DA Sustainable Livelihoods  Check-Dams

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Meet a Woman from Bundelkhand | Check-Dams and Irrigation |
Check-Dam Evaluation Study| Bundelkhand Region |
DA Activities in Bundelkhand

Check-Dams and Irrigation

"Check-dams" are small barriers built across the direction of water flow on shallow rivers and streams for the purpose of water harvesting. The small dams retain excess water flow during monsoon rains in a small catchment area behind the structure. Pressure created in the catchment area helps force the impounded water into the ground. The major environmental benefit is the replenishment of nearby groundwater reserves and wells. The water entrapped by the dam, surface and subsurface, is primarily intended for use in irrigation during the monsoon and later during the dry season, but can also be used for livestock and domestic needs.

Checkdam 2

DA/Jhansi began promoting check-dams in 1989 as an appropriate intervention for working to restore the degraded natural resource base in Bundelkhand and thereby help the local inhabitants to escape the widely prevalent debt-poverty-migration trap. This strategy for regenerating aquifers and increasing fresh water resources for agriculture was chosen in part because it is in keeping with the organization’s overall mission to create sustainable livelihoods, and in part in response to different funders’ requests.

Water scarcity, augmented by deforestation, soil erosion/runoff, and rising demand leading to unsustainable use was identified by DA as one of the major contributing factors to poor agricultural yields in Bundelkhand. Given the nature of monsoon rainfall in India, the key to meeting the country’s growing demand for water for domestic and agricultural use is to more effectively harness rainfall, the ultimate source of all freshwater resources.

Numerous studies have shown that irrigated agriculture is associated with increased agricultural production, increased employment, and increased income. Working from a sustainable livelihoods perspective, DA is concerned not only with aggregate levels of production or employment, but also poverty alleviation and equity in terms of the distribution of income and benefits.

In general, the primary benefits of irrigation for the rural poor, or small farmers and the land poor, can be classified into:

  • employment and income (through increased working days per hectare)
  • security against impoverishment and migration
  • improved quality of life

Small farmers and the land poor have also suffered many adverse consequences of irrigation projects in the past, particularly due to construction of large-scale dams and canals. These include:

  • relocation / displacement
  • land bought out at unfair prices by speculators.
  • increased unpaid work loads for women (from additional animal grazing responsibilities).
  • increase in disease vectors such as mosquitoes, causing a rise in water-borne diseases
  • depressed purchase prices for rainfed crops caused by surpluses of irrigated crops on the market.

Despite having a centuries old tradition of using innovative small-scale water harvesting structures, India has turned away from many of its indigenous technologies in recent decades in favor of imported "modern" technologies, such as large-scale dam and canal systems; electric or diesel lift irrigation; drip and sprinkler systems; tubewells and borewells. In the process, much traditional knowledge and values have been repressed or lost.

Modern solutions to water management, however, pose several problems in the Indian context, including:

  • maintenance
  • construction delays, shoddy building practices, budget overruns, official corruption
  • disparity between the irrigation capacity supposedly created and the actual irrigated area realized
  • false projected benefits and raised expectations among farmers
  • underinvestment in drainage, causing water tables to rise and leading to salinity or waterlogging,
  • increased rates of malaria
  • safety violations and displacement of local populations without proper recompense
  • short life of many dam-made reservoirs from unexpectedly high rates of siltation
  • low cost-effectiveness

Compared with large-scale high-tech approaches to water management, check-dams appear to be a more appropriate technology for poor rural areas such as the Bundelkhand Region. For instance, in contrast to modern large dam projects, check-dams are a lower cost and less environmentally and socially disruptive alternative for irrigation.

Check-dams do not submerge large tracts of land or alter river courses. In contrast to large dams and other, technology, skilled labor, financial resources and maintenance needed for check-dams are relatively minimal, making them more accessible to poor farmers. The initial investment made can usually be recovered in one or two seasons through the ensuing increases in agricultural production.

From an environmental perspective, small-scale water harvesting structures such as check-dams also seem to be the best choice since

  • they are a more efficient catchment system, when widely used in a watershed, than large dams
  • they help to counter some of the adverse effects of the monsoon rains by allowing for more percolation of water into the soil; helping to increase soil moisture and vegetation; reducing erosion; and possibly reducing damage from flash floods.
  • large-scale irrigation systems can never be as amenable to individual farmers needs as smaller locally based water sources.

Check-dams, like tubewells, are a decentralized form of irrigation under the control of farmers, allowing them to make micro-adjustments to their watering regimes in response to local factors and thereby to improve yields.

Meet a Woman from Bundelkhand | Check-Dams and Irrigation |
Check-Dam Evaluation Study| Bundelkhand Region |
DA Activities in Bundelkhand

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