“Rainfed agriculture in India is a risky enterprise, owing to uncertainties in rainfall,” reads a World Bank article published in February 2023.

More than half of India’s net sown area – 55% of almost 140 million hectares – is primarily dependent on rainfall, according to the National Rainfed Area Authority under the Ministry of Agriculture. Rainfed agriculture accounts for around 40% of the country’s total food grain production and supports two-thirds of livestock and 40% of the human population. Hence, it is a crucial contributor to the country’s economy and food security. The livelihoods of 80% of small and marginal farmers are linked to rain.

According to the National Rainfed Area Authority, rainfed areas in India are the most variable and unpredictable environments which renders rain-dependent agriculture a risky proposition. “Yet, there is enough evidence to show that traditionally, rural communities knew how to harness this variability to support their economies, societies and agro-ecosystems, carefully breeding livestock and varieties of crops that can thrive in these areas,” it states in a policy document.

Kikruma, a village in Nagaland, stands as a precedent for this statement.

The indigenous system of irrigation and agricultural practice in this region, called the Ruza system, more popularly known as Zabo, is a time-tested unique water management practice that has been yielding good harvests for nearly a century.

The picturesque village of Kikruma lies in the rainshadow mountain region of Phek district in Nagaland, at an altitude of 1,643 metres. “While Nagaland’s average annual rainfall is 2,000 millimetres with 150 rainy days, Kikruma receives only about 461.18 millimetres of rain annually,” shared Hannah Krujia Asangla, Chief Technical Officer in Agronomy at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Phek, Nagaland.

The Seidzu and Khuza rivers, that flow to the south and north of the village respectively, are seasonal rivers and do not meet its water needs. To overcome this perennial water scarcity, the villagers developed the Ruza (pronounced “ree-zah”) system of impounding water and utilising it for irrigation.


Impounding water

Zanehu Tunyi, a septuagenarian former school principal and farmer from Kikruma, explains that their forefathers, belonging to the Chakhesang Naga tribe, resided by the riverside and cultivated near the riverbank. With increasing population, many had to relocate to the higher regions. Without any permanent water source and scanty rainfall, this agrarian society eventually developed the Ruza system of impounding run-off water about 80-100 years ago.

Ruza means ‘impounding water or run-off water pond or tank for irrigation’ in the Chokri dialect. But researchers and reports have popularised it as the Zabo system,” Tunyi told Mongabay-India.

Zabo is a small pit dug within a paddy patch, ideally used for rearing fish. However, Ruza is a larger pond spreading to about 0.2 hectares, used for storing run-off water.

The forest lands are the main catchment areas. The village residents cut channels in the forests and in every possible catchment area to channelise the rainwater to the ponds. Water flowing through the several steep village roads is also impounded by constructing speed breakers or placing stones and directed to the Ruza.

Scanty rainfall and an absence of a permanent source of water prompted Kikruma village to develop the indigenous system of irrigation called the Ruza. The system has been yielding good harvests for nearly a century. Credit: Surajit Sharma/Mongabay.

The Ruza or harvesting ponds are located at a higher elevation. These are connected to the paddy fields at the lower elevations through narrow drains, which are blocked with stones and earth until it is time to irrigate the fields.

There are over 200 harvesting ponds in Kikruma and each is shared by multiple farmers to irrigate the adjoining fields.

The farmers are constantly improving the system, especially to prevent water loss by percolation. “We hammer the inner surface of the ponds and the channels to avoid seepage. As the road surfaces are already compact, water easily flows downhill without much loss. Lately, we also use bamboo and pipes to channel the water,” explained Zanehu.

The runoff water is channelised through cattle yards too. This not only cleans the yards, but also carries the manure to the fields below. The entire system is primarily dependent on gravity, although a few farmers do use pumps to transport water from the ponds to distant paddy fields.

“Nagaland is an organic state with very limited use of chemical fertiliser. Apart from manure, the litter from native trees like siris (Albizia lebbeck), alder (Alnus nepalensis), neem (Azadirachta indica), and azolla are used as fertiliser. The trees are planted near the fields. After tilling the soil, we mix tree litter into it. We use common salt or chemical fertilizer, in minimal quantities, only when the paddy saplings are too small,” said Rukuzo Tunyi, a young farmer in his early 20s.

Integrated organic farming

The Zabo or Ruza system is a sustainable integrated form of farming comprising forestry, horticulture, agriculture, fishery and animal husbandry with well-founded soil and water conservation base. The main crop is paddy; about 17 varieties of both sticky and non-sticky rice are cultivated in wet terraces. The yield of paddy is about three to four tonnes per hectare.

Fruits and vegetables are grown along the terraces near the ponds, cattle sheds, and water channels. Vegetations include mango, guava, banana, papaya, pomegranate, maize, potato, squash, colocasia, cucumber, cabbage, garlic, tree tomato, king chilli, to name a few. In addition, pulses such as rajma (Phaseolus vulgaris) and beans (Vigna sp.) are also cultivated.

Most farmers practice paddy and fish culture together. Saplings of the common carp, Asian snakehead and snails, are kept in Zabo, dug amid the paddy fields. Post transplantation, the saplings move to the wet paddy fields for scavenging and to mature. “The crops in the Rüza system mature early, by October. The field dries by then and we harvest the fishes alongside the paddy. Excess water if any is drained out to a lower pond before harvesting,” said Zanehu.

On average 50-60 kg of fish are harvested per hectare.

The Ruza system supports agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry. Photo by Surajit Sharma/Mongabay.

Generational knowledge

Children learn the traditional Ruza system by watching and helping their family from a very young age. “As babies, we were taken to the field during the farming season. As soon as we could walk, we started playing in the paddy fields as our guardians sowed and transplanted alongside. By the age of four or five, the children are also taught to transplant crops,” said Rukuzo.

When Mongabay-India visited Kikruma in June this year, school students were found to be helping with transplantation during their vacation.

While transplantation usually starts by the end of May and continues for about 15 days, this year it was delayed by a month due to late monsoons. Irrespective of age, everyone came together to expedite the transplantation process and complete it on time.

“I run other small businesses but return to the field during the farming season,” said Rukuzo. “We have not tilled all our fields yet due to insufficient water. But we will do so after enough water has been collected in the ponds.”

The Ruza system is practiced by about 950 households (although there is no official data) in Kikruma village living on the mountaintop. Of the total 915 hectares of agricultural land in Kikruma, only 26 hectares are cultivated under the Ruza system. Those residing at lower elevations with sufficient water sources do not practise this water harvesting system.

The Ruza system is practiced by about 950 households in Kikruma village. Children pick up the technique at an early age by watching and helping their family. Photo by Surajit Sharma/Mongabay.

“With increasing water scarcity, some other villages in Phek are also adopting Ruza, but not as extensively as in Kikruma,” added Zanehu Tunyi.

According to Zanehu the yield is self-sufficient for the farming families. “We do not sell the excess but keep it in storage for times of scarcity caused due to lesser or delayed rainfalls,” he said.

Ruza is not just an agricultural method but a communal system that binds the community. Water is shared among families and clans through mutual negotiations. The paddy field patches in this high-altitude village are scattered amid the woods, unlike in the plains where the fields spread far and wide and farmers could see each other.

As women and children also work in these secluded paddy fields, the men communicate with each other using certain calling sounds that reverberate in these hilly terrains. This is to make the women and children aware of their presence nearby, and an added sense of security. In the evenings, a unique call is made while leaving the fields, signifying a goodbye for the day.

Adopting Ruza

“The Ruza system of farming is remunerative, sustainable, eco-friendly, and preserves soil fertility,” said Asangla. “It is feasible for villages in hilly terrains with scarce rainfall to adopt this system.”

Mongabay-India spoke with Lohit Kumar Baishya, Head, School of Natural Resource Management-ICAR, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Dhemaji. Baishya said, “The Ruza system can be adopted in other places or replace jhum/ shifting cultivation. But first, watersheds need to be developed with natural vegetation and forestry to absorb the rainwater. After that, terraces have to be built and the water has to be channelised. Only when there is a continuous flow of water will it be possible to do permanent cultivation. It will take time but this may be one of the options for conversion of jhum.”

Jhum cultivation, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture, has been called out by scientists due to its negative impact on biodiversity. It leads to loss of biodiversity and habitat and introduction of invasive species. Although a jhum cycle ideally expands to a minimum period of seven to eight years, over time it has reduced to three to four years; mainly due to soil degradation — loss of nutrients and organic matter and soil erosion.

“Jhum can be converted to permanent cultivation practices only with integrated intervention such as agro-forestry and horticulture, like in Zabo. Our main objective is ‘right tree, right place for right purpose at right time’. If the right species are identified keeping this objective in mind, it can lead to the evolution of jhum. However, watershed development is a must. But during our intervening work, we have found that jhum is highly associated with customs and traditions and farmers are reluctant to leave this practice,” said Baishya.

Experts note that jhum cultivation can be converted into permanent cultivation practices if it is intergated with agro-forestry. Photo by Surajit Sharma/Mongabay.

Baishya also stated that while intervening for integrated farming practices, ICAR undertook a project on rainwater harvesting and its multiple uses for high-value crops. Jalkund, a micro rainwater harvesting structure is constructed on hilltops and the stored water is used for irrigating the natural vegetation. “Once these plants are established, it works as a rainshed within five to ten years and will subsequently convert into a continuous economical process of cultivation. This project has already been undertaken in several states of Northeast India by the ICAR,” said Baishya.

The National Rainfed Area Authority states that traditional sustainable practices “have evolved over generations through observation, verification, and validation within communities, (and) need to be integrated as crucial inputs for decisions on rainfed agroecosystem”.

Meanwhile, the indigenous and sustainable farming practice Ruza in Kikruma has been recognised by the government as a potential “Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measure”. An Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measure’ is governed and managed to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem functions, similar to a Protected Area.

This article was first published on Mongabay.