Water of life
IN THE depths of saline ground above a water layer that is
blackish they store fresh water for their year's needs. They are
the Maldharies inhabiting the vast expanse of undulating Banni
porturelands located in the desert areas of the northern Kutch
district of Gujarat. They are the descendents of the immigrants
firom Pakistan and other parts of Gujarat during the
The tough climatic conditions and scanty
fixrced them to solve one problem: where to store rainwater
,md yet keep it sweet. And that is how, through centuries
M10aising with nature, they learnt her different moods,
irreloped the wonderful technology of virdas - a unique
wer harvesting system.
The Banni grassland area is a part of the Great Kann of
Kutch and together with the Little Bann of Kutch it forms
The old arms" of the Arabian Sea that silted up in course of
was originally the home to 40 different varieties of
Today, only 7 or 8 species survive. It differs considerably
the salty marshes of the Great Rann in respect of its
landscape, vegetation and soil type.
Virdas are shallow wells dug in low depressions called
Jheels(tanks). Here, the inhabitants collect enough rainwater
To ensure the availability of fresh water throughout the year.
. being practised perfectly throughout centuries,
about the adaptive capacity of the Maldharis.
6wild a structure basically reaching down to into the
upper layer of fresh rainwater. As fresh water is removed, the
brackish water zone moves upwards, and accumulates towards
the bottom of the virda.
The topography of Banni being very flat, it has only a few
depressions on the ground. By studying the flow of water during monsoon rainfall, the Maldharis identified these depressions. They also found that after rainwater infiltrated the sod,
it was stored at a level above the salty groundwater because of
the difference in their density. To store more fresh water, they
dug many virdas in the upper layers of accumulated rainwater
up to about one metre above the groundwater. Between these
two layers of sweet and saline waters, there exists a transition
zone of brackish water.
The Maldharis, essentially nomads, gradually settled in
permanent villages during the last hundred years, and dug virdas close to their villages. Thus, the unique rainwater harvesting technique survived with them, passing the knowledge to
locate, build and maintain the virdas from one generation to
This complex rainwater harvesting technique depends on
the smooth functioning of the delicate ecosystem of the area.
Significant grass cover is necessary to allow free infiltration
Of fresh water. Water from northwards flowing rivers during
monsoon holds soil salinity by checking the ingress of the
Great Rann of Kutch. Also maintenance of natural vegetation
and an optimum number of animals keep the ecological balance intact. Located only 5 kin from the Great Rann of Kutch,
traditionally there are five water accumulating zones in
Dhordo village. Five virdas have been dug there, out of which,
the one built in the northern part of the village is the main
tank and attracts maximum amount of water. During normal
monsoons (average rainfall is 317 nun per annum) excess
water from the other four tanks flows to this fifth tank and
then the water overflows towards the Great Rann of Kutch.
The main tank with its 31 virda5 is the story of the
collective action taken by the community to solve their
water problem. In 1961, Premji Thakkar, a politician from
Bhuj district became the revenue minister of the Gujarat
government. Eager to help the Maldharis, he initiated the
construction of a large water storage tank in Dhordo. But
the villagers chose to widen and deepen the existing tanks
instead. While they deepened the big tank, they widened the
other 4 small tanks.
Today, the main tank is the best and largest in the region.
It collects enormous amount of water from a catchment area
having a diameter of 9 Ion. Surrounded by bushes and trees,
mainly Prosopis juliflora, the tank was later dug further to a
depth of 4 m below the ground level. The rectangular bottom
of the tank measures 46 m X 46 in, and the upper part 60 m x
60 m. Seven entrances bring rainwater runoff to the tank,
although some have become gullies that bring a lot of silt too.
Generally, in every two years the vifiagers clean the excess silt
by shramadan (voluntary labour).
The virdas in Dhordo have an average depth of 3.3 m. The
circular, bowl shaped upper half of the virda facilitates drawing of water using a rope and a bucket. Women and children
can enter into the virda when the water level goes down. The
bottom half is consolidated by using Ppliflora tree trunks,
forming a square frame. They are horizontally put on each
other with a layer of grass in between. The grass acts as a
rnesh,filtering sod particles entering the virda.
This wells-in-a-tank system remains operational even in
those years with inadequate rainfall. For instanc
Dhordo, a normal rainy day with a rainfall oT 25 mm, is
cient to make run-off water flow towards the tanks. At the
of a normal monsoon, 2 m to 3 m water accumulates in
main tank (about 4,000 to 6,000 cubic metres), enough
for four months.
Rearing animals is the livelihood of the natives of
They can graze their animals only in the particular "
assigned for them. Usually two or three families together
three to four virdas and connect them to a trough with add
nel. They use dried sit and clay to make these troughs
are held together by the branches of P juliflora. Under
leadership of the elders, once or twice a week, the viul
remove the silt from the bottom of the troughs and reuse
repair the troughs. They also put a high fence around
troughs to prevent animals entering inside at night
destroying these troughs. The villagers can use the water
virda from 20 days to 4 months depending on the use
accumulated water in it. Afterwards the water becomes
salty for use.
Virdas are inseparable parts of the social fabric
Maldharis. For centuries, they have served as the con.
meeting points where people come, rest under the shad
the trees and relax. Today, this unique technique, a part
Banni grassland's ecosystem is threatened. Proliferation
wonder tree" Pjuliflora, has thwarted the growth of the
and has brought up salt to the soil surface. Indigenous
species of the Banni have registered an alarming decline and
virdas in some areas are fast becoming saline.
The supply of the drinking water through pipeline
led to the reduced dependence of the Maldharis on the
water. Although its supply remains highly erratic an)
quality deplorable, During summer, water which has
concentration of heavy metals, rarely trickles down the pipes
Even then the villagers prefer to use pipe water because of
Shrinking grassland, the Maldharis'migration to the
outside Barmi, and increasing market intervention have
the fragile ecosystem of Banni at peril. As their inca
from animal and forest products plunged, the Mald
partly abandoned their traditional lifestyle. Spread of a
cooperative societies in Gujarat have lured them to
rearing as well. They have abandoned the well-adapted
breed of Kankrej cows and started to raise buffaloes
Buffaloes, being heavy hooved animals, have led to an inter
compaction of soil. As a result, while grass cover and
infiltrations have reduced, soil erosion has increase
Increasing salinity due to the continuous ingress of the
Rann of Kutch over the years has been another reason of
declining grass growth. Major north flowing rivers
area being dammed, fresh water is not readily available
to )each out salts, This has led to an alarming degradable
of the grassland which in turn, has reduced the available
of fresh water in the virdas. If the situation goes
control, the intricate rainwater harvesting system
is a manifestation of the vast reservoir of t1adi
knowledge of the natives of the region, may soon disappear.
---Written by Rakesh Agrawal based on An ecologically soun
water harvesting system under threat, A Minor Field Study by
Lyes Ferroukhi, Swedish University ofAgricultural Sciences.