The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed Irrigation in the Western Himalayas

The major source of irrigation in district Kangra is the age old method of directing water from various streams, rivulets and springs through small rills or channels to the cultivated fields. These private networks of collectively built and managed, gravity flow irrigation systems are called "Kuhls". These community-managed kuhls date back to the pre-colonial Katoch dynasty (1690 to 1805) and continue to be the lifeblood of farming in the valley, as local farmers have no other choice but to rely on them every year during the crucial pre-monsoon irrigation season and the winter wheat season. In Kangra district, 89% of the net irrigated area is watered by these private kuhls.

This system of irrigation in Kangra district is famous for its well defined water rights and management of kuhls. The system of defining private water rights on a water source, be it an irrigation system, a natural stream or any other source was known as “Riwaz-I-Abpashi”. Kuhl system has managed to maintain its physical and institutional integrity despite recurring natural hazards, such as earthquakes, droughts, and floods, and recent changes in economic and socio-cultural conditions. This is attributed to absence of other source of water for irrigation together with kuhls’ location in hilly areas where extensive cultivation and large scale, state-sponsored canal irrigation systems and massive capital investments are not possible.

Kuhl system comprises informal committees wherein a recognition of interdependence helps promote trust and reciprocity. The interdependent networks of kuhl committees help "reduce the vulnerability of individual kuhl regimes to environmental shocks by providing redundant sources of key inputs". When a kuhl is temporarily damaged or water scarcity threatens, networks can provide a buffer in the form of "alternative, short-term, but crucial pulses of resources" such as labor, water, and expertise.

Today, however, the kuhls are in danger. Rapid urbanisation, changing lifestyles and socio-economic factors have led to an increase in the levels of pollution in these waters. At many places garbage, plastic bags and bottles are seen floating in the open kuhl water, and even the drinking water, sourced from here, is not safe anymore. Through this exposure, the volunteers can better appreciate the importance of kuhls to local communities and the new challenges posed to the age old kuhl system.