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The cascading system of tanks and how it has helped fulfil water needs historically

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

For centuries, adivasi and other local communities throughout Karnataka sustained the ancient human-made tanks and the channels that connect them. These tank systems nourished the region’s agriculture and transformed its landscape. Since the times of the Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646), farming families have relied on this innovative irrigation system to cultivate myriad crops both for self-consumption and for selling in the market.

In the rocky and undulating terrain in the Deccan region of Southern India, an intricate system such as this required collective efforts to maintain. Villagers would come together to remove weeds and desilt the tanks, and to ensure that the irrigation channels flowed unhindered. The removed silt was used to fertilise fields. This effort was led by a Neeruganti (or tank manager), in each village.

Farmer Chinna Venkataravanappa recalls how the system worked when he was young, “When I was a child, paddy was cultivated over 100 acres of the command area of the tank. There were 80 farmers then. The Neeruganti was responsible for providing water to each farmer’s land. His role was to inform everyone in the village about the amount of water in the tank, and what can be grown with the water that was available. The people would then collectively agree and decide on a date for sowing. The Neeruganti made sure that there was water remaining in the tank even after harvesting, so that it could be used by the livestock and for other domestic purposes.”

Lamenting how the system fell into disrepair, Venkataravanappa says, “Gradually, with the loss of green cover in the surrounding hills, rainfall decreased, and the flow of water reduced to the tanks. As the tanks began to dry, farming became difficult. A few who could afford them – dug borewells. Those were years of intense drought. The District Commissioner at the time ordered the closure of sluices and stocking of water in the tanks. This order rendered the Neeruganti useless to the community. Only those with borewells continued to cultivate. Those without borewells left their lands fallow.”

With hope reflecting in his eyes, he adds, “If the sluices were opened today, the Neeruganti could be called back. The supply channels would be recreated, and only then can cultivation resume.”

The tanks in Karnataka can be restored, if local communities with their traditional knowledge systems – like the one possessed by the Neeruganti – are given back control over them. The traditional methods of managing natural resources worked quite well – to which history bears witness. A one-size-fits-all approach to managing Commons is unlikely to succeed. Empowering local communities to self-govern, and recognising their role as stewards of natural resources is of vital importance if the challenges posed by Climate Change and the resulting degradation of the environment is to be reversed.

Caitlin Blood with Abhiram Nandakumar in collaboration with the Foundation for Ecological Security

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