In the distance, the early morning sunlight chased the shadows on the mountain peaks. I gazed longingly at the golden patches, wondering how long before I could feel the warmth of the rays. Lobzang saw me and laughed, “Are you cold? Come help, it will warm you up!”
Lobzang was building kyaari in her field. These are embankments built in the fields that help guide the flow of water. They are carefully built based on the natural slope of the land. In the neighboring field, I see Thinley ploughing his land using two yaks. I was in Kibber village, in Spiti valley, and the agricultural season had just begun. The day of ploughing had been decided a few days ago at the village meeting.
“How did you learn how to do this?” I asked Lobzang, fascinated at the skill and speed she was constructing the kyaari. “I’ve been doing this for years. When I was a little girl, I used to help my mother and I learnt from her. This year, it has snowed well, the water will be good.”
In Kibber, I’ve learnt that the irrigation system is considered the domain of the women. The water comes from the snow melt from Kanamo, a holy peak in Spiti. The water from the peak is directed to the Kibber fields using khuls. This irrigation system was initially built for barley and black pea, but has been modified for irrigating green pea. Lobzang tells me that the women were responsible for fine-tuning the watering for green pea. They learnt through trial and error, but now have perfected the quantity of water needed and when it is needed for a bountiful harvest.
“If you water them too much, or too early, the plants get thirsty, and will need more water. You have to water at the right time, with the right amount”, she tells me.
The crops are irrigated in cycles and in each cycle a fixed order is followed. Yurma, the first round of irrigation, happens 40 days after the ploughing. Just before yurma, women remove the weeds from the field and scatter them with dried yalo (Aconogonum sp). This prevents soil run-off and increases water retention. Irrigation on the first day of yurma is reserved for the fields of amchi and the devta. Women from all households participate in irrigation on the first day. The second day is reserved for families who have faced a serious illness or death the previous year or have pregnant women who are unable to work in the fields. The third day, tiping langzet, is reserved for families who have participated in the maintenance of water channels. After the third day, the remaining fields are irrigated.
This order is followed for the first three irrigation cycles, after which all the fields receive fixed turns. It is the women who decide the time of the second and third irrigation. The women also manage the daily distribution of water. Every year, two women are chosen to be the khul managers. They are in charge of managing the khuls, making sure the fields receive their quota of water, and managing small arguments that might arise related to the distribution of water. This system of women managing irrigation, is similar to systems in other parts of Nepal and South-East Asia. However, across the world, it is uncommon to come across natural resources that are managed by women. Men manage most natural resources, especially those that are shared. This makes the irrigation system in Kibber, and likely other parts of Spiti, special.
The irrigation system in Kibber has been in existence for centuries. Lobzang tells me it has remained unchanged as far back as she or her grandmother can remember. The knowledge of irrigation is passed on from mother to daughter, from the time little girls start helping in the fields.
As the sunrays finally reached the spot we were in, and started warming me up, I felt more motivated to help Lobzang make the kyaari. “Show me”, I said. I was eager to learn a skill that has been passed down from woman to woman for generations. Are irrigation systems in your villages similar to the one in Kibber? Do write-in and tell us about them.
First published by Himkatha – Spring 2021