Traditional systems of Water Harvesting in India


The importance of water for life and environment is being felt since the man appeared on this planet. Hence, water is being harvested in India since the ancient period.

The need of conservation and management of water was felt even by the people of the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, about 5000 years ago.

Here is a historical account of the practice of water conservation in India, after which I will talk about various water harvesting practices and structures that have been traditionally popular in the different parts of this country.

Historical Account of Water Harvesting

Kautilya’s Arthshastra

The Archaeological Studies show that India’s Great Rann of Kutch had several reservoirs to collect rain water runoff in the extremely dry region of Dholavira, dating back to the 3rd millennium before the Christ.

Kautilya’s Arthashashtra that was written in the 3rd century B.C. has a mention of irrigation by rain- harvested water through community participation. The Junagarh Inscriptions dating back to 2nd century A.D. inform us about the restoration of Sudarsana Lake, which is not seen now since 9th century A.D.

Joonagarh Rock Inscriptions

The VijaiNagar Tradition

The Vijainagar Tradition of Vijainagar Kingdom (1336-1564 A. D.) laid much emphasis on the development of irrigation and water harvesting for the improvement of agriculture. The kings of olden days like Krishnadeo Rai (1509- 1530) etc. emphasized that prosperity of the empire depended on the construction of irrigation channels and water tanks.

The Gond Tradition

The Gond Tradition emphasized on the repairs of channels, embankments, distributaries, tanks or Talabs etc. The Rani Talab of Jabal Pur is a glaring example of water harvesting tradition of Gond Tribes.

The Bengal Tradition

The Bengal Tradition laid emphasis on irrigation with the water collected through rain water harvesting. The Karikala Chola of 2nd century A.D. built a Grand Anicut across the river Cauvery to divert water for irrigation.

Kashmir Tradition

Raja Bhoj of Bhopal built the largest artificial lake (65,000 acres) in India. That lake was fed by streams and springs. Kalhan in his Raj Tarangini (12 century A.D.) has described a well maintained irrigation system in Kashmir.

Kalhan’s Book Rajtarangini

In respect of availability and non- availability of water, India can be divided into 15 Ecological regions, ranging from dry, cold desert of Ladakh to the dry hot desert of Rajasthan, from the sub- temperate mountain of the Himalayas to the tropical high mountain of Nilgiri.

Laddakh Region

Melting glaciers and snows are the only sources of water for the people residing in Ladakh region. The people of this region make intelligent use of their limited resources and make agriculture possible in this dry and barren land.

The snow and ice melt slowly through the day and water is available in the streams only in the evening, when it is too late for irrigation. The water in the streams is hence led by channels to storage tanks and used the next day. These storage tanks are called as ZING.

The Zing

Arunachal Pradesh

The aptani tribes of Arunachal Pradesh practice another system of water conservation. Under this system the stream water is blocked by constructing a wall 2 to 4 m high and 1 m thick near forested hill slopes.

This water is taken to the agricultural fields through channels. The valleys are terraced into plots separated by 0.6 m high earthen dams with inlet and outlet channels (to the next plot) that help to flood or drain the plots as and when required. This traditional system is practiced in Nagaland and is traditionally called as Aptani System of water conservation.

Nagaland Tradition

Another tradition of water conservation is Zabo.The term Zabo means ‘impounding run-off’. Zabo tradition is practiced in Nagaland. When rain falls on terraced hill slopes, the runoff collects in ponds in the middle terrace.

Zabo system of rain water harvesting

The runoff then passes through slopes where there are cattle yards, and finally reaches the paddy fields at the foot of the hills. Thus it is through this system that not only the irrigation of paddy fields is brought about, but the fertility of the crop- field is also improved.

North Eastern Tradition

A very popular tradition of water harvesting in the north-eastern India is the Bamboo drip irrigation. Under this system the rapidly flowing water from streams and springs is captured by bamboo pipes and transported over hundreds of meters to drip irrigate black pepper cultivation in Meghalaya.

The Bamboo Drip Irrigation

Many bamboo pipes of varying diameters and lengths are laid to manipulate and control the flow of water through this system of water conservation.

Bihar Tradition

Ahar-pyne is a traditional floodwater harvesting system indigenous to South Bihar, and in Palamau of Jharkhand. Here the terrain has a marked slope, the soil is sandy, groundwater levels are low and rivers flood their banks only during the monsoon.

The ahar is the catchment basin embanked on three sides, while the fourth side is the natural slope. Pynes or artificial channels start out from the river, and meander through fields to end up in an ahar.

The Ahar-Pyne

Rajasthan Tradition

Tankas are traditional water storage structures that are round or rectangular in design and are usually constructed to store water in Bikaner of India. Rainwater from the roof or terrace is directed towards an opening in the floor which leads to the tanka. The rain water thus stored in tankas is used for various purposes.

Another popular tradition of water harvesting is the constructions of Johads.These are small earthen check dams that capture and conserve rainwater, improving percolation and groundwater recharge. This practice was started in 1984 in Rajasthan. So far some 3000 Johads have been constructed across more than 650 villages in Alwar district of the state.

What about other districts? Well other districts are also moving along the same path. This has resulted in a general rise of the groundwater level by almost 6 meters and a 33 percent increase in the forest cover in the area. Five rivers that used to go dry immediately following the monsoon have now become perennial. Such is the River Arvari that has come alive.

Another popular tradition of water harvesting is the construction of Khadins. A khadin- also called a dhora is an ingenious construction designed to harvest surface runoff water for agriculture.

It’s main feature is a very long (100-300 m) earthen embankment built across the lower hill slopes lying below uplands. Sluices and spillways in the area allow excess water to drain off to the catchment.

The Khadin system is based on the principle of harvesting rainwater on farmland and subsequent use of this water-saturated land for crop production.

The Khadin

First designed by the Paliwal Brahmins of Jaisalmer, Western Rajasthan in the 15th century, this system has great similarity with the irrigation methods of the people of Ur (present Iraq) around 4500 BC and later of the Nabateans in the Middle East.

A similar system is also reported to have been practiced 4,000 years ago in the Negev desert, and in southwestern Colorado 500 years ago.

As in many parts of the country, the people of Rajasthan have learnt to live with scarcity of water. In Churu, Bikaner, and Sikar of the state people have learnt to harvest rain water in Kunds or Kundis.

What are Kunds or Kundis? Dome shaped structures over an underground tank surrounded with an artificially paved catchment sloping towards the centre is called as Kund or Kundis.

Traditionally, these tanks were made up of lime, which acted as disinfectant but currently scarcity and demand hassled people to construct Kunds of cement.

Pani-Kheti Tradition

A very popular tradition of judicious utilization of water or water conservation is Pani-kheti.In other words, the system of rice cultivation on terraces developed by the Angami and Chakesangs tribes of Nagaland state of the North- eastern India is called a Panikheti.

Rather, Panikheti is the term applied to the beautiful rice terraces in the North-eastern Hill Region of India. In this system of farming on terraces, water is supplied to plants by channels that carry water from streams.

About 10 to 15 cm of water level is maintained in the fields and rest of the water is allowed to flow down to the lower terraces. This traditional practice ensures that there is no wastage of water while protecting the rights of farmers over its judicious utilization.

Dr. MP Mishra

Dr. M. P. Mishra is a noted environmentalist of India. He is known for his researches in environment conservation, wildlife activism, and for his writings. He has been internationally known for his Bird Housing Project which was devoted to protection and conservation of terrestrial bird species especially in Jharkhand. He has a deep study of the people of Jharkhand, their rituals, arts and crafts and has wandered extensively to study their conditions, their agriculture, their modes of lives, and their skills. Since last many years he has been continuously writing about various environmental and social issues of Jharkhand and has forty six books to his credit. His articles are regularly published in local and national dailies of India. His books on Environmental Awareness, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, General Science, and biology are widely read and many of his books have been adopted in the schools of foreign countries. His books on Environmental Science have been adopted by the Council of Higher Secondary Education, Orissa, and the Council of Higher Secondary Education Nagaland and Meghalaya. Dr. Mishra is an excellent teacher with innovative ideas and new teaching methodologies. It was due to his commendable services to education that the Department of Human Resources Development, State Government of Jharkhand offered him State Award in the year 2009-010.Dr. Mishra has been awarded with the Presidential Medal and the National Award for the year 2012 for his outstanding Researches in and great contributions to Science and Environment. He has been an active Science Communicator and coordinator of National Council of Science and Technology Communication, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. He is a member of the Environmental Monitoring Committee under the Jharkhand Academic Council, Jharkhand, Ranchi. It was due to his voluntary services in the field of environment that he has been selected as a nominee of the Committee for Ethical Treatment to Animals, Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India. He has been the Chief Editor of ECOSOC the Environmental Newsletter of International Circulation for more than ten years. He has been the President of the People for Animals for about ten years. As a teacher he is always admired by his students and the academic community across the globe.

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