'Katta' idea: How an arid Kerala village checked water for irrigation

Farmers of Yethadka in Kasaragod pool in money to build 16 temporary check dams on tributaries of Chandragiri river using locally available resources.

Published: 19th March 2021 09:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th March 2021 03:51 PM   |  A+A-

Workers consider Katta a sacred structure and do not wear footwear while building it. They offer toddy and prayers to the local deity after completion for the strength of the structure.

Workers consider Katta a sacred structure and do not wear footwear while building it. They offer toddy and prayers to the local deity after completion for the strength of the structure. (Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

YETHADKA: The Kottelu bridge across the Shiriya river at Yethadka is has been collecting dust recently, kicked up by the rebuilding of the Badiadka-Yethadka-Sullyapadav road. The dusty roads run in stark contrast with the green background.

Thirty metres downstream stands a defunct check dam, built by the Minor Irrigation Department. A large cashewnut tree has sprouted through one of the pillars. 

The check dam built 20 years ago was leaking from day one, says Ravishankar P (59), a dairy farmer living on the banks of the river. "I bumped into the contractor last month and he asked me if the check dam was still there. I told him yes. It has not collapsed," he says.

From the bridge, Ravishankar proudly points to another structure beyond the defunct check dam. An 11-metre high granite wall -- as tall as the government's check dam -- with water full to the brim. "We call it katta. It is handmade. Not a drop will leak," says Ravishankar. He built it at a cost of Rs 1 lakh to irrigate his fields.

In this otherwise dry farm-village of Yethadka -- on the edge of Karnataka -- 'kattas' are a lifesaver. "If we don't build kattas we will be out of water by Vishu (mid-April)," says Prakash Y H (63), who has a PhD in Botany, referring to Kerala's New Year. 

He was a researcher in the Centre for Ecological Science at Kumta in Uttara Kannada district but returned home in 1991 to become a full-time farmer.

Katta -- a community activity

There are 21 check dams in a span of 20 km on the Shiriya river snaking through Yethadka. Five of them were built by the government. The remaining 16 are 'kattas' built by farmers, says Udayshankara C (57).

He and 11 other farmers have built the largest katta on the Shiriya river at Berkadav. It is 40m wide and 4m high and stores up to 12 crore litres of water, enough to irrigate the fields till May, he said. 

The katta at Padyadka is 35m wide and 4m high and stores up to 10 crore litres of water. The smaller ones -- with fewer beneficiaries -- store up to 5 crore litres of water. Each katta irrigates around 25 acres of land. "This year we will have water till the next monsoon because we got rain in December too," says Udayshankara.

Yethadka produces arecanut, coconut, cocoa, pepper, rice, and nutmeg. All these crops are irrigated by drawing water from the kattas.

"If there is no katta, there is not Yethadka," says rural journalist Shree Padre, who promotes sustainable farming.

'Unique to Yethadka'

When it comes to check dams, Yethadka is unique, says E P Rajmohan, special officer for Kasaragod Development Package. "Nowhere will you see so many manually made check dams in such close proximities," he says. "And they are making and funding the structures on their own," he says.

Farmers in Yethadka say they have been making kattas for the past 70 years. The distance between two kattas -- or check dams -- ranges from 300m to 1km. 

"If we don't make these kattas, the water will end up in the sea and we will not have water during the peak summer," says Udayashankara.

Labor-intensive work

The building of these kattas begins in November when the flow of the water in the Shiriya begins to slow down. 

The first of the kattas comes up at Kundingila, on one of the tributaries of Shiriya, and the last one comes up at Madda sometime in January. "The work at Kudingila starts in the first week of November and at Berkadav in the last week of November," says Udayashankara.

This year, the work started late because of the December rain.

Till recently, workers would use granite rocks and pack clay soil against them to make katta, says Dr Prakash. "It was labour intensive," he says.

Now, workers stack up sandbags against the granite wall and protect the sandbags with high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sheets. "It saves us some labour," he says. Around 10 to 12 men work for two weeks to build a katta. 

Dr Prakash's katta at Neripady, which stores up to 8 crore litres of water, has seven beneficiaries.

Sacred structure 

The workers do not wear footwear while constructing the kattas. "They consider katta as a sacred structure," says Dr Prakash.

Once completed, the workers offer toddy to the deity at the sacred grove and the farmer-beneficiaries offer prayers at their temple for the strength of the katta.

As the monsoon approaches, the farmers remove the sandbags and the rocks for the free flow of the water. They keep the sandbags on the banks, wrap them with the HDPE sheet, and then cover it with coconut thatch. "This way we can reuse the sandbags for several years. I'm using the sandbags for the fourth year," says Dr Prakash.

Water table sees a rise

The water table around the katta sees a substantial rise, says N K Aravind Kumar (60), a retired assistant provident fund officer. The government has two drinking water projects for which water is siphoned from the kattas built by the farmers at Kottelu and Nerapady, says Udayshankar. There are around 400 beneficiaries for the drinking water projects. "Every year, they will ask us if we are building kattas because if we don't build the check dam, they will not have drinking water during the peak summers," he says.

Apart from them, the borewells and the wells along the river -- up to 1km away -- have water only if there is water in the katta.

Rajmohan, special officer for Kasaragod Development Package, agrees. 

Kasaragod district has nine big rivers and three small rivers with 650 tributaries. Yet, every summer, the district administration had to run tankers to supply drinking water to residential areas.

In the past five years, the district administration invested around Rs 225 crore to build 400 to 500 check dams, said Rajmohan. Now, the district has 1,100 check dams and around 80% or 900 of them are working, he said.

The district also built five rubber check dams -- the first in India -- to solve the drinking water crisis. "And for the first time in many years, we did not have to run water tankers in 2020. This year also we have surplus water in the check dams," he says.


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