Hosthota Gururaj, a young areca farmer of Shimoga district in Karnataka, is cursing himself, wondering why the great idea didn't strike him earlier. Thanks to the rejuvenation of a madaka in the upper portions of the hills on his land, Gururaj's two-decade-long water crisis has been completely banished. Not only that, he has been able to grant a long holiday to his bore-wells. He now says, "If all of us have a madaka at the higher portions of our lands and catch the rain right there, this Malnad region of ours with so much rainfall will not require a bore well at all."

A madaka, also known as a kanive kere, is a traditional rainwater harvesting body, a percolation pond just like the johads of Rajasthan. Government departments too construct a similar structure in these areas, which goes by the name nala bundh. Usually it is built on the upper reaches of the hills, and thus checks the huge run-off that gushes from hilltops.

The madakas need not necessarily contain water till the end of summer like a well. Instead, their main job is to catch a good chunk of the run-off that flows from their catchment in the higher elevations. Even if the madaka holds this rainwater for 6-7 months and dries up altogether later, that's fine with the farmers, because in the meantime, it would have raised the water table of the aquifers below. Building the madaka higher up ensures water in the lower areas until the end of summer.

Thirthahally taluk, in which area this farm is located, has thousands of such percolation tanks situated at higher elevations. Most of them have been partly silted up with the beginning of acacia plantation here 20 years ago. Still, wherever possible, says Gururaj, if farmers care to rejuvenate their madakas like he did, their water sources can be augmented in a dramatic way. Some careful steps would be necessary to prevent further silting of these water bodies, but the benefits are both immediate and immense. Gururaj himself is ready with an informed calculation of how much he's gained as a result of his choice. "Electricity charges to the tune of Rs,7000 to 8000. All these years, I had to keep an alarm, wake up at midnight and frequently visit the pump shed to restart the motor. Power supply here is not only erratic, but in summer, we get three-phase power for only 6 hours a day. I can't estimate the value of the present tensionless life", he sums up.

Thirthahally taluk, in which area this farm is located, has thousands of such percolation tanks, but most of them have been partly silted up with the beginning of acacia plantation here 20 years ago.

 •  Top to bottom, water and soil
 •  Rejuvenation of a hill range

Malnad is an area of heavy annual rainfall, and its undulating topography consisting of numerous hills and valleys. Gururaj's property extends from the valley where his cultivation takes place, up to the hilltop. He has 5 acres in all; three are in the valley and the rest at a slightly higher elevation.

Decades ago Gururaj's family shared the water from a nearby big tank with two other families. It was gravity flow, and didn't require a pump set to irrigate the land. All the farmers in this area were practising flood irrigation. But, come April, and the water crisis would start each year, and thereafter, the usual weekly rounds of irrigation sometimes turned into once-a-month affairs.

Fed up with this scenario, and not in a mood to fight with the neighbours, Gururaj bid good-bye to sharing water. He decided he would have his own water source, and with this aim in mind, he went about digging bore wells since 1992. One after another, the number of bore wells rose to seven in only six years, but the benefit he hoped for didn't materialise. Of the seven wells, four went completely dry during the digging itself, and while the other three had some amount of water, that was still not adequate.

Gururaj then had a big tank built. At night, whenever there was electricity, he would pump out water from two bore wells into this tank. And during the day, he used to irrigate the land, drawing the water from this tank by gravity. Yet, by the end of summer he was back to rationing water.

Next he shifted to sprinkler irrigation, because that would save lot of water when compared to flooding. However, every year, there would be periods when the water was simply not enough, and some of his arecanut trees would turn yellow, and the yield would decrease.

Ironically, the solution he hit upon eventually was not entirely new to him, which is why he's cursing himself now. He had been irrigating the lands at a higher elevation from a madaka his father Krishnamurthy had dug decades ago. ; this is about 45 meters above his home and about half a kilometer away. In the catchments of this madaka, Mysore Paper Mills' acacia plantation was established in the mid-80s. That has spelt doom for hundreds of such madakas, including Gururaj's, because there was large scale silting due to the disturbance of topsoil.

The rejuvenated percolation pond
(Photo: Shree Padre)

Recalls Krishnamurthy, "Before MPM's acacia plantation started, this hill was full of many local species of forest trees and good canopy cover. MPM planted acacia monocrop on all our hilltops, and that is one major reason for the decline of the water table in this area."

As the water crisis wore on, Gururaj decided he would desilt this madaka. The work was finished in a phased manner. In the end, after raking their brains a little more over the idea, the family ended up constructing a series of small madakas here, one above the other. This move percolated huge amounts of rainwater at the hilltop.

Since last year, the water that flows out from this madaka cascade is enough to irrigate all of the families' lands. As a result, this year they haven't used their bore wells. Inspired by his success, Gururaj has begun work on another two-part madaka in another upper valley he owns. This will cost him Rs.20,000. "We don't intend to use that water directly. It will recharge the water source of our old tank. That means, my lands in the lower reaches will get benefited indirectly", Gururaj explains his plans.

Says Gururaj, "Even at the end of summer, leave alone drying up, the water level in the madaka hasn't gone down much. If only this idea had occurred to us earlier, we would have come back to the sustainable path [long ago]."