How Kerala farmers are reviving the age-old practice of 'kattas' check dams

A forgotten practice, kattas have found renewed utility in the area due to drought and unavailability of water.
Katta check dam
Katta check dam
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Travelling through the rural areas of Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka as well as Kasaragod district in Kerala, one can spot some water management structures unique to the region. Among these, ‘surangas’ or tunnel wells where water management is done traditionally, are better known. However, there is another structure – ‘kattas’ or temporary check dams – that are constructed by farmers across running water bodies near agricultural land for irrigation purposes.

Kattas go hand-in-hand with the farming practices of Kasaragod as well as the Dakshina Kannada. In fact, these were once a forgotten practice, but have found renewed utility in the area due to drought and unavailability of water. These temporary dams are built using wood, mud, stones, and sand. Lately, farmers have also tried bringing more innovations by using tin sheets, fibre sheets and sand bags to make kattas.

A tradition revived

A village Yethadukka in Kumbadaje of Kasaragod district played a significant role in reviving this tradition in early 2000. There are more than 20 kattas here, and among them, seven kattas have been constructed every year over the 50 years by farmers in the last week of December or first week of January. Two streams in Yethadukka witnessed this water management system.

"We usually remove these kattas in the month of May and reconstruct them next December or January. Each dam costs around one lakh rupees to build, which is split between 2-3 farmers. Each katta can irrigate more than 25 acres of land," says Chandrashekhar Yethadukka, who was at the forefront of reviving the katta culture in Yethadukka.

In 1999, a local farmer's club in the region arranged a seminar where experts and environmentalists spoke about the need for katta culture. Awareness was spread among local farmers. Kattas were especially found to benefit Areca nut farmers, as the trees need constant irrigation.

"Farmers spend from their pockets to build these kattas every year. Apart from irrigation, these also help in ground water recharge. When we make kattas, the nearby open wells get recharged. So, it benefits the community," Chandrasekhar explains.

Shree Padre, a renowned journalist and environmentalist, has also been pushing for the kattas revolution in Yethadukka. "It’s not like anybody can construct kattas, it requires skill. So now, farmers have brought in many innovations into the traditional structures," he tells TNM.

A small katta would require 100-man days to build. The biggest katta in Yethadukka was built in Berakadavu. It was built in 300-man days, and stored up to 12 crore litres of water.

"Some people question why they should construct a katta every year by spending money when construct concrete check dams using cement can be built permanently. But when we look at Yethadukka, most of those concrete check dams have been poorly maintained and haven’t been useful over the years,” Shree Padre observes.

He adds kattas are more environment-friendly as well.

Shree Padre

Environmental benefits

"These temporary check dams play a major role in recharging water in open wells as well as in borewells. In 2019, we had a severe drought here in Padre hamlet of Yethadukka.  That is when we conducted a katta festival in our village, where many kattas were built then," Shree Padre recounts.

Following the footsteps of Yethadukka, under Kasaragod Development Package – a project for the development of the district – officials had initiated Thadayana Utsavam (check dam festival) in the district. Under it, 2,000 temporary and semi-permanent check dams were built all over the district.

EP Rajmohan, special officer of Kasaragod Development Package, says that maintaining the existing check dams and constructing new temporary and semi-permanent ones is a great solution for Kasaragod's groundwater depletion problem.

“There are 12 rivers and more than 650 streams in the district. We already have around 1,000 structures including check dams and regulators on them. All of them have to be used and maintained properly to fight drought," he says.

He adds that as in Yethadukka, in other parts of the district too people who live near the streams should start constructing temporary check dams.

Government aid needed

Though many farmers in the district are for these environment-friendly structures, the state government has not acknowledged or given kattas a priority.

"The government spent a lot of money to construct dams, cement check dams and regulators. Compared to those costs, kattas cost only a fraction, and that amount could be given to farmers every year to construct these," argues Chandrasekhar.

Ganesha Naik, a farmer from Pallathadukka of Kasaragod, says that if the government had offered a little help, many more farmers would make kattas.

"We have been constructing kattas for several years. But small-scale farmers cannot afford to. Moreover, everyone doesn’t contribute monetarily as they have borewells in their compound. So, it becomes costly to bear the expense alone. If the government provides some financial help, many others will also step in," he says.

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