International Symposium on
Drylands Ecology and Human Security

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Indigenous Knowledge of Water Resource Management in Dry Lands:
A Conceptual Framework

Abu Muhammad Shajaat Ali

Department of Social Sciences, The University of Texas at Tyler, Tyler, United States


Recent dissatisfaction among scientists over adverse environmental impacts of scientific farming technology forces researchers to study the origin, development, typology, and contributions of indigenous knowledge to the development of sustainable agriculture. This paper examines the factors inducing the development and typology of indigenous knowledge in water resource management and irrigation and its contribution to the sustainability of dry land agriculture.

Irrigation is one of the earliest farming technologies developed at the dawn of sedentary tillage and domestication of plants. The ancient Neolithic plant domesticators of Southwest, Southeast and East Asia established their settlements near by rivers; learnt about the ecology of domesticated plants; and selected the crops based on their adaptability to edaphic and hydrologic conditions. Indigenous knowledge of irrigation developed from farmers’ long-term in situ experience about local environment.
Factors contributing to the formation of indigenous knowledge of irrigation include population pressure, development of market, hydrologic constraints to agriculture, political economy, knowledge about plant ecology, and local resource available. While population and market demands are inducing forces, political economy, climate and knowledge of soils plant ecology, and local resource availability are mediating forces that shape the typology of irrigation methods.

Spatially, indigenous knowledge of water resource management and irrigation methods vary  from canal, pond and well digging, khettara, open-surface irrigation, spate, under-surface and covered tunnel, buried clay pot, pitcher, wheel, wooden pivot methods, construction of bund around fields and cultivation of low moisture adaptive crops. Farmers’ knowledge of plant-soil-moisture relationships and adaptive capability of domesticated plants also play a significant role in the evolution of indigenous irrigation and water resource management methods.

Indigenous irrigation methods are low cost-profit maximizing knowledge. Farmers use bamboo, wood, tree trunk, straw, clay, pitcher, bucket, and family labor and draft animals for free or low cost. Family labor inputs are often used; and women and children provide most labor inputs in indigenous irrigation. Unlike mechanized irrigation that causes rapid depletion of water resources, and contributes to land degradation by increasing soil salinity and acidity, indigenous methods conserve and protect soil and water resources from depletion and thus give rise to sustainable production methods. Research should focus on identification and removal of social and institutional obstacles of   development of indigenous irrigation and water resource management strategies.