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Dow Distinguished Awards: De-silting Minor Irrigation Ponds in South India: The Sustainability of Decentralized Resource Distribution



This project was selected as a Dow Distinguished Award for Interdisciplinary Sustainability.  To foster high-impact sustainability collaborations across the University of Michigan, the Dow Sustainability Fellows program includes a competition for applied sustainability projects that cut across disciplines and academic levels, and involve U-M students at all academic levels, and focused on improvements beyond the campus environment.

Minor irrigation ponds are man-made banked earth structures designed to capture rainwater that constitute a major source of irrigation water in South Indian villages. De-silting of these ponds, usually done in the dry season, is necessary to keep up the water storage capacity and has the added benefit of providing a source of nutrient rich silt, which can be applied to agricultural land to improve soil fertility.

The FREEDOM Organization, a not-for-profit, has come up with a novel model that incorporates the state government and local farmers as stakeholders in the utilization of pond silt. Over the last 8 years, the organization has de-silted over 31 ponds, creating an additional 600,000 cubic meters of water storage capacity in addition to providing silt of for over 9000 acres of farmland held by about 3800 subsistence farmers (those less than 5 acres of agricultural land). With more than 150,000 ponds just in the Deccan Plateau Region - encompassing South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, silt application has multidimensional social, economic and environmental implications on the development of sustainable base-of-the-pyramid agricultural farming practices. Studies show that applying silt not only provides a vital source of rural employment, but could also eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides. By reducing the need for these energy and environmentally intensive inputs, silt application could be developed into a carbon neutral model for agricultural practice.

A multidimensional evaluation of pond-centered irrigation and de-silting processes would help the Government of India in policy decisions especially as it seeks to expand and streamline the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Study Proposal

This project will directly engage with local farmers through the FREEDOM organization to examine the social, ecological and economic impacts pond-silt based agricultural systems. We will produce presentations and deliverables for all stakeholders, and hope to present them with the information directly. We will also explore ways of building up a network of partners outside of India that would enable the project to make use of market mechanisms such as global carbon exchanges to maximize stakeholder benefits. As a cross disciplinary team, we envisage to travel to the villages in the Telangana region of India. Our prospective aims are as follows:

  1. Examine the effects of pond de-silting on groundwater levels and other water quality measures with a public health impact - especially because the district of Nalgonda (one of the key areas where de-silting is already carried out) is affected by Fluorosis. Data for this would be obtained by interviewing farmers and potentially by reviewing local health records.
  2. Evaluate the use of pond silt as a substitute for artificial fertilizers and pesticides by comparing yields from silted fields against those using artificial inputs. Furthermore, develop metrics that assess sustainable silt harvesting rates as well as measure energy inputs and emission changes resulting from the silt harvesting process can be developed. Basic tests of soil quality and biomass will also be conducted to better gauge the effects of silt application, and upstream and downstream ecological effects could be conducted to understand the systemic impacts.
  3. Examine the economic effects of employment provided by direct and indirect employment generated - de-silting activity and farming opportunity created thereof - using measures such as school attendance, food habits, and staple food prices. The use of more indirect measures of prosperity such as the quality of planting seed, land prices, and labor availability can also be examined.
  4. Explore ways of linking the silting operations to market mechanisms that reward the sustainable use of natural resources and how these can be integrated into the broader community economic structure. These would be developed by working in tandem with international partners with market expertise. Furthermore potential certification by international regulatory bodies can be explored.
  5. Help develop effective policy intervention tools that would aid in the adoption of the pond irrigation and de-silting as an agricultural practice in South India. This would be achieved by working with FREEDOM as well as with national and state government bodies to help streamline policy especially if effective market driven sustainability initiatives are deemed feasible.



Dow Chemical Corporation
University of Michigan - Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute
Research Areas
Food & Agriculture