In the drought-prone Adihalli-Mylanhalli area of Karnataka, agriculture is dependent on the erratic rainfall that ranges from medium to scanty (650 mm or 26 inches per year). Nearly half the population has suffered from a lack of food security during the greater part of the year. With their very survival threatened, migration to nearby cities was the only option for these subsistence farmers.

Thanks to a Canadian start-up grant, Bharat Agro Industry Foundation (BAIF), a non-government organization designed and executed a simple rainwater-harvesting model of interlinked ponds feeding into one another. They turned the gentle, sloping lay of the land to an advantage.

One farm pond with sloping sides was dug for every two hectares of land, with the outlet channel feeding excess water to another pond through a trench. Protective mounds were built around each trench, and trees and vegetation were planted to stem erosion. Vegetable cultivation around the ponds was a natural addition. The ponds were located along contour lines, allowing excess water from one pond to flow naturally through a trench into the next one below. Thus, rainwater flows horizontally, at lower velocity, with minimum degradation of silt.

The village community was actively involved in the planning, execution and maintenance of the project. But first, BAIF had to build trust among them and prove their honorable intentions. They completely financed a water source in one village with the involvement of the community, making them the stakeholders. Once the villagers had drinking water at their doorsteps, the rest fell into place.

Initial surveys revealed that individual farmers were using water from small dugout ponds to cultivate tiny vegetable gardens for home consumption. The BAIF team, in consultation with the farmers, surmised that excess water from the upper catchment area could be gathered in downstream ponds, to the benefit of the whole community.

Individual, short-term gains were weighed against community benefits and environmental conservation. The latter resonated with the villagers and won hands down. They realized that the sharing of resources would impact each individual farmer as well since collectively, they comprised the community. Those in the upstream did not lose out either: they had access to water in the higher reaches.

The construction costs per pond, which harvests around 175,000 litres of water, is 5,000 rupees ($104) only. Altogether, 349 farm ponds were built on more than 700 hectares comprising privately-owned and cultivated land. Farmers contributed 4.6 percent of the total financial outlay of 8.2 million rupees (US$173,000). They also contributed their labor for pond construction. An empowered people’s organization capable of dealing with local problems was established, and water user groups now ensure democratic, equitable water distribution.

The results of this model have been remarkable not only in terms of water harvesting, but in ushering in socio-economic change as well. Water levels have risen considerably – by 3.8 meters – and wells contain water for at least nine months of the year. Surface water has seen a huge increase from 8.5 ml in 1997 to 67.42 ml in 2000. Streams, which dried up three months after the rains, now flow almost throughout the year, making round-the-year potable water a reality.

The cropping pattern of the region has witnessed a sea change – the average yields in 2000 were roughly 50 percent higher than in 1997, turning their dream of food security into reality. Annual incomes have shot up by 1.5 to 4 times thanks to increased income from agriculture, livestock, and agricultural labor.

Other changes in the social profile of the community have also taken place. For the first time, women are managing businesses, helping improve family incomes on the one hand, and gaining some amount of economic freedom, on the other. Local management committees, cutting across caste and gender divisions, maintain all community-owned structures built by the project, and are working to ensure fair distribution of benefits.

The success of this innovation lies not only in making water and irrigation a reality in a drought-prone area, but also in effective management and maintenance of the project and the community, by the community. Several BAIF publications deal with this project in detail, and are available upon request. Technical papers on the innovation have been published in international and national journals:

  • 2003. "Revival of a Traditional Water Management System: An innovative Farm Pond Network Approach," published in Journal of Australian Association of Natural Resource Management. Vol. 6 (1): March.

  • 2002. "Pond network alleviates water shortages," in Appropriate Technology Journal, Netherlands. Sept.

  • 2002. "Rejuvenation of Rivulets through Farm Pond Based Watershed Development," in 12th International Soil Conservation Organization Conference, Vol. IV.