Successful watershed management meant re-greening a sandscape in Desertified Anantapur


Successful watershed management meant re-greening a sandscape in Desertified Anantapur

Digital Discourse Foundation:

By Malini Shankar

Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh seems to be recovering from the chronic drought, desertification induced moisture stress, and repeated crop losses / famine after three decades of sustained ecological interventions to replenish the ground water table.

Decades of sustained efforts in watershed management has started reversing the process of desertification. Today the ground water table is significantly replenished. Vast stretches of the ground have been re-greened and this has restored soil moisture.

This is one of the check dams constructed by AFEC under the Integrated watershed management Programme of the Government of India 

Ground water table had plummeted to 300 metres below 

the ground by 1990, aridity made cactus endemic. Water and 

sanitation was a severe compromise leading 

to public health crisis. 

Sand dunes were formed in some parts of Anantapur district 

thanks to wind and soil erosion. Anantapur, located in the rain 

shadow area of both the southwest and 

the northeast Monsoons, was always dry and arid but eons 

of wind and sand erosion and severe moisture 

stress triggered desertification. Repeated crop 

failures because of inadequate rains led to 

starvation in Anantapur. Though liberalization 

had made Indians richer outside this arid 

sandscape, there were still significant portions 

of population in this area facing starvation and 


The Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh was declared by the 

Andhra Pradesh State Government as being in the process 

of desertification in 1994. It was thought that the provisions 

of the newly legislated Convention on Biological Diversity 

(CBD) – following the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 will be the 

guiding light to mitigate this debilitating process. The 

government and NGOs together undertook a slew of 

measures to “combat desertification”.

Desertification is a debilitating calamity that renders unfit the 

agricultural landscape and agro economy. It pummels lives, 

livelihoods, landscape and it did in Anantapur: 

taking a severe toll on public health, livelihood and food 

security, water and sanitation, and the environment. The 

ground water table plummeted to 300 metres below the 

ground in some places of Andhra Pradesh’s largest district 

with sand dunes making an appearance. That was the real 

shock. Crops wilted with recurrent droughts ushering famine; 

aridity wilted even dry land crops like native millets, oilseeds 

nuts, cereals and pulses. The Administration and the Media 

was not sure if sand dunes formation or starvation was more 

sensational, such was the bleak challenge.

Indeed if the provisions of the Convention on Biological 

Diversity had to be redeemed; it would certainly have to be 

sustainable agro ecological interventions instead of wholly 

engineering solutions like construction of check dams, 

contour bunding, construction of farm ponds and percolation 

tanks and other rain water harvesting infrastructure. It called 

for the empanelled NGOs to think out of the box.

Despite Climate Change and despite receiving very low 

rainfall - Anantapur - being in the rain shadow area of both Southwest and Northeast monsoons - Anantapur’s location just south of the “Jwalapuram” caves that were formed by the ash fall of the Lake Toba Super volcanic explosion of 74000 years ago nevertheless - left this arid landscape very fertile.

Today after successful watershed management the area 

boasts of very rich and diverse horticulture, dairy diversity, 

and agricultural produce including fruits like Mango (Mangifera indica), Guava (Psidium guajava), Gooseberry (Michelia emblica), Java fruits(Syziium cuminii), Sapota (Manilkara zapota), Citroen (Citrus medica), Custard Apple (Annona reticulata) and trees with rich green foliage like Tamarind (Tamarindus indicus), Pongamia (Pongamia pinnata) and Neem (Azadarichta indica). Agricultural diversity includes all vegetables ranging from Aubergines to Zucchini, millets, 

oilseeds some varieties of rice, cereals and pulses etc.

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre AFEC took the lead in 

husbanding fruit orchards that thrive in a dry arid landscape. 

These watersheds tuned out to be naturally induced ground 

water reservoirs, after the successful replenishment of ground 

water. You may wish to watch a documentary film Re-

greening the Sandscape Part 1 on this link:  and meet the beneficiaries of the perceptive agro ecological schemes in Part 2 on this link  

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre (AFEC) took up multi-stakeholder participation for agro ecological interventions. Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre took up these interventions in six Mandals or sub districts of Anantapur: Settur, Raapthadu, Kalyandurg, Atmakur, Kundurpe, and Kuderu Mandals of Anantapur. AFEC’S interventions include:

·         Restoration of soil nutrition and soil moisture;

·         Rain water harvesting;

·         replenishing the ground water table;

·      Dryland farming through cultivation of native drought                resilient crops like millets, oilseeds, lentils, horticultural            produce, etc.

·         Watershed management by raising fruit orchards

·         Supply of Biogas stoves,

·         Instituted 58,050 farmers’ cooperatives,

· Micro finance for women farmers harvesting native Dryland crops like millets and oilseeds to make traditional snacks as native nutrition which supplements the families’ farm incomes)

·   Micro finance for dairy farmers to buy native breeds of milch cows,

· Biodiverse fruit orchards husbanded with organic farming techniques like Jivamrutha and Beejamrutha: (These are Government of India agricultural schemes that advocate organic farming techniques like utilisation of cow dung, vegetable and fruit peel, molasses, egg shells, etc to create mulch and manure. Beejamrutha refers to creation of seed banks to propagate biodiverse afforestation and recreation of green cover)   

Catchment area conservation was a win-win partnership with 

farmers being given fruit saplings to augment the catchment 

area. Watershed management involved rainwater harvesting, 

and agro ecological interventions boosted rain-fed agriculture 

in the absence of irrigation infrastructure.

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre (AFEC) led by Dr. Malla 

Reddy for instance undertook construction of farm ponds, 

percolation tanks, check dams, developed fruit orchards or 

watersheds, harvested rain water, took measures to reverse 

soil erosion, replenish soil moisture, restore soil nutrition, 

increase green cover, thus successfully replenished ground 

water table and increased soil moisture holistically, an 

impossible task in an arid desertified landscape!

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre (AFEC) constructed 

Rainwater harvesting infrastructure, created fruit orchards, 

farm forests, took up afforestation, recharged dried up bore 

wells, constructed check dams and farm ponds, took up 

avenue tree planting, fruit orchards under watershed 

management programme.

The rain water harvesting infrastructure undertaken by Accion 

Fraterna Ecology Centre includes:

  • ·         1,20,212 contour bunds,
  • ·         2,564 Stone trenches,
  • ·         404 gully checks / gully plugs to arrest rain water run-off,
  • ·         348  rock fill dams,
  • ·         20 Soil Moisture Conservation Gabions,
  • ·         10,070 water absorption trenches at foot hills,
  • ·          18.2109 hectares of staggered trenches,
  • ·         4,196 check dams,
  • ·         203 percolation tanks,
  • ·         Recharged 7 dried up bore-wells,
  • ·         And built 6,616 farm ponds.

“The concept agro-ecology is taken from the natural forest: it advocates that the farm land should not be exposed to direct sunlight, direct rain or direct wind.  So, the farm land has to be kept covered with multiple crops for 365 days in a year.  This nurtures the biotic life of the soil, prevents soil-moisture evaporation, and builds sustainable soil productivity in a natural manner” says Dr. Malla Reddy in an exclusive statement given to Digital Discourse Foundation.

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre (AFEC) created a self help group of women farmers with micro finance serving as the central activity. With micro finance being available to women farmers, they were trained in harvesting native crops like millets to make traditional / artisanal snacks as a business enterprise. The women were trained by Krishi Vigyan Kendra of Anantapur in millet snack making. The Women’s’ Self Help Group makes traditional millet based snacks and selling these against specific orders. Thus it serves the purpose of augmenting the farmers’ incomes as well as augmenting their families’ health quotients. A podcast about micro finance for these women farmers of the Sasya Mitra Self Help Group led by Mrs. Indramma in Kuderu Mandal in Anantapur can be heard on this link: 

Women like Dharani, Sarala, Venkateshwaramma, Sandhya and Parvathi are among the 30 successful and very enterprising members of the Sasya Mitra Self Help Group led by Mrs. Indramma. These women are trained in making traditional and healthy snacks from native crops like millets and oilseeds. The Self Help Group takes business orders for making the artisanal snacks. The women members then harvest or procure the farm produce - millets or oilseeds as the case maybe and prepare traditional snacks and short eats with grandma’s recipes.

“The healthy snacks are a sure fire means to mitigate health 

disorders and complications arising from endocrine disorders 

like hypertension and Diabetes” says Sarala. Sandhya a very 

talented home maker from the farming community not only 

relishes making millet biscuits but also sings harvest folk 

songs with gusto.  With the income she earns from making 

traditional snacks, 30 years old Mrs. Dharani saved some 

money to invest In a small business / petty shop where she 

trades in henna stencils, embroidered ware, undergarments 

for women and children and children’s’ toys.

NGOs constructed small, sustainable check dams and farm 

ponds in synch with the hydrology of the area to collect the 

modest rainfall that occurred in Anantapur. The NGOs also 

constructed farm ponds and rain water percolation tanks to 

collect rain water.

Nagaraju, a watershed management committee member in the 

Yerraborepalli village Settur Mandal of Anantapur district told 

Digital Discourse Foundation in an exclusive interview “They 

give us daily wage employment for these kind of watershed 

development activities. That gives us our bread and butter. I 

work on activities like contour bunding tank construction, rain 

water channeling, watering plants etc for which I earn on an 

average of 3 – 4000 Rupees a month. I also work as an 

agricultural labourer to supplement income. There is indeed 

profit in mango cultivation but the waiting period for the first 

harvest is a minimum 5 years. So for the short term I rely on 

ground nut cultivation.”

“The hydrology complements the collection of the meager rainfall. It has been a success as now … after a good spell of rainfall we get flowing fresh drinking water in the check dams. And these check-dam and farm ponds help irrigate our horticultural farms… today we get ground water at a depth of less than 20 metres when compared to yester years when we had to dig the earth to about 300 metres. We farmers are now happy as we grow diverse fruits like custard apple mangos, tamarind, Jamun, Guava, Gooseberry, Ber and Sapota. We also grow groundnut and sesame seeds” says Ramakrishna Reddy a retired postman who serves in the watershed committee of AFEC in Yerragunta village Raapthadu Mandal of the Anantapur district.  This is the kind of traditional multi cropping that is native to the arid, chronically desertified area. This is a true manifestation of “Climate Smart” Agriculture.

Fruit orchards in natural farming methods in the “watersheds” 

gave farmers a monetary stake in catchment area 

conservation for ground water replenishment. Organic 

manures collected from leaf litter of native trees helped 

harvest a rich fruit yield in the fruit orchards or - watersheds - 

in the Civil Society parlance.  Plantation of native fruits like 

Mangoes (Mangifera indica), Jambo (Syzijium cuminii), Sapota

 / Chikoo (Manilkara zapota) Amla (Michelia emblica), Guava 

(Psidium guajava), Papaya (Carica papaya), Pomegranate, 

gave farmers the mutually beneficial instrument to replenish 

ground water table while cultivating fruits orchards. The 

undergrowth that flourishes under the agro diverse fruit crops 

helped nourish the soil and percolate the rainfall, replenishing 

the ground water table and restoring the soil nutrition as well 

as soil moisture. With soil moisture being replenished the soil 

Organic Carbon improved making the agricultural fields 

“paradise pastures” in the sandscape.

Kishnamma is a senior citizen living in Yerragunta village of 

Raapthadu Mandal in Anantapur district. She is a senior 

citizen, a spinster who has nurtured over 200 sapota fruit 

trees in her ancestral plot of land which is blessed with access to a Farm Pond constructed by AFEC. She says “nurturing the fruit trees gives her peace of mind and livelihood security”.

Pot drip irrigation (dispensed now in favour of sprinkler 

irrigation) gave employment opportunities to marginalized 

rural women.  Huge five Litre clay pots made by rural women and laced at the roots / pit of the saplings were watered thrice 

daily by the rural folk at the employ of NGOs like 

AFEC, SEDS and MYRADA etc which gave employment 

opportunities to these rural women. Small holes at the bottom 

of these clay pots ensured the water would trickle down in 

drops to the roots of the young saplings providing moisture 

and sustained water supply to the growing fruit tree saplings.

Pot drip irrigation was a run-away success. Women got 

meager incomes and help from self help groups. Pot drip 

irrigation sustained water supply to the fruit saplings in the 

orchards which fetched a handsome remuneration to the 

farmers. With fruit orchard output like mangoes and Sapota 

fetching sustainable and perennial incomes to the famers, the 

farmers were indeed more than willing to experiment 

successfully with multiple fruits as part of multi crop orchards. 

This helped diverse microbes act on soil moisture retention, 

restore soil nutrition and in the process restore atmospheric 

moisture and combat desertification.  

“With Multi-cropping the roots are diverse, because of the diversity of root, you have diverse microorganisms in the soil.  Because of the diverse microorganisms in the soil, soil becomes porous or permeable, which allows the water to percolate when it rains” Dr. T.V. Ramachandra Limnologist, Fresh water scientist and leader of the Wetlands and Energy Research group in the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the premier Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore told Digital Discourse Foundation acquiescing to the merit of agro ecological interventions in Anantapur District.

Coming up in this space the full length video interview of Dr. T.V. Ramachandra Limnologist, Fresh water scientist and leader of the Wetlands and Energy Research group in the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the premier Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Watch this space. 

Gradually the soil erosion was halted and green cover

increased replenishing the ground water table. The ground 

water that had depleted to 300 metres below the ground 

gradually rose to 16 metres below the ground from 300 

metres below the ground. That was the moment of reckoning to the civil society, the battle hardened rural populace and the state Government of Andhra Pradesh as well as Government India.

Rainwater harvesting infrastructure – includes check dams, 

farm ponds, percolation tanks water shed management with 

raising of fruit orchards, planting avenue trees all to collect 

without run off the meager rain fall that occurs in Anantapur. 

Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre AFEC in Anantapur founded 

by Father Anton Ferrer and led today by Dr. Malla Reddy an 

agricultural activist and development worker has constructed 

many of these structures to complement the hydrology of the 


With funding from Andhra Pradesh State Government, 

NABARD, and Government of India besides funding from 

foreign donor agencies AFEC has mapped the desertification, 

hydrology of their project areas; they undertook zero budget 

natural farming, / organic farming, ecological succession of 

biota, moisture stress and documented thoroughly the needs 

and aspirations of the battle hardened rural populace. With 

interventions like ‘Participatory Rural Appraisal and village 

committees’, AFEC undertook funded interventions like 

creation of fruit orchards, rain water harvesting, Dryland 

farming, restoration of soil nutrition and ameliorating moisture 

stress combining it all under “agro ecological interventions”.  

Dr. Malla Reddy director of AFEC / Accion Fraterna Ecology 

Centre adds “The concept is very clear. Where there is green 

cover there is moisture. Where the soil is exposed to sunrays 

and wind there is soil erosion …” Do view the unedited 

version of Dr. Malla Reddy’s (Director of AFEC) interview online.

“Watersheds” comprised of fruit orchards … fruit trees with rich 

foliage like Mango, Sapota, Jamun, Guava, Gooseberry were 

planted far and wide in the ‘project areas’ of AFEC. Adopting 

Dryland farming techniques equates to traditional multi 

cropping – of native foods like millets, oilseeds pulses and 

cereals. The horticultural trees are native evergreen trees that 

can survive in arid conditions with little or no rainfall. Pot drip 

irrigation offered constant moisture replenishment to the tree 

saplings and livelihood security to gardeners; farmers were of 

course gleeful with the profits of subsidized horticulture. 

Besides, the root systems of these native trees enriched the 

microbial activity successfully replenishing soil moisture and 

restoring soil nutrition.

Digital Discourse Foundation has made two video 

Documentaries on largely successful efforts 

to combat  desertification 

through agro ecological interventions for restoration and 

replenishment of ground water table in the Anantapur district 

of Andhra Pradesh.   

Biodiverse natural farming brought in plantations of native trees like Pongamia pinnata, Ficus species, Neem or Azadarichta indica, Tamarind or Tamarindus indica, fruit yielding trees like Mango, Sapota, Jamun, Guava, Gooseberry, fodder yielding trees like Glyricida, and different types of grasses which help in percolating rainfall in different seasons all characterize “biodiverse multi-cropping”. Fodder banks created by these rich foliage trees gave ample dairy yield and livelihood and food security to the livestock farmers.  

Dryland, Climate resilient agro ecological intervention 

manifests as biodiverse multi-cropping involving fruit orchards 

of native species biodiverse fruit orchards for Climate resilient 

horticulture / agriculture

The Sri Sathya Sai Baba Trust supplied potable drinking water to the water starved and thirsty population of Rural Anantapur for decades. The Sri Sathya Sai Baba Trust also sunk bore-wells in the short term to mitigate water stress.

MYRADA undertook rain water consolidation by way of rain 

water harvesting infrastructure like check dams, farm ponds 

etc by making farmers stake holders in water security. Myrada 

also optimized livelihood security through natural resource 

management, zero budget natural farming and so on.

Agro “ecological” interventions and zero budget natural 

farming  besides very intense human efforts at recharging 

ground water – including rain water harvesting – it appears - 

is far more effective in raising the ground water that was 

scandalously depleted in this chronically drought affected rain 

shadow area of Southwest Andhra Pradesh. Apparently such 

ecological interventions involving optimization of the 

topography for harvesting rain water is far more sustainable 

than dam construction.  Dams have ill served the purpose of 

saving water and releasing it when needed, have failed to do 

flood control and generation of hydro electric power is now 

completely pass√© given the age of renewables. This is a 

lesson in sustainable growth and teaches lessons to those 

who rapaciously devoured Nature’s reservoirs meant for 

future generations.

Of course there is still the need for conserving fresh rain water 

by investing on recycling water infrastructure, reusing grey 

water for flushing and non primary water usage like 

construction… A lot more of awareness needs to be created 

and there is a dire need for engineering interventions like grey 

water curing infrastructure.

Photo blogs of allied subjects that will be of interest to you are listed hereunder:

1.      Indian agricultural, horticultural, cultivars and commercial crops

2.      Understanding Biodiversity

3.      Dryland Climate Smart Agriculture

4.      Watershed management in Anantapur

5.      Dryland Agriculture is the key to watershed management!

Malini Shankar, Digital Discourse Foundation

Further Reading:



Popular posts from this blog

Questions for seismologists and USGS

COVID 19 Pandemic or the Novel Corona Virus 2019 has terrorised the living communities. Part I

Raising the Ground Water Table, herculean, collective effort