Thursday, January 1, 2009

Irrigation Development in India: History & Impact

Paresh B. Shirsath 


Irrigation is the artificial application of water to the soil usually for assisting in growing crops. It is critical, yet a vital input of agriculture production process and pivotal to agricultural, social, and economic growth of nation. Civilizations have been dependent on development of irrigated agriculture to provide agrarian basis of a society and to enhance the security of people. Along with bless irrigation also brought the inherent attachments of several problems like salinity and water logging. Civilizations have risen and fallen with the growth and decline of their irrigation systems, while others have maintained sustainable irrigation for thousands of years. Understanding history of irrigation development helps in augmenting knowledge about the traditional systems many of which are equally relevant in today’s context. Further, there are several lessons which we may learn from the past experience. Such lessons which enrich our design and management options must be explored. In this paper history of irrigation development in India and its impact are discussed in brief. 

Key words: irrigation, history, impact

 1. Irrigation

Irrigation is the artificial application of water to the soil usually for assisting in growing crops. In crop production it is mainly used to replace missing rainfall in periods of drought, but also to protect plants against frost. Irrigation has two primary objectives 1) to supply essential moisture for plant growth, which includes transport of essential nutrients 2) to leach or dilute salts in soil. Besides this irrigation provides number of side benefits, such as cooling the soil and atmosphere to create more favourable environment for crop growth, Irrigation supplements the supply of water received from precipitation and other types of atmospheric water, flood waters and ground water.

Irrigation has acquired increasing importance in agriculture the world over. From just 8 million hectares (Mha) in 1800, irrigated area across the world increased fivefold to 40 Mha (13.4 Mha in India) in 1900, to 100 M Ha in 1950 and to just over 255 M Ha in 1995. With almost one fifth of that area, India has the highest irrigated land in the world today. [1] To address history of irrigation development in India and its impact are the objectives of this document.

2 History of Irrigation Development

            Historically, civilizations have been dependent on development of irrigated agriculture to provide agrarian basis of a society and to enhance the security of people. Here history of irrigation development will be discussed in brief in following heads:

2.1 History of Irrigation Development in World

Archaeological investigation has identified evidence of irrigation in Mesopotamia and Egypt as far back as the 6th millennium BCE, where barley was grown in areas where the natural rainfall was insufficient to support such a crop. [2]

In the 'Zana' Valley of the Andes Mountains in Peru, archaeologists found remains of three irrigation canals radiocarbon dated from the 4th millennium BCE, the 3rd millennium BCE and the 9th century CE. These canals are the earliest record of irrigation in the New World. [3]

The Indus Valley Civilization in Pakistan and North India (from 2600 BCE) also had an early canal irrigation system. [4] Large scale agriculture was practiced and an extensive network of canals was used for the purpose of irrigation. Sophisticated irrigation and storage systems were developed, including the reservoirs built at Girnar in 3000 BCE. [5]

There is evidence of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet - III in the twelfth dynasty (about 1800 BCE) using the natural lake of the Fayûm as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons, as the lake swelled annually as caused by the annual flooding of the Nile.[6]

The Qanats, developed in ancient Persia in about 800 BCE, are among the oldest known irrigation methods still in use today. They are now found in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The system comprises a network of vertical wells and gently sloping tunnels driven into the sides of cliffs and steep hills to tap groundwater. [7]

 The Noria, a water wheel with clay pots around the rim powered by the flow of the stream (or by animals where the water source was still), was first brought into use at about this time, by Roman settlers in North Africa. By 150 BCE pots were fitted with valves to allow smoother filling as they were forced into the water. [8]

The irrigation works of ancient Sri Lanka, the earliest dating from about 300 BCE, in the reign of King Pandukabhaya and under continuous development for the next thousand years, were one of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. In addition to underground canals, the Sinhalese were the first to build completely artificial reservoirs to store water. The system was extensively restored and further extended during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu (1153 – 1186 CE). [9]

In the Szechwan region ancient China the Dujiangyan Irrigation System was built in 250 BCE to irrigate a large area and it still supplies water today. [10]

 In fifteenth century Korea the world's first water gauge (woo ryang gyae) was discovered in 1441 CE. The inventor was Jang Young Sil, a Korean engineer of the Choson Dynasty, under the active direction of the King, Se Jong. It was installed in irrigation tanks as part of a nationwide system to measure and collect rainfall for agricultural applications. With this instrument, planners and farmers could make better use of the information gathered in the survey. [11]

2.2 History of Irrigation Development in India

Ministry of Water Resources (Govt. Of India), on its web site briefly explains the history of irrigation development in India which can be traced back to prehistoric times. Vedas, Ancient Indian writers and ancient Indian scriptures have made references to wells, canals, tanks and dams. These irrigation technologies were in the form of small and minor works, which could be operated by small households to irrigate small patches of land. In the south, perennial irrigation may have begun with construction of the Grand Anicut by the Cholas as early as second century to provide irrigation from the Cauvery River. The entire landscape in the central and southern India is studded with numerous irrigation tanks which have been traced back to many centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. In northern India also there are a number of small canals in the upper valleys of rivers which are very old. [12]

2.3 Irrigation during Medieval India

Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (1220-1250) is credited to be the first ruler who encouraged digging canals. Fruz Tughlug (1351-86) is considered to be the greatest canal builder. Irrigation is said to be one of the major reasons for the growth and expansion of the Vijayanagar Empire in southern India in the fifteenth century. Babur, in his memoirs called ‘Baburnamah’ gave a vivid description of prevalent modes of irrigation practices in India at that time. [12] The Gabar Bunds captured and stored annual runoff from surrounding mountains to be made available to tracts under cultivation. [29]

2.4 Irrigation Development under British Rule

Close to nineteenth century according to sources of irrigation; canals irrigated 45 %, wells 35 %, tanks 15 % and other sources 5 %.  Famines of 1897-98 and 1899-1900 necessitated British to appoint first irrigation commission in 1901, especially to report on irrigation as a means of protection against famine in India. As a result of recommendations of first irrigation commission total irrigated area by public and private works increased to 16 Mha in 1921. From the beginning of 19th century to 1921 there was no significant increase in tube well irrigated area. During 1910 to 1950 growth rate of irrigation was estimated at 2.0 % per annum for government canal irrigation, 0.54 % per annum for well irrigation and 0.98 % per annum in respect of irrigation from all sources. [30]

2.5 Irrigation Development at Time of Independence

At time of independence net irrigated area of India under British rule which include Bangladesh and Pakistan was 28.2 Mha. After partition net irrigated area in India and Pakistan being 19.4 Mha and 8.8 Mha respectively. [12]

2.6 Plan Development

·        CADWM Programme

·        AIBP Programme

·        Bharat Nirman

Under the Irrigation Component of Bharat Nirman, the target of creation of additional irrigation potential of 1 crore hectare in 4 years (2005-06 to 2008-09) is planned to be meet largely through expeditious completion of identified ongoing major and medium irrigation projects. Irrigation potential of 42 lakh hectare is planned to be created by expeditiously completing such ongoing major and medium projects. [13]

2.7 Irrigation Development as per Source in India

The irrigation potential through major, medium and minor irrigation projects has increased from 22.6 million hectares (mha) in 1951, to about 102.77 Mha at the end of 2006-07. [31]

Table 2.1 Source wise development of Irrigated Area in India (Mha)




Ground Water


Net Irrigated Area (NIA)


Irrigated Area (GIA)











































 Source: [24]


2.8 Present Status of Irrigation Development in India & World

At the global scale 278.8 Mha (689 million acres) of agricultural land was equipped with irrigation infrastructure around the year 2000. About 68 % of the area equipped for irrigation is located in Asia, 17 % in America, 9 % in Europe, 5 % in Africa and 1 % in Oceania. [14]       India’s irrigation development in this century, and particularly after independence, has seen large number of large storage based systems, all by the government effort and money. Post independence has seen more than 60% of irrigation budgets going for Major and Medium (M & M) projects. However, Growth rate of irrigated area continues to fall from 4.23 % per year during the 1970s to 3.08% per year in 1980s and to 2.56% in the 1990s. [15] At present, with almost one fifth of worlds net irrigated area (57 Mha); India has the highest irrigated area in the world today. India’s ultimate irrigation potential was estimated at 139.9 Mha, comprising of 58.46 Mha through major and medium irrigation schemes and 81.43 Mha from minor irrigation schemes. [13] Recently some positive steps were also taken to long-awaited inter-basin water transfer, aiming at adding 35 Mha to India’s irrigated area. [16] The implementation of the inter-basin water transfer link schemes are taken up in a phased manner depending on the priorities of the Government. The links namely (i) Ken-Betwa link (ii)Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal link (iii) Godavari(Polavaram) – Krishna(Vijayawada) link (iv) Damanganga-Pinjal link and (v) Par-Tapi-Narmada Link have been identified as priority links for consensus building amongst concerned States for taking up preparation of Detailed Project Reports (DPR). [31] Table 2.2 shows irrigation potential and utilization status up to 2002.

Table 2.2 Irrigation Potential & Utilization up to 2000-02 (Mha)


Ultimate Irrigation Potential (UIP)

Potential Created (PC)
















                                                                                                Source: [24]


·         MMI – Major & Medium Irrigation > 2000 ha

·         MI – Minor Irrigation <>

Impact of Irrigation in India

Irrigation is pivotal to agricultural, social, economic growth of nation. Irrigation has provided stability to food production. It is critical, yet a vital input of agriculture production process. Along with bless irrigation also brought the inherent attachments of several problems like salinity and water logging. Civilizations have risen and fallen with the growth and decline of their irrigation systems, while others have maintained sustainable irrigation for thousands of years. Many of the problems in irrigated agriculture can be mitigated or avoided by improved technology and management, and by adequately addressing cultural, social, and environmental aspects.

3.1 Irrigation benefits

·        Contribution to Food Production and Food Security

            Various estimates point to a contribution from irrigated agriculture to overall agricultural production of about two - thirds, and under some estimates an even higher contribution. [26] It is now increasingly argued that at macro level, there is no foodgrains constraint in India. In fact, the Report of the Working Group on foodgrains Requirements by 2000 AD expressed optimism that India has an exportable surplus of foodgrains to the tune of 20 MT (around 10% of foodgrains production) and that this is likely to go further. [27]

·        Contribution in Poverty Alleviation

            There is inverse relationship in poverty and irrigated area. It is claimed that while the incidence of poverty is as high as 69% in districts with less than 10% cropped area under irrigation, it is about 26% in districts where irrigation covers more than 50% of cropped area, and just 10% in Punjab and Haryana with over 70% of their cropped area under irrigation. [26]

·        Contribution in Employment Generation

            Irrigation development necessarily triggers the employment generation in agricultural as well as allied fields. Overall regional development of irrigation further adds to employment by creating favourable market conditions.

·        Contribution in Equity

            Equitable distribution of water particularly in canal command is highly desirable. This gave myriad modifications to design and operation of canal water distribution system. Various equity concepts introduced are viz. volumetric equity, area equity, social equity etc. However, the issue of water drawn from groundwater and its equity implications are also need to be addressed.

·        Contribution to Growth and Exports

            The exports of agriculture products contributed around one fifth total exports. In the post liberalization period, the share of agricultural exports has been continuously rising. A number of policy changes have been introduced to encourage agricultural exports. [19]

·        Contribution in Increasing Cropping Intensity

            Making it possible to grow more than one crop in a year, irrigation has contributed to increase in cropping intensity.

·        Contribution to Drought Proofing

            Irrigation has proved to be the most effective drought proofing mechanism and single biggest factor in bringing about a large measure of stability in agricultural production.

There are several tangible as well as intangible benefits which were remained unaddressed in this document.

3.2 Problems created by irrigation

Schilfgaarde, [28] in his famous review article on "Irrigation – a bless or curse" quotes following observation with special reference to irrigation. "Irrigation always results on degradation of water quality. Irrigation, by its nature, uses pure water consumptively, leaving less water to transport salts and other contaminants. Irrigation may be viewed as intensification, or acceleration, of a natural process."

·       Waterlogging and Salinity

     Ancient civilizations flourished and then floundered when soil become saline due to poor irrigation practices and lack of drainage. (E.g. Mesopotamia civilisation in the Tigris-Euphraets Valley, it is not recovered to this day) [2] In fact, the tax records from Mesopotamia show that barley yields were about two to four times present yields in this area. [18] David Hopper, World Bank's vice president for South Asia, said that in South Asian conditions, the rate -of - return criterion would generally not allow the Bank to support an irrigation project with adequate drainage because the drainage added too much to present costs in relation to its discounted long – term benefits. Rather, the Bank had to put in the irrigation system and wait for salinity and water logging to take land out of production. Then it could justify a drainage project. This sounded preposterous: it would obviously take many years for land made unfit for cultivation by salinity and water logging to become productive again once drainage is put in, and it costs five times as much to construct adequate drainage as it does to irrigate in the first place. [21]

·       Bureaucratic Approach

     Large irrigation projects are also criticized for their way of operation and management. Farmers often feel that the top-down approach is not in the interests of the local farming community.

·       Sustainability Issues and Falling Growth Rates of Production

     Intensive and improper use of land and water resources had lead to think on the viability of irrigation projects on sustainability issues. Despite of modern tools for irrigation and crop growing techniques, decreasing rates of productivity is remained a matter of concern.

·       Siltation

     Planning Commission accepts that sedimentation rate in a number of reservoirs is higher than those envisaged at the planning stage. More significantly, there is no mention about managing the catchments to reduce sedimentation or the cost of losing reservoir storage due to sedimentation. [19]

·       Conflict with Other Areas, Uses

     The CWC estimates that community needs would double and industrial and power requirements would increase almost seven fold by 2025. While the total water demand for community use (forecast to be 40 BCM/ year in 2025) is not high compared to the total water resources (930 BCM/ year in 2025), localised and regional demands could lead to cuts in availability of water for irrigation. [22]   Several inter state water disputes happened in India. Some of them could able to reach to agreements successfully through mutual discussions and negotiations. E.g. Musakhand Project dispute between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (settled in 1964), Tungabhadra Project High-level canal dispute between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (settled in 1956), Sharing of costs and benefits of Jamni Dam Project between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (settled in 1965), Palar water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (settled in 1956), Sharing of Subarnarekha river water among Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, (settled in 1964) etc.  [25] However, there exist several projects where solution could not be worked out. E.g. The Krishna - Godavari waters dispute among Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, Cauvery water dispute among Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, Narmada water dispute among Gujarat, MP, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, Tungabhadra project issues other than the high level canal between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Koymani river dispute between Bihar and West Bengal. [25]

·       Minimum Environmental Flows in Rivers

     The need to maintain minimum flows in rivers for flushing pollutants, dilution of waste water and other environmental reasons such as the requirements of regenerative capacity of the ecology has been neglected till date in planning, executing and operating major & medium projects and will have to be recognised in future. The fact that such demands remain unquantified also goes to show that these important demands have been neglected. [23]

·       Contribution in Balanced Regional Development

     Contribution of irrigation in balanced regional development is often criticized. This kind of imbalanced development continues even within states (e.g. Western Maharashtra and Vidharbha).

·       Adverse Health Impacts

     Canals are known to lead to many health impacts. Spread of Malaria due to canal irrigation has been known since British times. In the upper Bari Doab Canal area in 1908, the malaria deaths are reported to have claimed 12,000 people. [15] Studies have also reported aggravation of water borne diseases due to irrigation.

4 Lessons to be learned from past

Lesson to be learned from floundered Mesopotamia civilization, where soil become saline due to poor irrigation practices and lack of drainage. There is a rudimentary relationship between irrigation and salinity. Irrigation water always contains at least some salt, derived from the soil and rocks with which it has been in contact. As plant uses some of this water but not the salt, the concentration of salt in remaining soil water increases. To keep from salting out the soil, there must be drainage.

The acceleration in dam or reservoir based irrigation projects also coincided with the change in evaluation criteria of M & M project from rate of return method to BC ratio method, which some see as dilution of criteria. Some researchers and policy makers also see this as leading to acceleration in dam building activity. [15] This shows adaptation and revision of policy guidelines from time to time is necessary. Revision of policy guidelines may bring boom in irrigation and agriculture.

Acceleration of groundwater based irrigation was witnessed in since mid sixties because of encouragement through institutional finance and rural electrification. [17] However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the groundwater development is no longer sustainable in increasing number of regions because of overexploitation.

Debate on development of irrigation often roars around the question, "Why only canals among the indigenous techniques were adopted by modern engineers, while others were not?" Answer often comes out as: "Canal irrigation allows centralised management, which goes well with bureaucratic control." [20] The approach of top down development not necessarily works well at all the time. Gradual development of existing local irrigation practices and farmer (bottom-up) management, while less spectacular, may ultimately be more successful. Recently some options of participatory irrigation management, water users association etc are emerging. Efforts are needed to strengthen these systems.

Schilfgaarde, [28] reports that historically irrigation efficiency tended to be seen in terms of labour and investment costs, or economic efficiency, rather than in terms of water use per unit production. From the experience of Colorado river basin where irrigation supplies were substantially augmented and hence, it resulted in gradual built up of salinity. Several debates happened on Colorado river basin and it resulted in emergence of the recognition of irrigation efficiency as an important factor.

                There are as several lessons which we may learn from the past. Such lessons which enrich our design and management options must be explored.

5 Future possibilities of Irrigation Development

·    As we have tapped almost 75 % of ultimate irrigation potential, efforts are needed to find future development possibilities. Some of the future possibilities are enlisted below

·    Technological Options (Drip Irrigation, sprinkler etc) - Micro-irrigation methods need to be adopted wherever possible.

·    Revival of Diverse and Community - Based Irrigation Systems

·    Inter basin transfer of water (Interlinking of Rivers)

·    Special measures needed to revitalize the tank irrigation

·    Gap between potential created and utilised needs to be reduced (Completion of Canal Networks)

·    Use of Sewage Water for Irrigation

·    Drainage Improvements

·    Scope for Improving Crop Yields

·    Options for Equitable and efficient water distribution need to be evolved. (e.g. Participatory Irrigation Management)

·    Choosing appropriate cropping pattern for sustainable development

6 Conclusions

Irrigation is vital to the well being of the people in this world and plays a significant role in local, national, and international growth and development. However, irrigation also has created problems, such as salinization of land and water resources, adverse socio-economic and cultural effects, and environmental damage. From the history of irrigation development in India, it was revealed that there is need of revival of traditional and local irrigation management practices along with the major irrigation infrastructure project. Tank irrigated area has been declining special efforts are needed to revitalize the tank irrigation. Groundwater irrigated area has been increasing but this increase should be done in more sustainable way. Gap between created and utilized irrigation potential alarms the necessity of completion of canal network as well as need of minimizing the losses. As, most of easily possible potential has already been utilised in India, further expansion is very limited. Efforts are needed to find future development possibilities. Policy reforms like change of criteria from rate of return to BC ratio should be explored and welcomed. There are many lessons which we may learn from the past. From such experiences and building of our concrete knowledge on complex soil-plant-water-environment relationship we can maintain irrigated agriculture indefinitely.

7 Acknowledgements

Author would like to acknowledge all the information provided on www by various sources such as Ministry of Water Resources (Govt. of India), CWC(India), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting(Govt. of India), World Bank, Wikipedia etc. Several authors (Thakkar, H, Narayanamoorthy, A, Tripathi, S. etc. also deserves special mention for sharing information on the internet.

8 References

1.      Postel, Sandra, 1999. “Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?” New York & London: WW Norton & Company.

2.     Kang, S. T. (1972) Irrigation in Ancient Mesopotamia. Water Resource Bulletin. 8 (3): 619-624

3.     Dillehay TD, Eling HH Jr, Rossen J (2005). "Preceramic irrigation canals in the Peruvian Andes". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (47): 17241-4. PMID 16284247. 

4.    Ancient India Indus Valley Civilization. Minnesota State University "e-museum". Retrieved on 2007-01-10.

5.     Rodda, J. C. and Ubertini, Lucio (2004). The Basis of Civilization - Water Science? pg 161. International Association of Hydrological Sciences (International Association of Hydrological Sciences Press 2004).

6.    Amenemhet III. Britannica Concise. Retrieved on 2007-01-10.

7.     Qanat Irrigation Systems and Homegardens (Iran). Globally Important Agriculture Heritage Systems. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved on 2007-01-10.

8.    Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 and 1989 editions 

9.    de Silva, Sena (1998). Reservoirs of Sri Lanka and their fisheries. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved on 2007-01-10. 

10. China – history. Encyclopædia Britannica,1994 edition. 

11.   Baek Sauk Gi (1987). Jang Young Sil. Woong-Jin-Wee-In-Jun-Gi: "Woongjin Publishing Co., Ltd". 

12.  Ministry of Water Resource,   (2007-07-15)

13.  Government of India and Confederation of Indian Industry 2005. “Irrigation.” National conference on Bharat Nirman, Bharat Nirman 17-21.

14. Siebert, S.; J. Hoogeveen, P. Döll, J-M. Faurès, S. Feick, and K. Frenken (2006-11-10). "The Digital Global Map of Irrigation Areas – Development and Validation of Map Version 4". Tropentag 2006 – Conference on International Agricultural Research for Development. Retrieved on 2007-03-14. 

15.  Singh, Satyajit. (1997). Taming the Waters: The Political Economy of Large Dams in India, New Delhi:OUP. 

16. Sharma, B.R. (2006). Water Resources, Handbook of Agriculture, ICAR Publications.

17.  Thakkar, H. (1999). Assessment of Irrigation in India. Contributing Paper, World Commission on Dams. Available at (2007-07-15) 

18. Kovda, V.A., Vandenberg, C. and Hagan, R.M. (eds), (1973). Irrigation, Drainage and Salinity. An International Source Book. United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome. 

19. Government of India. 1999. Water Resources Development Plan of India: Policy and Issues, New Delhi:National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Plan, Ministry of Water Resources, GOI.

20.Sengupta, N. 1993.User Friendly Irrigation Designs, New Delhi: Sage Publications 

21.  Wade, Robert. 1997. "Greening the Bank: The Struggle over the Environment, 1970-1995", in The World Bank: Its First Half Century, Kapur Devesh, et al, Washington: Brookings Institution Press. 

22. World Bank. 1995. Tamil Nadu Water Resources Consolidation Project: Staff Appraisal Report, New Delhi: the World Bank. 

23. World Bank. 1991. India Irrigation Sector Review Vol. II, Washington: The World Bank. 

24.Narayanamoorthy, A. Trends in Irrigated Area in India: 1950-51 to Retrieved on (2007-07-15) 

25. Tripathi, S. Inter - State Water disputes and Interlinking of Rivers in India. Retrieved on (2007-07-15) 

26.World Bank. 1998. India Water Resources Management Sector Review: Irrigation Sector, New Delhi: The World Bank. 

27. Shah, M., Banerji, D., Vijayshankar, P.S. and Ambasta, P. (1998). India’s Drylands: Tribal societies and Development through Environmental Regeneration, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

28.Schilfgaarde, J.V. (1994). Irrigation – a bless or a curse. Agricultural Water Management 25, 203-219 

29.Fahlbusch, H., Schultz, B. and Thatte, C.D. (2004). The Indus Basin- History of Irrigation, Drainage and Flood Management. 

30.Michael, A.M. 1978. “Irrigation Theory and Practice.” Vikas, New Delhi.

31.  India-2008, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 


*Note: Seen references are 12,16,17,24, 25, 28, 29, 30 and 31. Others are cross references.


  1. Thank u paresh for such an interesting and informative article.

  2. Thank you, its a Very informative article

  3. hi, the article is very informative; but i feel that research like this illustration and pictures can go a long way to make it more useful and move it out of purely theoretical paper.

  4. Article is very much informative...appreciates ur efforts...