Traditional Tank village system:
Saving water - lessons from the past
We were a nation that treated nature with respect, and conserved and
well understood the values of natural resources. We behaved as a member
of the 'family of nature', and did not try to destroy the web of life.
That was a fundamental of our civilized culture centered on the concept
of tank, dagaba, temple and village. As a result of foreign invasions,
Family of nature
conflicts, changes as a result of globalization. today our
inherited traditions are vanishing. But the fragrance of our great
culture provides us strength to fearlessly face the future.
Restore the past
Thus we have to learn from the past, we have to restore the past
concepts to match the present.
Our forefathers considered water as sacred, so they laid many taboos
and regulations on usage of water for water preservation and to stop
Sri Lankans for about three thousand years knew the technology to
fully utilize water in agriculture, the great King Parakramabahu's words
not to let one drop of water go waste without making the fullest use of
it - proves that.
The dry zone which is 2/3 of the entire island inherits highly
technical irrigation systems. Among them "Tank Village System" was a
giant pillar that held past agricultural society.
Thus in the past most of the villages were built near a tank.
Then the use of land in such a village was conducted in a methodical
way conserving the whole environment. The tank village system becomes
special in that case, which is not similar to the civilizations that
were built around the river valleys in other countries.
These human settlements in the dry zone were built, while finding
strategies for the shortcoming of water and they succeeded in using
farming methods according to many weather vagaries by shifting the
cultivation time and selecting farming practices according to the
Depending on the water levels land was divided as forests, the chena
that can be cultivated by rainwater, the paddy field which was
cultivated using tank water, the tank and its ecological system and the
hamlet which is in a place appropriate for habitation.
Our forefathers considered water as sacred. Pix: Dr. P. B.
According to the seasonality of rains they cultivated chena and paddy
Kekulama (dry sowing), Bethma (shared cultivation) and thavulu
govithena (tank bed cultivation) show how they change their cultivation
according to the changes in the environment. This proves their
sensitivity to the environment.
Thus the old farmers cultivated their chena using rainwater while
harnessing the paddy field using tank water. They also had home gardens,
thus all the needs of food, medicine and clothing (by cotton plantation)
were fulfilled. Groundwater was not used in agriculture assuring a
continuous supply of water. An adequate dead storage of water was in the
tanks in the dry seasons for the use of humans and animals.
The old agricultural system was built on sharing and caring; which
means in the hamlet (gamgoda), the houses were situated nearby assuring
protection, where in cultivation they helped each other.
They did not engage in environmental pollution, and in this tank
system they had taken utmost attempts to conserve the environment.
In a tank water is retained by blocking the natural water resources,
which is in a confluence and then the speed of evaporating is limited as
the tank is deep.
The land lows were used in paddy cultivation with the use of tank
water. The whole premises of a tank that holds water is considered as
the tank bed, and at the same time there was a part in the tank which
becomes dry in the dry seasons.
The farmers used this in paddy cultivation, but in a methodological
way. When considering how our forefathers divided the ecological system
of a tank, it proves how they managed and conserved all the macro and
micro parts in nature. They are.
Gasgommana, tree belt is the upstream land strip above the tank bed,
accommodating water only when spilling, reduced evaporation and was a
It was full of tees like large trees such as kumbuk, nabada, maila,
damba, and climbers such as kaila, elipaththa, katukeliya, kalawel, and
bokalawel was a breeding and living place for some fish species. These
tree belts also act as a border between wild animals and humans.
Kattakaduwa, interceptor is a reserved land below the tank bund. It
consists of three micro-climatic environments: water hole; wetland; and
dry upland, therefore, diverse vegetation is developed. This land phase
prevents entering salts and Ferric ions into the paddy field. The water
hole referred to as 'yathuruwala' minimizes bund seepage by raising the
It appears to be a village garden, where people utilize various parts
of the vegetation for purposes such as fuel wood, medicine, timber,
fencing materials, household and farm implements, food, fruits,
Perahana filters the sediment flow coming from upstream chena lands
which is a meadow developed under tree belt.
Iswetiya or potawetiya is constructed at either sides of the tank
bund to prevent entering eroded soil from upper land slopes. It is an
upstream soil ridge.
Godawala is a manmade water hole to trap sediment and it provides
water to wild animals. Kuluwewa is not used for the irrigation purposes,
but a large reservoir only traps sediment. It provides water for cattle
and wild animals.
Tisbambe is a fertile land strip found around the settlement area (gangoda)
and does not belong to anybody, mostly used in sanitary purposes.
Tree species such as mee, mango and coconut. are grown in a scattered
Kiul ela, drainage is the old natural stream utilized as the common
drainage. It removes salts and iron polluted water and improves the
drainage condition of the paddy tract.
It is not difficult to understand how our forefathers used developed
technology in preserving water, earth, trees and animals.
As they have understood the interdependency of all these sources they
could manage them well without doing any harm. Still we are not late as
our precious technology has not vanished. Then it is time for us to
follow such unique Sri Lankan technologies in our development project.
(The article is based on an interview with Dr. P. B. Dharmasena,
former Deputy Director Research, Field Crops Research and Development