In several villages in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi in Karnataka and Kasargod in Kerala, water conservation efforts begin in the earnest right in November and December, after the monsoon ends.
Each year, farming families come together for a Herculean task — to block the flow of streams and rivulets by constructing a temporary check dam called the Katta.
These kattas brim with water even during a harsh summer and drought-proof an entire region. Villagers share the expenditure, which runs to several lakh rupees.
A participatory approach and water awareness are the pillars of these traditional engineering marvels, which are back in focus after decades of neglect. The kattas have resurfaced as the trusted source of summer irrigation in some villages, after borewells failed to address the water requirements effectively.
These kattas have also recharged groundwater aquifers and increased the water table. There are different types of check dams, from the zero-maintenance micro ring check dam to the sequential kattas built across a rivulet. Each structure has an interesting story behind it.
The micro ring check dam, an innovative design of Nitile Mahabaleshwara Bhat in Bantwal taluk’s Kodapadavu village, was built out of necessity.
In 2008, when he set out to construct a bridge across a 20 feet wide stream between his home and farm, the costs were estimated around Rs 1.5 lakh. This farmer scientist then came up with his own design.
The bridge, constructed using cement rings, laterite stone and mud cost him just Rs 35,000. It also doesn’t have any recurring cost, unlike almost all other types of check dams rebuilt each year.
“This stream (near his house) flows till February. I blocked the flow using an iron sheet with gunny beading at the edges. It’s just two minutes of work. It has helped recharge groundwater,” Nitile says.
Many check dams in the surrounding villages and even in Udupi district have followed this model with necessary modifications. The biggest structure using this concept is a vented dam constructed in Kodungai in Bantwal taluk, across a 180 feet wide rivulet.
Interestingly, officials in Kasargod district are planning to construct 3,000 such dams under various schemes.
Kumbdaje village in Kasargod district, considered the cradle of kattas, has around 50 traditional check dams within a radius of 20 km — the highest concentration of check dams in the region.
The rivulet in Yethadka, a hamlet in Kumbdaje, and its two streams are witness to one of the biggest people-led efforts in water conservation.
These streams have around 20 kattas constructed across them altogether. Each katta helps irrigate around 25 acres of areca nut fields and has improved the water table in a radius of six km. Most of these kattas are in use for at least six decades. They are constructed every year and dismantled just before the monsoon begins.
Berkadavu katta, a 40-metre-long check dam, has a document indicating that this location was identified for the construction of a katta during the 1940s.
It stores about 12 crore litres of water in a stretch of 1.5 km.
However, constructing these kattas requires skill and experience and they cannot afford for these kattas to breach, which can prove disastrous for several connected structures.
“We spent around Rs 1 lakh last year and 200 labour days to build the Nerappadi katta. The recurring cost increases 20% every year. The money is mostly spent on hiring skilled labour,” says Dr Venugopal Kaleyathodi, who collaborates with four other families to construct this katta every year.
“All the material is sourced locally, and the same stuff is used every year. So, it is also sustainable,” Venugopal says.
However, the partnerships formed over constructing the kattas are not always smooth.
“Spending lakhs of rupees on a structure that stays for four-five months is not an easy decision. Ensuring the availability of skilled labour is also a challenge. Some fail to share the responsibilities equally,” Venugopal adds.
A steadfast belief in this age-old practice has led many people to continue with it despite the hardships.
There is also a continuous effort to create awareness about the significance of kattas, to document practices and motivate people through discussions, jathas and workshops.
Yethadka celebrates November 15 as Katta Day each year for deliberation about kattas and sharing experience.
Chandrashekhar Yethadka, who is at the forefront of all these activities, says, “The early 2000s saw the re-emergence of the katta system in a systematic way. A couple of years of drought gave us a push. New technologies have also been introduced, which help us save on cost and labour. All these brought kattas to the fore again.”
Sandbags and fibre sheets are some of the innovations that have reduced the recurring cost. This also has greatly reduced the quantity of fresh soil required.
He also indicates that kattas are more suited to the coastal terrains than borewells.
The villagers have also been hesitant to build permanent structures due to the huge costs involved.
“There are five-six concrete vented dams built by the government departments in our village and none of them hold water. They didn’t even remain functional for two years after construction despite crores of rupees invested on them,” says Chandrashekhar.
A similar experience made Dakshina Kannada Zilla Panchayat Member P Dharanendra Kumar root for traditional kattas in his constituency Naravi. “Over 70% of the hundreds of check dams built in this region are defunct. This is due to the lack of a participatory approach and poor quality work,” he says.
Last year, he facilitated the construction of 52 kattas in Naravi’s eight gram panchayats. The expenses were shared by the villagers. Students from various colleges participated in this process as volunteers.
This year, enthusiasts from other villages have approached Kumar for guidance after the impact was visible during last summer. “The keepers of the 52 kattas will continue on their own,” he avers.
Need government support
Water conservation crusader and veteran journalist Shree Padre, who has played a key role in documenting and popularising kattas, observes, “Unfortunately, no one outside these villages know about the ingenious water conservation method that thrives here.”
“Proper technological interventions and government support are required to design semi-permanent structures that reduce the dismantling and reconstruction work. This is how we can save this fine community-driven practice for posterity,” Padre adds.
At a time, when it has become common to see water resources drying and water tables receding in days after the monsoon in these districts, communities and governments have lessons to learn from these indigenous knowledge systems and their custodians.