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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/CIRAN


The bethma practice: promoting the temporary redistribution of lands during drought periods


Bethma is a practice that temporarily redistributes plots of land among shareholders (being paddy landowners) in part of the command area of a tank (reservoir) during drought periods. It is practised when there is not enough water available to cultivate the entire command area or "purana wela" (oldest part used as command area, usually located close to the bund). 

Bethma might be practised in combination with field rotation and the farmers may decide to cultivate either paddy or other field crops. This decision usually depends on the water level in the tank. In some cases the
land distribution is proportional to the land size (usually 1/4 acre per acre of landholding) but in most cases it was found to be non-proportional (usually 1/4 acre per landowner, regardless the original share of land owned). Allocation of the plots is usually done by either the vel vidane or the farmer organisation. 

The success of the bethma practice depends on several factors: 

  1. There must be sufficient water in the tank for bethma, even if there is not enough water for the entire command area. 
  2. Farmers or office bearers must have past experience with the practice of bethma. 
  3. The farmers must be willing to apply bethma. This usually depends on whether their past experiences were positive or negative, and to what extent large landowners (who are usually opposed to bethma if not-proportional) are able to dominate the decision whether or not to practice bethma. 
  4. Farmers must be committed to complying with the rules and decisions made.
  5. The plots must be large enough for cultivation from a cost-benefit perspective. If the land distribution is proportional, some people with very small landholdings were found to abandon the land because the investments for cultivation were considered to be too high in comparison to the eventual profits. 
  6. There must be some leadership to prevent/solve conflicts and ensure that the bethma practice functions well. 
In a number of cases, the Vel vidane, Chairman of the FO, or Divisional Officer put some pressure on the decision making process by explaining that the sluices would only be opened in case the farmers would decide to cultivate under bethma, and that the only other alternative farmers had was to leave the land barren, thereby saving water for the next cultivation season. This, of course, can only work if the farmers cannot open the sluices themselves.


Region: Anuradhpura District 
Neighbourhood: cascades around Paddikkaramaduwa, Nallamudawa, Indigehawewa, Punchikuluma, Wellamudawa, Walpola, Kulikkada (and many other cascades in Anuradhapura district)


Bethma is an old indigenous methodology, still practiced in some areas in Sri Lanka, which aims to provide opportunities for farmers to cultivate during drought situations when there is some water in the reservoirs, but not sufficient for cultivation of the entire command area. Local Farmer Organizations (and sometimes local government organizations) drew upon their past experience with bethma, especially regarding the water level at which bethma can be carried out, to revitalise this old practice. 

In few cases, the divisional officer or project officer helped stimulate and support the bethma practice in areas where the Farmer Organization was not strong enough to get commitment from all farmers to carry out the bethma practice. Without this support, and without the knowledge and experience of this practice, farmers would not have been able to do any cultivation in the drought season in the command area. However, in most areas, this practice is still known among the farming population, and will be applied during yala season if there is sufficient water in the tank for cultivation of part of the command area (quite rarely though).


Economic sustainability is realised by enabling cultivation (food supply and income) and optimalising the possibilities for individual landowners to benefit from the system.

Environmental sustainability is realised by using water more efficiently by practising bethma in combination with rotational distribution.

Other: social sustainability: this methodology can improve food security and maintain equity among shareholders/landowners of lands in the command area of the tank.


  • The primary initiators of the project were -- in some cases -- the leaders of the Farmer Organization or the traditional irrigation headmen (the ‘velvidane’). They proposed the practice during the cultivation meeting at the start of the season, explaining its benefits and the rules involved. They also acted as mediators to smooth things out during potential conflicts. In few other cases the farmers themselves proposed bethma, and sometimes it was even arranged among the farmers without a cultivation meeting at the start of the yala season. However, in some other villagers, farmers complained about not practising bethma, which would have been possible according to them, but which was obstructed by office bearers of the FO, or by the Vel vidane (usually also large landowners).
  • The divisional officer and/or the project officer acted as a catalyst to help realise the project, but can also (in few cases) do the opposite by supporting the office bearers of the Farmer Organisation or the

  • vel vidane, in case they have a certain (private) interests to obstruct cultivation under bethma.
  • In all cases, only the shareholders or landowners of paddyland in the command area of the tank (reservoir) have rights to allocation of land under bethma. In some villages, people without paddy lands in the command area of the tank also had indirect access to some of the land due to individual arrangements among farmers. After the allocation of land under bethma, some landowners exchanged part of their paddy land under bethma for water (from agrowells in homegardens), for seedlings, or for money (cultivation rights for the entire plot allocated under bethma during one season for a particular amount of money). 
The average village consisted of approximately 150 families, where between 70 and 95% of the families were landowners of paddyland in the Command Area belonging to the largest tank. In general, several tanks can be found within the administrative boundaries of a village, but only those landowners who have land in the Command Area of the tank where bethma would be practised (usually only the largest tank) have rights to landallocation under bethma. Since most farmers have lands in the command area of more than one tank, including the largest tank, most paddy land owners have access to the bethma system. 



  • Sharing land temporarily creates equity between landowners. 
  • Land productivity increases, providing a partial food supply or some income.
  • Water from the reservoir is used efficiently. 
  • The practice decreases dependence on slash and burn (chema) cultivation. 
  • The practice decreases the need for landowners to work as day labourers outside the village. 
  • Sometimes large landowners are able to finish the harvesting and threshing of their yield earlier than others, because they have their own tractors, and because they don't alway wait with their harvesting and threshing activities until the dates which are set collectively for harvesting and threshing. By doing so, they might use this opportunity in their advantage by preparing their land for the yala season (dry season), thereby making it impossible for the other farmers to practise bethma, and claiming water for cultivation of their lands afterwards, if necessary with political support or support from the Divisional Officers.
  • Some of the landowners do not comply with the rules/decisions of the practice, and cultivate other plots, claiming water for those plots as well. By preparing those plots and sowing these fields, they bring the office bearers of the Farmer Organisation or the Vel vidane in a difficult position, because everyone agrees that - once a field has been sown - a crop should not be left without water to dy. This can cause conflict between the landowners.
  • There is a difference of opinion about the 'fairness' of the land redistribution. In case of proportional distribution, the investment costs become too high for small landowners in relation to the final profit, and for large landowners, non-proportional distribution is not fair, because they get the same share as someone with a much smaller landholding. The amount of land available under bethma for each farmer is often not more than 0.25 or 0.50 acres, which is very small.
  • Some large landowners try to manipulate the system (in case of non-proportional land allocation) by dividing as much land as possible within their family (to their wife and children), thereby ensuring rights to land for each landowner within the family.
  • There is a risk of losing crops or yield because the bethma practice is so sensitive to rainfall conditions. 
  • There were complaints from people who were excluded from participation. (These were people who do not have paddyland ownership in the command area). 
  • It proves the viability of a practice in a different economic and socio-cultural system, compared with the past. 
  • In some areas it demonstrated how local leadership, inside and outside the farmer organisation, can function as a catalyst. 
  • It shows the adaptivity of the water resource management system. It also shows how creatively the involved organisations can overcome particular constraints. 

Success was achieved in terms of: 

  • output: from no yield to a small yield (the exact number of bushels is unknown); 
  • process: participants showed initiative, commitment, the ability to adapt the final implementation, and cooperation; 
  • legitimacy: successfully applying bethma is likely to enhance support for and legitimacy of the farmer organisation/local government organisation. 

The bethma practice can be transferred to other areas with a few modifications. The following conditions increase the chances of success: 

  • presence of small-scale irrigation systems 
  • a homogenous population from the same caste, family, religion, etc. 
  • a group that has close relations with each other to enhance solidarity and prevent conflicts 
  • high rate of farmer participation in decision-making 
  • situation by which most of the landowners have the same amounts of land in the older parts (usually easiest to irrigate) and in the newer parts of the command area 
Main obstacles: 
  • insufficient rainfall to practice bethma 
  • inequity among farmers (in terms of decision-making, land and water distribution) 
  • problems and conflicts emerging as result of bethma: farmers asking for more land than what they are entitled to; farmers preparing lands outside the bethma area, by ploughing, levelling and sowing ground, and then asking officials to issue water to their field because they have invested so much in preparing the ground. 
  • Some farmers decided that the time, labour and expenses required to develop a piece of ground are too high. They abandon their fields to take advantage of other income opportunities, but are not willing to let other farmers take advantage of using their fields. This obstructs the system. 
  • lack of commitment 
  • "free rider" behaviour, farmers who want to benefit from bethma without doing the work 
  • influence from landowners who wish to cultivate only some areas of land without temporarily redistributing lands 
  • if the office bearers (of velvidane) are big landowners of old parts or newer parts of the command area (in which case they will prefer to cultivate their own fields) 
The bethma practice has been replicated in a dry and wet zone of Sri Lanka. 

Bethma can be practised differently in medium- or large-scale irrigation systems, which have more centralised decision-making. 

From: 1996 to present 


  • Irna van der Molen (provider of this information) 

  • University of Twente - School of Management Studies - Technology and Development Group; P.O. Box 217, 7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands 
    E-mail: P.vandermolen@tdg.utwente.nl
  • List of local contacpersons:

  • For Padikaramaduwa:

    Agrarian Service Centre Yakalla 
    Mrs. Shaanthi Kumari Jayewardene 
    Yakalla, Megodawewa
    Sri Lanka
    (responsible also for Padikaramaduwa, in office since April 1998), 

    International Water Management Institute
    Mr. Ian Makin / Mr. Senaka Arachchi / Mr. Somaratne / Mr. Jinapale 
    P.O. Box 2075
    Sri Lanka
    telephone: 94-1-867404
    e-mail: iimi@cgnet.com
    (all were involved in SCOR project in Padikaramaduwa)

    For Nallamudawa:

    Mr. Anando Karunasiri
    Former Divisional Officer
    Agrarian Service Centre Eppawala
    Sri Lanka
    (transfered, but no information as where to)

    Mrs. Wasantha 
    Agrarian Service Centre Eppawala
    Sri Lanka
    (recently appointed)

    Mr. E.G. Semaratne
    Extension Officer
    Department of Agriculture
    Sri Lanka

    For Indigehawewa:

    Mr. Gunadase Wickramarachi
    Divisional Officer
    Agrarian Service Centre Ipolagama
    Sri Lanka
    telephone (at bank close to office): 94-25-64279

    For Wellamudawa and Punchikuluma:

    Mr. Sarath Perera
    Divisional Officer
    Agrarian Service Centre Thirappanee
    Sri Lanka

    For Walpola and Kulikkada:

    Mr. Premaratne Abeysinghe 
    Divisional Officer
    Agrarian Service Centre Medawachchiya
    Sri Lanka
    telephone (res.): 94-25-66689

    Mr. Anuradha Amaratunghe
    Government Agent Medawachchiya
    AGA's Office (Divisional Secretariat)
    Sri Lanka

    For the projects of FFHCB:

    Mr. Kalam
    Technical Assistant 
    Sri Lanka national programme of the Freedom From Hunger Campaign Board
    Harischandra Mawatha
    telephone: 94-25-35303
    (technical assistant at time of the project implementation: Mr. Gamini)

    Mr. Sirisene
    Freedom from Hunger Campaign Board
    Harischandra Mawatha

    Mr. Bowange
    Chairman Freedom from Hunger Campaign Board
    17 Malaksekera Mawatha
    Colombo 7
    telephone: 94-1-589384

    For information about the WFP:

    Mr. Weerakkody or: Mr. Mahir
    Technical Officer
    Regional Department of Agrarian Services
    Godage Mawatha
    Sri Lanka
    Telephone: 94-25-22422

    For information about projects by the Irrigation Department:

    Mr. Thilikaratne
    Irrigation Engineer
    Deputy Director's Office
    Airport Road
    Sri Lanka
    telephone: 94-25-22587

    Mr. M.A.G.S. Wijayawardhana
    Irrigation Engineer
    Irrigation Engineer's Office
    Airport Road
    Sri Lanka
    telephone: 94-25-22587 / 94-25-22499

    Mr. Jayaratne
    Planning Officer
    Irrigation Engineer's Office
    Airport Road
    Sri Lanka

    Mr. Senewiratne
    Irrigation Engineer
    Provincial Irrigation Department
    Sri Lanka
    telephone: 94-25-64285


Primary organization: 

Agrarian Service Department 
Divisional Officer 
Yakalla - Sri Lanka 

Cooperating organizations: 

International Irrigation Management Institute 
Sri Lanka Country Program 
Sri Lanka 
Telephone: 94-1-50800 upto 7 
Fax: 94-1-808008 

Agrarian Service Department 
Divisional Officer 
Eppawala - Sri Lanka 

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