Water 1 Any land anywhere can be used to harvest rainwater
The fundamental reason: extend the fruits of the monsoon
The basic principle: Catch water where it falls
Water 2 Water Harvesting   watertop_06.jpg (1999 bytes)
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Indigenous systems

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Contemporary systems

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Kul Irrigation of the Trans Himalaya
kul4.jpg (10544 bytes)The Spiti area of Himachal Pradesh (a province in India) is a cold desert but surprisingly, agriculture is its mainstay. Spiti’s lunar-like terrain was transformed into an agrarian success story by an ingenious system, devised centuries ago to tap distant glaciers for water. But short-sighted developmental policies, though well-intentioned, now threaten both this unique irrigation system and the social consciousness that spawned it.

Spiti is an important trading post on the route connecting Ladakh and the plains of Himachal Pradesh. Villages in the Spiti subdivision are located between 3,000 m and 4,000 m, which means they are snowbound six months a year. Rainfall is negligible in Spiti because it is a rainshadow area. The soil is dry and lacks organic matter. But, despite these handicaps, the Spiti valley has been made habitable and productive by human ingenuity.

But Spiti’s unique contribution to farming is kul irrigation, which utilises kuls (diversion channels) to carry water from glacier to village. The kuls often span long distances, running down precipitous mountain slopes and across crags and crevices. Some kuls are 10 km long, and have existed for centuries.

The crucial portion of a kul is its head at the glacier, which is to be tapped. The head must be kept free of debris, and so the kul is lined with stones to prevent clogging and seepage. In the village, the kul leads to a circular tank from which the flow of water can be regulated. For example, when there is need to irrigate, water is let out of the tank in a trickle. Water from the kul is collected through the night and released into the exit channel in the morning. By evening, the tank is practically empty, and the exit is closed. This cycle is repeated daily. The kul system succeeds because Spiti residents mutually cooperate and share. The culture also is instrumental in maintaining the carrying capacity of the surrounding cultivable land. However, this system, carefully nurtured through the centuries, now runs the risk of being upset through government intervention.

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From glacier,

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through kul,

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to tank.

Due to limited water availability, inheritance laws in Spiti traditionally seek to prevent fragmentation of landholdings. The eldest son inherits not only the land, but also the farm implements, the family house and the family’s water rights. His siblings either serve in the common household or, more likely, become monks or nuns in Buddhist monasteries. Thus, a sort of population control has been evolved, which serves to stave off pressure on the landholdings.

Water rights are owned exclusively by members of the bada ghars (big houses), who are descendants of the original settlers or founders of the village. This system, besides establishing the pre-eminence of the bada ghars, has also installed a local social hierarchy. The greater the share of a family’s water rights, the more land it controls. In Kaza, for example, water rights over the single kul, irrigating 32 ha, are shared by 18 bada ghars. Other families in Kaza have to buy water from the bada ghars, and payment is generally made in kind or by providing free labour, but often the water is given freely. Water transactions are based on trust and are neither written down nor codified.

When a good snowfall assures abundant water, kul water is freely dispensed, but when water is scarce, equality gives way to a preferential system. During a water shortage, bada ghar members irrigate their fields first; others get water only later in the season. This practise has the advantage of ensuring that the demand for labour is spread over the entire harvest season because the bada ghar’s crops ripen early, when other families are free to help in harvesting. This spacing of the need for labour does away with demand peaking at the same time throughout the valley, and provides a firm basis for community labour. These cooperative efforts also mean that time and effort do not become areas of conflict between those who require labour and those offering it.

Nevertheless, water distribution from kuls can create tension, for, when there is a water shortage, the bada ghars in effect are in a dominant position and suffer the least, unlike those with secondary access who have to await their turn, but are not certain if their share will be adequate.

But even among bada ghars, the distribution of water shares may be unequal. The factors that determine sharing among them are not clear, and probably were settled when the kul was constructed. Padma Dorjea, a Kaza schoolteacher, says the family that contributed the most in labour and other resources when the kul was constructed, gets the largest share under water rights passed on through generations.

The unit of kul water is one day’s supply. Between sowing in April and harvesting in September, water availability is for approximately 70 days. But if a family whose share is 30 days need kul water for only 20 days, it can sell its surplus.

In Kibber, water is supplied by three kuls whose shares are owned jointly by 32 bada ghars. The kuls, named Phil, Phizur and Shrik, together irrigate 73 ha of land. Eighteen bada ghars use the waters of the Phil kul, whose supply is sufficient to irrigate 4 ha daily. The 18 families using it are divided into two groups of nine families each, and the water supply is alternated between the two groups on a daily basis. Water from Shrik, the smallest of the three kuls, is shared by six bada ghars, also divided into two groups. But the eight bada ghars that share the Phizur kul, are divided into four groups, with each getting water just once every four days because the kul’s capacity is limited. Other families in Kibber have to acquire water from the 32 bada ghars.

Water shares are renewed and adjusted every season according to need, but a share cannot be lent, sold or disposed of in perpetuity. This restriction preserves the position of the bada ghar families.

Controlling rules
Over the past 15 years, however, the Union government has slowly made its presence felt in the Spiti valley as a modernising agent, whose actions are profoundly changing traditional production practises and social patterns. Its sponsorship of facilities ranging from schools to hospitals has opened up a variety of government jobs and agriculture is no longer the valley’s only source of sustenance and employment.

The irrigation department has taken control of the kuls and introduced a number of technical and physical innovations. Kul heads, for example, have been reinforced with cement or concrete and some of the kuls have been complemented with rubber pipes. Old kuls have been repaired and renovated in this manner and new kuls have been constructed.

These interventions, along with the increasing dominance of a market economy, a rise in labour mobility, and the availability of alternative sources of employment, have doomed traditional social mechanisms for the repair and maintenance of kuls. Traditionally, community labour was used to repair kuls and each household contributed either in labour or in kind to keep the kuls in good condition. But residents of Kibber, Losar and Sagnam villages complain that the irrigation department’s intervention and the lack of labour arising from increased alternative job opportunities have resulted in the breakdown of the traditional system.

Furthermore, the government’s stipulation that kul water must be distributed equally is jeopardising the valley’s traditional social order, and the bada ghars face the loss of both control over water and their position in the village hierarchy. However, the disbanding of the traditional hierarchies does not automatically result in egalitarianism because the emerging social order is based on market forces and money power. This means that access to kul water will no longer be based on availability and need, and monetisation of this resource will leave many of Spiti’s families impoverished.

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