In Jharkhand, Using an Old Technique for Sustainable Water

Dobhas are small ponds that can help store water for use during the dry season.

Dobhas are small ponds that can help store water for use during the dry season.

By Sandeep Dixit and Abhijit Sharan

The Indian state of Jharkhand suffered an unprecedented drought recently, causing many rain-fed rivers and rivulets to dry up. Because of this, authorities felt it necessary to have sustainable water harvesting structures available to farmers. As a part of its water conservation efforts, the Centers for International Projects Trust in New Delhi collaborated with Ranchi’s Birsa Agricultural University to work on construction of small ponds (called “dobhas”) under its Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers’ Livelihood program. Once prevalent, these indigenous structures are helping farmers cope with the state’s water crisis.

Despite being endowed with natural and human capital, Jharkhand has among the highest levels of hunger in India, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s hunger index. The state also suffers from high incidences of poverty and malnutrition. Around 37 percent of the state’s population lives below poverty line. More than three-quarters of the population lives in rural areas. Close to 26 percent population of the state is tribal.

Although the average annual rainfall in the state is of around 1,200 mm, only a fifth of it is utilized. The mostly rocky terrain in the state limits soil water absorption, causing periodic droughts and limiting groundwater availability. The state’s 2010-11 economic survey indicated that surface water for agriculture was not sufficient because of inadequate storage facilities. Ninety percent of the state’s rainwater is wasted as untapped run-off due to poor management practices.

Agriculture and its challenges
Agriculture in Jharkhand is characterized by high dependence on nature, low productivity, less diversified cropping, inadequate irrigation, and dominance of small and marginal farmers. The periodic agricultural drought directly impacts the livelihood of more than 20 million farmers due to poor access to resources, inputs and lack of capacity to use modern farm production technologies and practices, such as sub-optimum quantities of pesticides which lead to pest attacks. Climate change and over-dependence on rain-fed agriculture has led to a vicious cycle of low productivity, low income and poor finances in last two decades. Jharkhand agriculture is largely rain-fed, with only 11 percent of the cultivated area under assured irrigation.

Poor returns from agriculture are common in the tribal state. Insufficient irrigation leads to damaged crops, and many farmers can only cultivate one crop in a year. This mono-cropping also affects the soil quality, and eventually the crop quality, which further compounds the financial woes of the farmer. Although the Green Revolution of the 1970s benefited the nation in more ways than one, its footprint in eastern India, including Jharkhand, didn’t become as visible as anticipated.

Rainwater harvesting and use
According to the Centre for Science and Environment, Jharkhand has a potential to harvest up to 112 thousand million cubic feet of water. However, the recent drought in Jharkhand caused many rivers and rivulets to dry up. Subsequently, authorities made sustainable water harvesting structures available to farmers.

As part of water conservation efforts, the Centers for International Projects Trust collaborated with Ranchi’s Birsa Agricultural University to work on construction of small ponds—dobhas—under its Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers’ Livelihood program. Dobhas store rainwater which can be used for irrigation purposes during non-rainy months. This reduces the dependence of the farmers on monsoons and helps them diversify their cropping patterns.

This program was initiated in 10 villages of the Angara block, Ranchi district, in early 2015. Dobhas are indigenous structures for water conservation which were prevalent in the region 20 to 30 years back, regaining popularity during this ongoing water crisis. The construction of dobhas is also spearheaded by the Jharkhand government on a massive scale, which aims to construct 500,000 dobhas across the state by the end of 2020.

This is in line with the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojna, which is a national program run by Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare. This program aims for Har Khet Ko Pani (“water in every field”) for improving farm productivity and to ensure better utilization of the resources in the country.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers’ Livelihood program also includes promotion of modern inputs, capacity-building of farmers and building agricultural information networks across the target villages. The program emphasizes building awareness and climate resilience among the farmers while developing value chains for crops in order to enhance incomes for small and marginal farmers.

The potential dobha sites were identified in low-lying areas where the rainwater could accumulate, and dobhas of dimensions 10ft x 10ft x 10ft were dug up. These dobhas can store up to 25,000 to 30,000 liters of rainwater, enough to meet farmers’ water needs.

Diversifying livelihoods, enhancing incomes
A survey of locations where dobhas were built under the program suggests that nearly three-quarters of them have the potential to store a significant amount of rainwater that could last eight to nine months per year. The infiltration from these water structures also provides recharge to sub-surface aquifers, which eventually helps to increase soil moisture availability and sustain water levels in dobhas.

A digital map showing the location of dobhas.

A digital map showing the location of dobhas. Proper location of dobhas is crucial to ensure they can capture and maintain the desired amounts of water.

The average cost of construction of one dobha is $46-$48. During the winter months, when their fields were barren due to the lack of water, the farmers have now started growing vegetables and flowers. Initial findings suggest that a farmer can earn an additional income of $70-$80 per month just by selling vegetables. The cost incurred on dobha construction is easily recoverable in the first cropping season. A post-harvest study showed that farmers of the Angara region earned approximately $750-$950 from production of rice and vegetables from one hectare of land.

The application and use of low-cost precision technologies like soil moisture sensors help in conserving water through better demand management. Coupled with better management practices and improved varieties of seeds, this increased crop yields. A post-harvest survey indicated that, on average, the paddy yield has increased 900 kilograms to 1,700 kilograms per acre in most of the program villages. Real time information on weather and cropping practices, capacity building of farmers and regular scientific support also aid the farmers.

The way ahead
In addition to the above efforts, the government has started using the dobhas under their Matsya Mitra (“Friends of Fish”) program, where they promote fish rearing among the farmers. This program, in its initial stages, is showing signs of success with some farmers earning around $770 by rearing fish from half a hectare (a little over one acre) of small tanks. Using dobhas for such activities will also make these small reservoirs a source of income for marginal farmers.

Proper location of dobhas is of paramount concern: Certain dobhas, built outside of the program, were not able to capture the desired amounts of water. On the other hand, dobhas built after careful site selection were able to maintain the perennial presence of water.

The low cost of construction, self-sufficient maintenance and high return on investment from these dobhas is already attracting many farmers to adopt their usage. The Jharkhand government aims to bring 100,000 acres of farmland under assured irrigation.

A total of 500,000 operational dobhas will collectively save 12.5 million cubic meters of rainwater. Additionally, if all the impacted farmers adopt better management practices and high yielding varieties of seeds, the state will witness an estimated five-fold increase in paddy production alone.

This integrated approach could help double farm income by 2020, as envisioned by the government of India. Farmers of Jharkhand will be able to see a food-secure state with enhanced crop production and income.

Sandeep Dixit Works as program manager with The Centers for International Projects Trust, New Delhi. Abhijit Sharan works as senior research associate with IORA Ecological Solutions, New Delhi. Earth Institute professors Upmanu Lall and Vijay Modi were advisors on this USAID-funded project that’s being led by Kamal Vatta of The Centers for International Projects Trust.

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