The socioecohydrology of rainwater harvesting in India: Understanding water storage and release dynamics across spatial scales

Kimberly J. Van Meter, Michael Steiff, Daniel L. McLaughlin, Nandita B. Basu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Rainwater harvesting (RWH), the small-scale collection and storage of runoff for irrigated agriculture, is recognized as a sustainable strategy for ensuring food security, especially in monsoonal landscapes in the developing world. In south India, these strategies have been used for millennia to mitigate problems of water scarcity. However, in the past 100 years many traditional RWH systems have fallen into disrepair due to increasing dependence on groundwater. This dependence has contributed to accelerated decline in groundwater resources, which has in turn led to increased efforts at the state and national levels to revive older RWH systems. Critical to the success of such efforts is an improved understanding of how these ancient systems function in contemporary landscapes with extensive groundwater pumping and shifted climatic regimes. Knowledge is especially lacking regarding the water-exchange dynamics of these RWH tanks at tank and catchment scales, and how these exchanges regulate tank performance and catchment water balances. Here, we use fine-scale, water-level variation to quantify daily fluxes of groundwater, evapotranspiration (ET), and sluice outflows in four tanks over the 2013 northeast monsoon season in a tank cascade that covers a catchment area of 28 km2. At the tank scale, our results indicate that groundwater recharge and irrigation outflows comprise the largest fractions of the tank water budget, with ET accounting for only 13-22 % of the outflows. At the scale of the cascade, we observe a distinct spatial pattern in groundwater-exchange dynamics, with the frequency and magnitude of groundwater inflows increasing down the cascade of tanks. The significant magnitude of return flows along the tank cascade leads to the most downgradient tank in the cascade having an outflow-to-capacity ratio greater than 2. At the catchment scale, the presence of tanks in the landscape dramatically alters the catchment water balance, with runoff decreasing by nearly 75 %, and recharge increasing by more than 40 %. Finally, while water from the tanks directly satisfies ~ 40 % of the crop water requirement across the northeast monsoon season via surface water irrigation, a large fraction of the tank water is "wasted", and more efficient management of sluice outflows could lead to tanks meeting a higher fraction of crop water requirements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2629-2647
Number of pages19
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 7 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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