Traditional water management systems - An overview of the Ahar-Pyne system in the South Bihar plains in India and the need for its revival - A paper from the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge

This article describes a traditional water harvesting system, the Ahar Pyne system still practised in south plains of Bihar

This paper published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge provides a brief overview of the the Ahar-Pyne system, a traditional water harvesting system still practised in the south Bihar plains of India and argues that these traditional water harvesting systems that have existed in India since a very long time are relevant or perhaps even more relevant in today's times and that there is an urgent need to revive these systems taking into consideration India's vulnerability to climatic changes and disasters and the increasing need for having sustainable water management systems in the future.

The paper informs that there has been a growing attention to local management of common property resources and recognition of the potential of farmer managed irrigation systems. Many indigenous systems provide good examples of farmer management and are being studied for learning about the principles of management. However, these traditional water management systems are increasingly being replaced by the other faster means of groundwater extraction systems, which are less labour intensive for the farmers in the shorter run, but tend to be ecologically exploitative and unsustainable in the long run.

The article goes on to describe the details of the Ahar-Pyne system and its evolution, an overview of the physical features of the state of Bihar and the current status of the system. The reasons for the success of the system in the past have been attributed to the following factors:

  • Fragmented land holdings and equity in water distribution
  • Cheap source of irrigation
  • Uniformity in cropping
  • Collective action

The institutional and management issues in this system include:

  • Equity in allocation and distribution of water
  • Community participation and distribution of responsibilities
  • Repair and maintenance
  • Central control

There has been a decline in the area irrigated by the ahars because of the following reasons:

  • Abolition of the Zamindari system
  • Development of new irrigation sources
  • Lack of convergence between old and new systems

The paper argues that even though the current picture indicates a gradual decline in the use of traditional water harvesting systems and they being replaced by modern techniques of surface and groundwater harvesting, it is very important and essential to revive these old systems as:

  • There continue to be huge delays in the implementation of centralised major and medium irrigation projects, which need huge amounts of money and continue to be marred by technical, political and social gliches
  • Traditional systems are easier to maintain in terms of cost and quality and the involvement of beneficiaries in repair and maintenance makes it sustainable in terms of quality and cost
  • Traditional systems continue to be sustainable in the long run and minimise wastage

The paper describes the current efforts being made in Bihar to revive these traditional systems and ends by arguing that urgent efforts need  to be made to explore the possibility of revival of these sytems through:

  • Encouraging more research on traditional water management systems by experts
  • Converging these systems with various government programmes
  • Encouraging people's participation and collective action for use and revival of these systems

A copy of the paper can be accessed at this link

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