Age old wisdom is the key along with modern technologies.
“For better living standards in Thar Desert”
By Yangchen Choden Rinzin, Ifham Nizam and Swechhya Singh
Jodhpur, December 2011

Any government cannot be 100 per cent successful in satisfying the water needs of all its citizens without the age old irrigation systems despite its best efforts to supply water using modern technologies. The success stories in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan exemplifies that modern technology has to be coupled with age old technology to give relief to the needy.

Thar Desert has receives rain in 12 days between June to August. But a mix of modern technology and traditional know how has made life a lot easy for its people by increasing the storage capacity.

During our recent visit to the Thar desert clearly indicates that recent initiatives to utilize local knowledge to upgrade the water resources had helped people to improve their living standards.

This comes with the recognition that people have been living in the desert in a sustainable manner for centuries and have devised indigenous methods for dealing with water scarcity. Rainwater harvesting structures, such as the tanka, nadi, and beri, were developed by the people over time to store rainwater to use during the driest parts of the year.

Among the modern techniques used by the community is the tube well, which according to them had greatly benefited them in growing rain-fed crops in the recent years.

Tube well irrigation channel is described as a well, where villagers hold water solely for irrigation purpose. The wells are mostly constructed with the agreement of group of villagers to reduce the cost since the well needs various materials for construction.

Tube wells were once belonged only to the affluent of the society and at that time the poor community had to buy water from the rich, which was an added financial burden for them. But with the help from non-governmental organizations and government, the well is presently constructed by and shared among the poorer segments of the village. 

The well is constructed with holes each demarcated to the members who are constructing the well. For instance, a community based in Gagadi village constructed a group tube well with an agreement of three families which act as stakeholders. The constructed well has four holes and each hole distributed water to their respective irrigation channels.

Sixty-year old Neta Ram said the well, which was renovated about 15 years back, gives water for generations. “It was a group concept because constructing it was very expensive,” he said. “It cost us about Rs. 0.2 million ”.

He added if a villager wants to construct tube well today, the cost will be more than Rs. 0.5 million which is an unbearable expense for many.

Another elderly man said if other family of the group community wants to use water, they can do so by further adding tube and distributing the water. “But the whole cost for maintenance and motor electricity bill is bared by main group member,” he said. “It is up to the families how they collect money from their family they gave water.”

A non-governmental organisation called Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti Ravis have also encouraged villagers to grow less water intensive crops like mustard, cotton and castor oil. “We conducted an experiment growing chillies but they were destroyed due to high level of frost”, Ram said.  Crop rotation is also done to ensure the circulation of soil nutrients and better quality in food products.

Today each family member produces about 4,000 quintals of castor oil and 60 quintals of cotton and grows other cash crops that needs more water in a small kitchen garden.

People of Rajasthan experience drought in three year cycles and in the earlier days before the construction of tube well, villagers had to depend on rain water for farming. However t hey do not have to depend only on rain water now and v illagers are able to grow crops i n a larger scale. Since a griculture is the main source of income for most of these villagers, cash crops have helped improve their standards of living .

C lay pot irrigation system is another unique system communities have adopted in the recent years and have assited farmers to work with saline and polluted water.

The farmers place two clay pots holding water buried in the soil, which delivers water directly to the plant root thus reducing the water consumption.

The clay available in the area is ideal for the pots which need to be porous, so that the the pots release water evenly . Clay pot irrigation is exclusively practiced by Muslims in the area for generations.

Sixty-five year old Akbar Khan, who makes clay pots, said, “w e have enough business. We sell between 20 and 25 pots per day at Rs. 45 each. There are 100 to 150 families who depend on this industry,” he added. He also says they also get sufficient orders from the other states, particularly Gujarat .

He says the process includes sowing seed and burying clay pots in the soil up to their neck on the two sides of the plant seedlings. “Then farmers fill in the pot to provide the steady water supply to the plants.”  According to him, water seeps out through the surface of the buried clay pot at the rate determined by water use of plant. The pot is filled as needed to maintain the continuous water supply to the plant. The controlled water delivery from buried clay pot irrigation provides young seedlings with a steady water supply even during periods of very high temperatures and low humidity.

A local says that this system is more useful in those places where the underground water is extremely saline. With the development of this system different varieties of fruits and crops can now be grown in any time of the year. Villagers do not have to wait for the onset of monsoon. 

Khadins, an irrigation system used mainly by smaller families in the villagers is usually supported by the government. Khadin is a water harvesting system in which the man-made embankments of about four feet are built to collect the rain water. This system is rain-fed and enhances the number of sowing days. . Water stored within the embankments does not percolate quickly and keeps the soil moist for a long period of time even after the offset of monsoon. Vegetation can be done after the end of monsoon season. In earlier days before this system was developed, villagers only had short period of time for sowing.

“With the development of technology, we are in a better position to continue our day to day activities. The initiatives of the government in encouraging us to put up khadins, which has helped to have more crop yields”, a senior villager said. However, she also says that they could improve much more if the government helps them in providing resources to construct other methods. “We need help, especially to improve traditional irrigation systems, which will raise our living standards ”, she stressed.