In drought-hit India, some villages restore century-old irrigation canals

Residents see the traditional system as a prime example of how communities can work together to overcome the challenges of their environment. But how widely it could be used remains a question.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters/File
A farmer in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, throws water after making a canal to irrigate his field, May 12, 2016.

Ask the farmers in remote Baksa district, in the northeast Indian state of Assam, whether they are affected by climate change and they usually respond with a look of surprise.

Across much of India, farmers are struggling to adapt as their crops fail season after season as a result of increasingly unpredictable and often dry weather.

But in Baksa, along Assam's border with Bhutan, farmers have never seen their harvest ruined by drought or delayed rainfall, despite having no access to irrigation pipes or water pumps.

Their secret is a 100-year-old indigenous irrigation system called dong bandh – a network of canals that uses the downhill flow of the area's rivers and streams to bring water to villagers and their fields.

Built, monitored, and maintained by locals, the system gives the district's residents access to clean water even as droughts devastate many other areas of the country.

"I have 1.6 hectares (3.9 acres) of cultivable land, and in that I cultivate rice, maize, and vegetables," said farmer Monindra Choudhury, 44, whose farm gets its water from the dong bandh in Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga.

"I am able to grow three crops a year, and this is solely as a result of this irrigation network," he said.

The district in the Bhutan foothills is particularly reliant on the rivers and streams that crisscross it, carrying water down from the hills, because digging for underground water is challenging in the area.

"This area is rocky and it is very difficult to dig wells or install hand pumps," said Chakradhar Talukdar, a project officer with the non-profit Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), a rural development organization that is researching and documenting the traditional irrigation networks.

So farmers a century or more ago found a way to make the land work for them. They built small dams on the rivers and routed the water through canals to their paddy fields and household ponds.

Spread throughout an area of around 300 square kilometers (115 square miles), the dong bandh irrigation systems of Baksa serve around 149,000 farmers and 94,600 agricultural laborers, who use it to grow rice, maize, vegetables, tea, and betel nuts and leaves.

"Our ancestors started this system of irrigation, and we are reaping the benefits," said farmer Monu Lahkar, 38. "I have 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) of land, and though there are no irrigation facilities here I don't have any difficulty in cultivating it."

Lahkar is secretary of the Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga Dong Bandh Committee, one of around 10 local groups responsible for making sure the water keeps flowing to the farms.

The irrigation system uses canals dug from a nearby river and then smaller sub-channels that carry the water to fields and villages. The 50-member committees put one member in charge of each sub-canal, with the job of monitoring it every day and reporting to the committee about any damage or other issues.

"The watchman inspects the canal and, if any repair is needed, immediately informs the committee president or secretary, and they in turn ask a member to go and repair it," said Talukdar.

The committee takes those duties seriously: Any watchman who doesn't show up for work is fined 100 rupees ($1.47) a day.

If a new household wants to join the network, it has to apply to the committee and pay a deposit of around $15. That money gets them a seat on the committee and access to the water.

After that, every household that uses the system pays an annual fee of 40 kg (88 lb) of rice into the committee's coffers. Each year, the committee uses around 1,600 kg (3,500 lb) of the rice to pay the watchmen and committee secretary; everyone else works for free.

Together, the committees and locals have restored much of the irrigation system, parts of which had been abandoned over its century of use.

"Over 183.7 km (114 mi) of canals have been restored through cleaning and dredging work, which will benefit over 2,890 hectares (7,140 acres) of cultivable land," said GVM director Pritibhushan Deka.

To make sure everyone gets the most out of the system, Deka said the GVM has helped form a central canal management committee to oversee the dong bandh network.

Made up of 21 executive members from all the branch canal management committees, the central committee has formulated a constitution to help resolve any disputes regarding the distribution of water.

While the dong bandh system was created before the world recognized the effects of climate change, people in Baksa see it as a prime example of how communities can work together to overcome the challenges of their environment.

But how widely it could be used remains a question.

Just over 100 kilometers away, villagers and farmers are still at the mercy of the rain.

"We are fully dependent on rainfall for our cultivation, and we are hit badly when it is delayed or there is a drought," said Romesh Kalita, 52, a farmer in Koniha village, in neighboring Nalbari district.

"Even if we hire a pump and get water, it isn't enough," he said.

Asked if the dong bandh irrigation system that serves Baksa could benefit struggling areas like Nalbari, Talukdar said it depends on both the place and its people.

"In Baksa, it is an ideal situation, with the landscape, the nearby rivers and the cooperation of the people," he said. "But elsewhere it might not be possible to create such a system."

Reporting by Amarjyoti Borah; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit

 Amarjyoti Borah is a water fellow with SAMUHA, an organization working to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people.

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