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The chaal and local groundwater management in India: When progress isn’t progress

I recently came across the article ‘Vanishing Wisdom‘ in the Tehelka blog, which made me want to learn more.  It was about a traditional water management system in the Uttarakhand region in northern India that has worked for years, but is being destroyed by funding meant to ‘modernize’ it.


The chaal is a tank structure built of simple earthen walls that that was traditionally constructed around springs in the hills, meant to capture water for livestock or human consumption, but which also turned out to promote the recharge of groundwater.  People noticed that after building a chaal, downhill springs had more water for longer in the year, so more were constructed.


In the Tehelka article, Amitangshu Acharya explains, “Chaals became a critical component of healthy watersheds. 35 years ago, chaal construction and management went through a sharp decline due to migration by rural youth to towns out of distress. The wisdom in maintaining chaals was left to village elders. As a result, decision-makers in today’s villages often think chaals are mere storage bodies. Government rural development programmes, hence, attempt to “modernise” chaals based on this misconception.”

They began to finance ‘improvements’, which meant replacing earth and stone with cement, which prevented the water from infiltrating, leading in turn to lowering groundwater levels and drying up of springs.  Interestingly, part of the problem was that it costs almost nothing to build or repair an earthen chaal, and the agencies had budgets they needed to spend.

The author says, “Making a chaal involves no purchased material and just a day’s worth of labour for a group of people. Hence, NREGS funds allocated to a gram panchayat (local government) would largely go unspent if chaals continued to be repaired or constructed using local mud and rocks. Gram Pradhans and Block Development Officers decided to increase costs, thereby utilising funds –and increasing the kickbacks they would receive.”

This is speaking about a government program, but non-profit development schemes can be vulnerable to the same need to spend their budgets.

The chaal story is a good reminder to look past the ‘activities’ and ‘accomplishments’ sections of development project reports.  It may look great to say ‘constructed 5 new water storage tanks’, but the progress reported may in fact be a step backward.

Learn more:

A longer article by the same author can be found at Injube.

The Director of Columbia Water Center’s India office, Kapil Kumar Narula, mentions chaals as one of many traditional water management practices in his paper ‘Vulnerability and adaptation to climate variability and water stress in Uttarakhand State, India‘.

Here is a presentation about ‘Spring Sanctuaries’ in India.

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David Groenfeldt
13 years ago

Thanks very much for this story about indigenous water technology being misunderstood by presumably well-intentioned modernizers. This type of story characterizes so much of the development process! What are we (Western agents of development) thinking? One important and often neglected dimension of trans-cultural (even within India) development logic is the realm of environmental values and ethics. Our Western “command-and-control” mentality gets mindlessly replicated in dams and canals and the choice of technologies that seem so sensible (like cement) but can cause so much damage (like stopping infiltration). Now we are discovering that “environmental flow” is important for rivers and aquifers. Who would have known? Our first order of ethical responsibility, in my view, is to educate ourselves about our own cultural templates before we go off into the world to shape everyone else in our image. Anthropology 101 anyone?

13 years ago

I agree with David and am very grateful for your coverage of the original story. Ethical resposibility is an emotive subject that, without proper cutural understanding, does more harm than good. India is culturally complex and you are always going to come across bureaucrats looking to pass modernisation projects without seeking the truth abut the real impact to the community and environment at large. Sometimes it’s for personal economic gain and at other times it’s a lack of understanding of the impact. The scenario is prevelant throughout India and I for one, feel the onus should be with those that propose such projects to really cover all bases with regards to the impact of change for decades to come.