Check Dam - A Tool for Sustainable Development

Most of the year, the residents of Bundelkhand experience acute scarcity of water for agricultural and domestic use. Water sources are varied and often seasonal, ranging from ponds, tanks, lakes and streams to open wells, bore wells and irrigation canals radiating out from large-scale dams.

Thirsty Bundelkhand

Availability of water in the Bundelkhand region varies from season to season. Here, agriculture is confined to a single crop in the entire year, rain-fed with supplementary water from private open irrigation wells. Thus, a large number of farmers are highly dependent on the monsoon rains to recharge these wells. Canal irrigation plays only a minor role in the districts and it does not appear that this will change in the near future. Although the Betwa canal reaches the northern part of Datia district, southern Datia suffers from a lack of irrigation facilities, which severely hampers agricultural production.

Development Alternatives Interventions

Development Alternatives arrived at the conclusion that water scarcity, deforestation, soil erosion and population explosion were the major causes leading to the poor agricultural yields in Bundelkhand. In response, the organization began promoting check dams as an appropriate intervention to restore the degraded natural resource base in Bundelkhand and to help the local inhabitants meet their basic needs.

Since 1989, Development Alternatives has facilitated the construction of almost 100 check dams in the Bundelkhand Region, primarily in the three districts of Jhansi (UP), Tikamgarh (MP) and Datia (MP).

The use of check dams has been decided upon in part because they are in keeping with the organizationís overall goal to create sustainable livelihoods, and partly in response to the agenda of different funding agencies.

A "sustainable livelihood" is defined by Development Alternatives as the ability of an individual/family to meet their basic needs in a manner that is dignified but does not undermine the natural resource base.

Development Alternativesí sustainable livelihoods approach to development incorporates the intergenerational concept that it is vital to meet the needs of people today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In addition, it includes the Gandhian concept of creating self-sustaining village republics whose economies are biomass driven. When applied to rural settings, this development approach emphasizes the regeneration and sustainable management of natural resources. By working to preserve the integrity of rural ecosystems, Development Alternatives hopes to help stem the tide of rural-urban migration and improve the quality of life both for rural farmers and, ultimately, urban dwellers. Check dams conform to this approach and objectives as they help to regenerate aquifers and increase fresh water resources for agriculture.

What are Check Dams?

"Check dams" are small barriers built across the direction of water flow on shallow rivers and streams for the purpose of water harvesting. The small dams retain excess water flow during monsoon rains in a small catchment area behind the structure. Pressure created in the catchment area helps force the impounded water into the ground. The major environmental benefit is the replenishment of nearby groundwater reserves and wells. The water entrapped by the dam, surface and subsurface, is primarily intended for use in irrigation during the monsoon and later during the dry season, but can also be used for livestock and domestic needs.

Check dams are built in a range of sizes using a variety of materials, including clay, stone and cement. Earthen check dams, or embankments, can easily be constructed by the farmers themselves. Masonry and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structures, on the other hand, require some degree of advanced construction experience and monetary inputs. Earthen dams do not allow for overflow of water, in contrast to masonry and RCC structures which allow excess water to flow over the spillway.

Site Selection

Prior to the construction of any check dam, the following criteria were considered by Development Alternatives with respect to site selection.

1. The structure should be able to store a high volume of rainwater
2. The check dam should provide a long length of stored water.
3. There should be a high percentage of cropped area, or potential crop area, on either side of the length of the   
    stored water.
4. Risk of submergence of cropped lands during flash floods should be minimal.
5. It should have a high cost-benefit ratio.

The main objectives of the check dam projects were to recharge ground water reserves and increase the availability of water for agricultural purposes. As most of the check dams were not constructed as part of any comprehensive development plan but were stand-alone activities, they were not preceded by detailed community mobilization activities. In addition, the goals and objectives of the projects were not clearly defined during the planning phase and strategies for maintaining the check dams, as well as monitoring and evaluating the projects, were not outlined. With respect to selecting villages to participate in the projects, methods varied. In some cases, district and/or block level government officials chose the villages. In other cases, Development Alternatives recruited villages for involvement in the projects or the villagers themselves requested assistance from Development Alternatives.

Check dams create more employment

Study findings in Bundelkhand suggest that the check dams created more employment in the beneficiary villages by increasing the number of working days for landowners. This was accomplished by increasing access to irrigation that led to:

w Agricultural Intensification: This refers to more intensive cultivation of formerly rainfed or under-irrigated plots of land resulting in higher yields per hectare and requiring more person days of labour. Some lands that only produced only a single crop previously can now be double-cropped, adding an additional season of labour.

w Agricultural Extensification: In some beneficiary villages, formerly barren lands have now been brought under irrigation as a direct result of the water availability with the advent of check dams. Owners of this property now have additional days of agricultural employment.

Check dams reduce poverty through additional income

The check dams have helped to reduce poverty by providing additional surface and underground water leading to:

w Increased agricultural yield
w Increased income from the sale of crops
w Income from the sale of fish
w Increased revenues from livestock
w Increased growth of fodder
w Increased availability of water for processing sun hemp (a forest fibre)

Check dams improve the quality of life

The check dams have served to increase the quality of life in beneficiary communities by:

w Increasing the availability of water for domestic use
w Decreasing womenís workloads
w Improving diets: Better harvests provide additional staple crops for the familyís consumption. Moreover, women
   in Rajpura report that families have begun growing vegetables now that they have access to check dam water,
   adding to the variety of foods in their diets. Lastly, some families, who eat the fish that live in the check dam
   catchment areas, have begun to eat fish, which provide an additional source of protein.

Check dams increase livelihood adaptation

w Increased the number of months when water is available: Water for agricultural and domestic use is now available for more months of the year and, in many cases, the whole year round.

w Increased the number and continuity of working days across the seasons:As a result of agricultural intensification and extensification, particularly the addition of a second growing season, there are more working days and smaller gaps of agricultural unemployment in the year for most check dam beneficiaries.

w Improved food security: Increased yields of staple crops and planting of vegetables and the addition of a second growing season has worked to increase food security among beneficiaries.

Check dams enhance natural resource base

w Recharging groundwater reservoirs and wells
w Increasing soil humidity
w Promoting growth of surface vegetation
w Capturing runoff rainwater and silt 


Sanjay Vashist

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