Harvesting the rains



Tamil Nadu government has been giving subsidies for creation of small ponds in the farms. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/15000-farm-ponds-to-be-created-under-mgnregs/article4544625.ece) Of late, at least around the farm, it seems that farmers have woken up to the reality of the cumulative effects of deficient rainfall, over the last three years. Several farmers have had the government and MNREGA workers put ponds in their land. The big ones even had several ponds dug. That is really good news, considering that the stress on land is high, and any problem in food production will have adverse ripple effect. It is easy for the financial manipulators to dismiss agriculture as an insignificant portion of the GDP. Only when it fails, will everyone realize what really makes up the base of the pyramid, that we all live on.

I haven’t gone around the government dug ponds, still my guess is not far from the truth. The experts will have dictated that the pond be rectangular, with a constant depth. Even foundations with “phoren” help, like dhan.org, promote rectangular ponds.

Anyway, governments do what they do. As someone said if you churn milk, the cream rises to the top. And if you churn something else, the scum rise to the top. The people who are regarded as experts are just those indoctrinated in standardized boxes (the schools), totally lacking common sense and judgement. People who live in tune with their environment are regarded as primitive, and scorned.

The farm had suffered three years of drought. Coconut trees withered.

coconut tree without crown

Coconut tree that lost its crown


Vetiver – this one has some green, and recovered, but most of them died

mango tree

Mango tree without any leaves, almost gone.

Mango trees, the grafted ones died. Only cashew and amla (gooseberry) survived. In fact, partly carried away by the Jatropha hype, we sowed around 10 kg of seeds. Probably a thousand of them germinated. But after a bad year, less than 50 survived. And a few months later, these died too, not a single shrub was left. At some point, when the hype was at its peak (mid 2000 perhaps), project proposals were written, loans were given to investors and banks, land was purchased, subdivided, and sold to the gullible public, lots of saplings of dubious quality were raised and distributed with care, various experts were hired for managing the plantations, etc. With such concentrated gathering of experts, working in synchronized harmony, you would think that the jatropha shrubs will yield bio-diesel. The few that I planted and survived, in my home garden, had sterile seeds, that even with industrial scale effort wouldn’t yield a drop of oil. The kernels were shriveled and dry like paper. Such experts in synchronized harmony is quite common, we’ll have a big group soon enough, for the river interlinking project. When the churning is done, we’ll have whatever that is, that rises to the top.

Five years back the rains were good. Right after those rains, an attempt was made to create swales. The excavator operator said he could do only straight lines. And the effort was unsupervised, so we had channels right along the slope of the land, just channeling away all the rain water. Some corrections were made to fix the problems, and a few swales were dug along contour, but the damage was too great. After a long time, another attempt was made recently. The swales are small, almost all were about 20 to 30 feet long, somewhat circular, and laid in a fish-scale pattern. The reason for this is simple. The contours were figured out visually, sort of the way a golfer checks out the slope around the hole, before putting. You can be a little off, no harm done. Water from one swale just overflows over to the next one downslope. An A-frame gives more weightage to small local variations in elevations, and disregards the bigger picture. A level tube is more time consuming. Using a laser to mark out the contours is expensive. Also more importantly, the soil here is eroded, with frequent plowing. A feet deep, and you are looking at easily permeable gravel, so water doesn’t stay in the swale for long. It seeps underground quickly.


Swale – not a good view that shows the lay of the land, but you can see that the swale is slightly curved and not very long

Here you can make out the swale, and the nature of the soil. We also decided to put a small pond. A little soil was dug out, and an embankment made. You can see a couple of swales upstream this pond.


Pond with banks on 2 sides. The bottom surface follow the slope of the land, so the water when it collects will be more near the banks, which are down slope.

Pond with swales in foreground

two swales upstream of the pond

Only the downslope edges have banks. It kind of looks rectangular, but definitely not as rectangular, and the bottom is not level. Over several years, we hope it will look more natural, with a bigger edge. Initally this won’t even act like a pond, just as a swale, that lets water seep underground. As clay and silt gets washed in, along with organic matter, the surface should become less permeable allowing water to stay overground for a longer time. Right now, only 10% of the land has swales, so it will require a few more days of work, before we see a difference. If properly done, the well should become full, and may be a few springs may appear after good rains. Too early, we’ll have to see.

Here’s a video of a good effort in a low rainfall area in Maharashtra.



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