrogeologic research and the design and construction of demonstration sites for water harvesting and spreading. In fact, the demonstration sites solved the problem of water shortage.

The practice originated from research collaboration between the non-governmental organization BAIF Development Research Foundation (Pune, Maharashtra, India) and University of Windsor Earth Sciences (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), who worked in partnership with the tribal and rural people of Akole Taluka. The beneficiaries are the people of the villages Ambevangan, Manhere and Titvi and outlying areas. At the start of the project, the population of the partner villages totalled 3,329. All age groups and both genders were and continue to be involved.

Participatory management was an essential factor in the project. BAIF field personnel carried out the early dialogues with the tribal and rural people at the level of the family. The needs assessment for the project was based on these interactions and on a rapid rural appraisal (RRA) carried out by a multidisciplinary team. The RRA concentrated on public health and water supply.

The people were unaccustomed to long-term planning. Their decision-making was mainly geared towards short-term survival. Early interaction with them focussed on generating ideas. For example, interested individuals were taken on visits to show them other communities which had benefited from projects involving water conservation. The people decided that they wanted to carry out agriculture more effectively. Initially, they placed the highest priority on achieving a year-round domestic water supply. Any excess water was to be used in irrigation.

Hydrological and hydrogeological research found possible solutions to the problem of water shortages. The research findings and possibile technological solutions were communicated to the people at public meetings that observed traditional formalities. The people decided which solutions were best for them. They took on implementation of the technologies at selected demonstration sites. They also assumed ownership of the technologies and full responsibility for maintenance.

In the valleys, a thin veneer of clay and fine silt occurs at the surface and prevents the infiltration of runoff. Contour trenches and infiltration pits were dug to break the continuity of this surface layer and direct the water underground. In addition, terrace-margin ridges (bunds) of soil were constructed to impound the monsoon waters at different levels on the hillsides and to facilitate infiltration. The farmers allowed the water to flow down to lower levels of the hillsides through spillways along the terrace margins.

Images from earth satellites in orbit were analyzed in order to obtain maps of straight-line ground features, termed ‘lineaments’. These were defined by subtle differences in the distribution of soil types and vegetation. Many of them coincided with the traces of vertical fractures in the bedrock. The fractures commonly formed conduits for the circulation of ground water. Several of the more persistent springs issued from them. The spring waters were impounded in masonry tanks. Dug wells receiving water from bedrock fractures were deepened to improve their yields.

Masonry check dams, gabion structures, and gabion structures with impervious, ferrocement barriers were constructed across the valleys of ephemeral streams at different locations to impound water in reservoirs on the up-slope side. Gabion structures were held together by galvanized iron chainlink. Shallow bedrock provided the foundation. An underground stone dam also was constructed to localize the occurrence of ground water, which is accessed through a dug well.

Barriers, including some gabions and masonry gully plugs, were constructed at right angles to the slope to reduce runoff velocity and to trap eroded soil. Hedges also were planted at right angles to the slope on selected hillsides. Local vegetation was augmented through additional planting in areas of wasteland. These strategies of revegetation also had the effect of reducing soil erosion.

Roof water harvesting was introduced into the villages as a partial response to the priority placed by the people on a domestic water supply. The houses in the villages are of stone and mud and have tiled roofs, which form effective catchments. Gutters of galvanized iron were added and connected to ferrocement storage tanks by means of PVC pipe.

Infiltration (recharge) pits, in the vicinity of dug wells, had the effect of improving water yields. Existing bore wells were given an extensive workover in order to improve their yields.


The role of indigenous knowledge

Indigenous knowledge, attention to local religious practices, and respect for traditional and folk approaches to communication were indispensable to the success of the project. In addition, earlier practices of land use had given the people a familiarity with the relationships between slope, stream-flow and soil genesis on a local scale. The project technologies provided logical extensions of this knowledge.

A watershed committee was formed in each of the villages to facilitate communication with the tribal and rural people. This was done on the basis of a tradition known as the ayojan, which is a village planning committee that takes responsibility for decisions affecting most or all members of the community.

Indigenous knowledge made an important contribution to the selection and siting of technologies for water harvesting and spreading. The people contributed detailed knowledge of the relationships between local topography and water sources on a year-round basis. This was especially important during the driest months of the pre-monsoon period (February-May).

The people applied traditional practices to the location of ground water. For example, they revere a tree, Ficus glomerata, known locally as umbar. Umbar is one of a number of Ficus species worshipped by the tribal and rural people for various reasons. It is also an indicator of shallow ground water. The presence of umbar marked places where wells were dug to tap springs. The people also provided a soil classification which proved to be a useful basis for categorizing the aquifer properties of local earth materials.

The people used to erect stone bunds across the larger streams and their tributaries. Plant material accumulated near the stream banks to form a type of compost known locally as marwa. The people built terrace bunding on the slopes between the streams and smaller tributaries. They recognized differences in soil quality between the ground along the larger streams and that around the tributaries. As a result, the people were able to discuss the merits of alternative water-harvesting and water-spreading techniques that could be introduced during the project.

Traditional cultivation of the land involves returning nutrients to the soil in the form of ashes that are left over from burning tree branches and leaves on selected plots. Rice and dry crops are planted as seedlings in the ashes after the first rainfall of the monsoon. Later, the seedlings are transplanted in the fields. This is the rab system of fertilizing, which takes its origin from a once widely employed type of shifting cultivation called dalhi (kumri). The water-spreading techniques of the project are compatible with and augment this local practice.

Traditional approaches to collective decision-making were important to the formation of self-help groups in Akole Taluka. For example, the women’s groups in the villages reflect the tradition of wavli, followed by the tribal women of Gujarat. This tradition protects the rights of women to have earnings, for example from vegetable cultivation. One women’s group operates a mechanized flourmill to replace the labour-intensive stone grinders that were used in the past.

The knowledge behind the practice is widely understood by the people. Interested members of the partner communities were trained to implement technologies of water harvesting and spreading. The people also applied these skills to maintaining the project technologies. They were able to market their knowledge in other villages, as interest in using the same technologies spread across the surrounding area. The people also were given basic training in hygiene and sanitation.

At the start, the people said, ‘Give us a water supply. We do not care about the quality. Just find us water.’ The water-supply problem was solved through the introduction of appropriate technologies. The application of technologies for water spreading had the additional effect of improving soil moisture and increasing agricultural production. The people later saw the likely connection between poor water quality, sickness among family members, lost time in the fields, lowered agricultural productivity, and decreasing financial returns. As a result, they proceeded to take the health message of the other partners to heart.

Farmers asked the project teams to train them in how to clean dug wells so as to improve water quality. Village women now routinely strain the water from dug wells through several layers of sari material before carrying the water home. This has the effect of removing suspended particulate matter, including the larger organic impurities. Water is commonly boiled prior to domestic use.

Transformation of knowledge

BAIF field personnel lived with the people and shared their daily hardships. Each village has a watershed committee, which facilitated contact with the people. Communication was by means of public meetings and through on-site discussions between the researchers and individual farmers. Villagers, who gained experience of implementing project technologies at the beginning, served as role models for the rest of the communities and for interested parties from the surrounding area. Indeed, these role models hosted exposure visits by groups from other villages in the Taluka.

The demonstration sites in the project area provide lasting records of the shared knowledge generated through the partnership.


Achievements and results

The case involved the sharing of knowledge by all of the partners. In practical terms, this led to the integration of modern science (analysis of images from Earth satellites in orbit, and use of global positioning systems, geographic information systems, and field and laboratory techniques in hydrology and hydrogeology) with ancient Indian hydrology (for example, entries in the ‘Brahat Samhita’ of Varaha Mihira, Sixth Century), local religious beliefs, and indigenous technical knowledge. The project technologies are compatible with local land-use practice.

All 494 households of the project area have access to water for domestic and agricultural use. Up to 20% of the households obtain water from six developed springs. About 73,000 cubic metres of water is stored behind 14 masonry check dams and three ferrocement gabions. Water availability has increased by about 750 litres a day per person. A second crop (winter) is being produced on about 75 ha of land, and 300 ha of wasteland have been brought under cultivation as a result of increases to soil moisture. Formerly, the success of a second crop depended very much on the amount of rainfall and, as a result, occurred infrequently.

The project made a contribution to the advancement of gender equity in the area. The traditional, water-related hardships of women have been reduced considerably. Nowadays, women work longer in the fields and are seen as full partners on the land by the men. The men no longer have to go to other villages and towns to work as unskilled laborers in order to support their families. Instead, should they choose to work away from home, they can market the skills they have acquired in applying technologies for water harvesting and spreading. Illnesses connected with shortage of water are no longer seen in the partner villages.

There is a marked improvement in the morale of the people, evidenced by more outgoing attitudes, increased attention to personal appearance, and better upkeep of houses. There has been a major growth of community spirit. This is seen in people’s eagerness to participate in the activities of watershed committees and self-help groups. The young people, for the most part, are no longer leaving the villages in search of livelihood. In fact, there have been several new housing starts each year in each of the villages since completion of the project term.

The technologies for water harvesting and spreading are sustainable. This is also true of the supporting technologies for soil conservation and revegetation. In general, the technologies are small-scale, cheap to implement, and easily replicated. The demonstration sites remain in operation all year round more than five years after the end of the project term. The people have assumed ownership of the demonstration sites. They have the knowledge they need to maintain the technologies effectively.

For example, the people routinely repair the terrace-margin bunds, where cave-ins sometimes result from the burrowing activities of large rodents. The villagers also are experimenting with natural pesticides to prevent this problem from occurring. In addition, the people repaired a masonry check-dam when its foundations became cracked as a result of the vibrations of an irrigation pump. In this way, local knowledge systems are expanded.

Maintenance of the technologies is relatively cheap. The people now are able to sell their surplus agricultural produce at local markets. The people are also experimenting with different kinds of cash crop. Tomatoes have gained widespread popularity in this regard. This has made the people able to bear the minor costs of maintaining the sites. They also possess marketable skills related to operation of the project technologies. They are employed as skilled workers in other villages of Akole Taluka.

It is noteworthy that even after two years with extended periods of reduced rainfall (1994-95 and 1995-96) the project technologies still brought beneficial effects to the area. This was mainly due to the increased amount of land under cultivation in the project area.


Strengths and weaknesses

The technologies of water harvesting and spreading are built upon a foundation of indigenous knowledge. They are compatible with local land-use practice. Accordingly, the people readily understood and accepted them.

In Akole Taluka, indigenous knowledge related to water and local land-use practice both have a lot in common with the documented records of ancient Indian hydrology. This continuity and also the researchers’ attention to tradition made it easier for the people to adopt technologies that took indigenous knowledge as a starting point.

As mentioned above, even under conditions of prolonged low rainfall, the project technologies performed well and brought benefits to the people.

All practices in resource management have the potential to generate conflict. In Akole Taluka, this has not been the case, however. Perhaps the simplicity of the technologies and the role of participatory management have been significant contributing factors.

Possible improvement

Both further additions of indigenous technical knowledge and expanded applications of modern science will bring improvements to the practice of conjunctive water use. There is inherent flexibility in any strategy of water resource management that employs multiple sources.


Source of inspiration

The practice is readily transferable across the entire Deccan Trap region, some 500,000 km2 of western India, on the basis of similarities in bedrock geology. Many of the project applications of modern science emphasized the technique of fracture analysis to specify patterns of ground water movement. Combined with indigenous knowledge regarding how to locate shallow ground water, this proved to be a powerful tool. For example, these considerations were the basis for selecting which dug wells would be deepened and at which sites springs would be developed.

In general terms, the practice would no doubt be widely applicable in other areas, regardless of climate and geology. It should be emphasized that Akole Taluka initially was viewed as a very unpromising area for the development of water resources. The bedrock in other parts of the Deccan Trap probably lends itself better to the improvement of aquifer properties. It is also likely that other species of bottomland plant will prove to be even better botanical indicators of shallow ground water in these areas.

The practice has been replicated by BAIF Development Research Foundation over a wider area of Akole Taluka, thanks to support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), under the Indo-German Watershed Programme.

The striking success of the project has created an enabling environment for similar activities in neighbouring areas. Other villages subsequently formed partnerships with outside organizations, such as government departments and NGOs, and replicated the project technologies at other locations.

The lessons learned during the course of the project have been incorporated into a training course for the programme personnel of BAIF Development Research Foundation. BAIF and University of Windsor Earth Sciences have carried out the training from 1996 to the present day. The BAIF programme personnel have a total constituency of more than a million families in seven states of India.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

Many of the tribal and rural people were suspicious of the intentions of the researchers at the start of the project. However, they readily agreed to the sharing of knowledge. This seems to point to a role for indigenous knowledge in breaking down barriers between cultures. People with knowledge to share feel like equal partners.

It is appropriate to give an example of how the people have improved on a simple technology in order to meet the needs of their particular circumstances. The people were given instructions on how to use the A-frame for the layout of trenches and ridges parallel to contours of elevation. This piece of equipment takes the form of a triangular wooden frame, with a vertical pendulum attached to the apex. When the pendulum coincides with a mark at the middle of the base, the base is level and the two bottom corners can be assumed to be at the same elevation. But the people found that strong winds on the higher slopes prevented the pendulum from coming to rest. So they did away with the pendulum altogether and attached a spirit level to the base of the A-frame. When the bubble is at the midpoint of the level, the two corners are at the same elevation.

The project outcomes yielded an abrupt increase in biodiversity in that part of Akole Taluka. Many animals returned to the area, for example, including the hare and the peacock. Some of these animals, notably the peacock, had been revered locally by previous generations of the tribal and rural people. In this way, the project ‘gave something back’ to local, religious practice.

Policies related to water management in dryland rural areas should take into account local customs and land-use practices. Sustainable solutions to problems stemming from land degradation can be developed only through participatory management and the integration—at watershed level—of strategies for water-resource management, soil conservation and the restoration of a vegetation cover. These strategies are complementary and each should include an important role for indigenous knowledge. In general, lasting success in tackling any one of them will only come through additional attention to the other two. The coordinated use of multiple sources of water supply offers the versatility needed for addressing the widest possible range of water needs. It is also the logical starting point for the management of water demand. These remarks are equally applicable to governance and to research.


Administrative data

Organizations involved

BAIF Development Research Foundation
BAIF Bhavan
Dr Manibhai
Desai Nagar, Warje
Pune 411 029, India
Tel.: +91 20 523 1661
Fax: +91 20 523 1662
E-mail: baif@vsnl.com

Contact persons:

·           Mr Girish G. Sohani, Executive Vice President
University of Windsor Earth Sciences, 401 Sunset Avenue, Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9B 3P4. Tel. +1 519 2533000. Fax +1 519 9737081

·           Dr Frank Simpson, Professor of Geology. E-mail: franks@uwindsor.ca



Total budget: USD 331,316

Period to which the budget applies: 1992-98

Sources of funding: International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Dr Frank Simpson (see the address above)


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