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Water & Sanitation

And Not a Drop to Waste

Getting the measure of water in a southern Indian village. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

MAHBUBNAGAR, India, May 6 2014 (IPS) - As the mercury soars above 40 degrees Celsius, ground water level across India is dropping, making it difficult for farmers to cultivate their fields. This is the season when farmers make a special effort to save their crops from wilting. Failure would see them migrate to the city to search alternative livelihood.

In Appireddypally village 169 km south-west of the southern Indian city Hyderabad, 38-year-old farmer Prabhavati Reddy stands next to a borewell, trying to measure the groundwater level. Her tape shows the level of water 17 metres from the top.

Barely literate they might be, but the farmers of Mahbubnagar are now sought by many for their expertise in water budgeting.

Last week, the level was 16 metres below the top. “The level of water is falling fast. We must plan cropping that won’t require much water,” Reddy tells fellow villagers.

“Water budgeting basically means taking stock of the existing amount of water for irrigation and planning one’s cropping accordingly,” hydrologist Ishwar Reddy tells IPS.

Under a World Bank funded water management initiative called the Andhra Pradesh Community Based Tank Management project Ishwar Reddy oversees training of farmers like Prabhavati Reddy in groundwater monitoring. The training is crucial for people in Appireddypalli village, which is in Mahbubnagar district that receives only about 600 mm rainfall in a year – far below India’s national average of 1,183 mm.

“Knowing how much groundwater is available each season for irrigation helps the farmers plan their cropping and ensure a profit, even in the face of adverse climatic conditions,” Ishwar Reddy adds.

Teaching villagers how to monitor groundwater is important, says project consultant Joseph Plakkottam. The project was a finalist at this year’s Water for Life award presented by the UN on World Water Day for best water management practices.

“Monitoring the water situation is the most important skill a farmer who lives in a dry area can acquire. If used wisely, it can help him significantly minimise the chances of a crop failure,” Plakkottam tells IPS.

Prabhavati and her husband Subban Reddy are a fine example of this. The Reddy couple own an eight-acre farm, previously grew only rice and peanuts, but now grow a mix of crops.

“For past two years, we have been growing rice and peanuts only in the monsoon when the water level is high. For the rest of the year, we grow vegetables like brinjal, tomatoes, okra and onion which require very little water and have good demand in the market,” Subban Reddy tells IPS.

Earlier, the couple made profits only in monsoon. But now they make a profit of about 400 dollars from each crop.

Across the 276 villages of Mahbubnagar, hundreds of farmers have been learning water budgeting. Many of these villages have a mini weather station. So, besides goundwater mapping, villagers also learn how to monitor rainfall. They then collect and collate such data for crop planning.

Appireddypalli has a community hall. On Sundays, it is used as a makeshift school for farmers. They sit on the floor, listening intently to their teachers – the first of the villagers trained in water budgeting. The teachers use a bundle of posters that has all the rainfall and groundwater data they collected earlier.

Using these posters as their main tool of communication, the teachers suggest crops the farmers can comfortably grow in the current season. Millet, tomatoes, onions and corns are highly recommended, while rice is not.

Chenna Chinna Reddy can’t read or write. But he has no problems in understanding his teachers. “There isn’t a lot of water under the earth here. So, if I sow rice, tomorrow it will wither and I will lose all my money. I must also not grow crops that will require a lot of pesticide because that will also require lots of water,” he tells IPS.

Besides choosing less water-intensive crops, the water savers are also minimising water extraction. Farmer Avetti Kalappa, 42, owns a borewell and a two-acre farm. Shallow tunnels criss-cross his fields. Instead of flooding his field, Kalappa releases water from the well at one end of a tunnel. The water flows quickly through the tunnels, wetting the field from all sides.

The simple method also enables Kalappa to share water with his neighbouring farms.

“Since the rainfall here is insufficient, everybody extracts groundwater for farming,” Suhas Raje, deputy director at the state groundwater department tells IPS. “But if a few farmers share water, every farmer need not drill an individual bore well. That way, not only can they control the depletion of groundwater, but also save electricity which is used to run a well.”

To encourage water sharing, the project has been providing farmers in each village pipelines that connect multiple farms, and a portable water mapping device, says Raje.

Barely literate they might be, but the farmers of Mahbubnagar are now sought by many for their expertise in water budgeting. Kalappa and Subban Reddy recently travelled to neighbouring Tamil Nadu state and presented their model before a group of farming experts and engineers.

“People ask us if we were nervous. A farmer feels nervous only when he is at the mercy of others. Here, we have the knowledge to control the situation around us,” says Subban Reddy.

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  • Kim Ayers

    This is fantastic! I have been to Senegal where I saw farmers were
    struggling to water their fields… can they also be taught this

  • Geordano Cossu

    This is indeed a very good initiative. But why not extend it to areas where farmers are killing themselves? Isn’t that a huge problem in Indian farming sector?

z lib onion