In drought season, farm ponds to rescue

In drought season, farm ponds to rescue

As drought prevails in many parts of the country, farm ponds have emerged as a miracle strategy for arid and semi-arid regions to counter the uncertain productivity of rain-dependant agriculture. Village ponds have been in existence from time immemorial, although a sizeable majority of such structures have fallen to neglect and disuse in recent years.

Farm ponds are coming to life precisely for the reason the village ponds went out of use in the first place — the big irrigation sch­emes which had caused neglect of community water bodies, could not hold on to the promise of supplying water to every field. No wonder, some 58% of the 142 million hectares of agricultural land has not been covered under assured irrigation even after six decades of investment in big irrigation projects.

And, it is quite unlikely if it would ever be. The policy shift in favour of water for every field has pulled attention away from large projects in favour of more decentralised approaches, of which farm ponds is a favourite candidate. The central government had announced in its Budget last year an ambitious target of constructing 5,00,000 farm ponds and wells within a year in rainwater-scarce areas of the country.

Given the fact that some 80% of farmers in the country hold less than one hectare of land, often lying scattered across the villages, the challenge of irrigating each piece of arable land becomes even more daunting. Add to this, the fact that groundwater has nearly been pumped to capacity in most regions, making it mandatory to extend irrigation during critical periods of crop growth should rainfed farming were to survive in the country.

Though highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, rainfed farms contribute no less than 40% to the national food basket while supporting 40% population, and nurturing 60% livestock in the country. However, fragile agro ecosystems with
low farm productivity are common features of rainfed agriculture, and their adaptive capacity to withstand varying rainfall and prolonged dry spells has been severely exposed. 

Researchers at the Hydera­bad-based Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture have estimated the potential of 50 million farm ponds which can extend a single supplemental irrigation to about 25 million hectares of rainfed area during a normal year, and one irrigation during critical period to 20.6 mi­llion hectares in a drought year. It has been estimated that rainfed areas can generate a maximum of 114 billion cubic metre of runoff to fill these farm ponds.

This data lends credence to the fact that farm ponds are a solution the country has been scourging for. Farm ponds hold promise to increase rainfed production by 50% by a single supplementary irrigation, alongside adoption of drought-resistant agronomic practices. The fact that farm ponds hold anywhere between 5-20 tonnes of soil per hectare per year from eroding is a collateral gain, these nutrient-rich sediments can be recycled to enhance productivity.

No surprise, there is a supportive policy environment which seeks to accelerate the construction of farm ponds in the arid and semi-arid regions. Following one of the worst droughts in recent years, Maharashtra has taken lead in supporting the construction of farm ponds through a scheme known as ‘Magel Tyala Shet Tale’. The state government intends to subsidise nearly 70% of the cost of building a farm pond in each and every farm at the earliest.

The flip side
An ideal farm pond could be a 30 metre square patch with a depth of 3 m. However, the pond size is subject to the size of landholding on the one hand and the willingness of farmers to pool their land to have a sizeable community structure on the other. The flip side is, subsidy may see a proliferation of farm ponds.

A recent paper in Economic & Political Weekly has raised serious concerns regarding rapid proliferation of farm ponds. The number of farm ponds a village or a watershed can hold will depend on rainfall and runoff potential of the area. Consequently, it is important that there is a mechanism in place whereby farmers can assess the number of farm ponds their village can sustain to match their critical crop water requirements.

It has been observed that in a bid to avail government subsidy, farm ponds are being constructed without any regard to the soil type and the rate of percolation. As a result, many such ponds perform below capacity as stored water dries out sooner.

There are instances where farmers have been pumping groundwater to keep the farm ponds filled up. Counterproductive as this approach may be, it encourages competition among farmers to further extract groundwater.

The paper reports the presence of 325 fully-functional farm ponds in a 1,810 hectare area in Jalana district of Maharashtra. It could be anybody’s guess how so many farm ponds may co-exist and perform effectively. Unless the number of farm ponds in a village and their size and depth is determined keeping in mind the actual crop-water requirements, unmindful proliferation of farm ponds in the country may end up killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

(The writer is an expert on water issues)