Owls in the Canyon

Tags: eco restoration check dams birds canyons
Owls_in_the_canion_mBuilding check dams in the canyons is a highly efficient way of erosion control and rain water catchment. It also allows nature to restore itself, trees and hedges are growing in the canyons and animals like the owls find a secure and rich habitat in it.

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A flock of silver coloured birds brightens a steel grey autumn sky. The egrets are back again, a sign that the rains have started. Intently, I await what the monsoon will bring this year.The last two years the monsoons were mediocre at best. This year, so far, some rains have showered their blessings on the thirsty land, but hopefully they are just a prelude to an intense downpour to follow. By mid-December we will know if the rains have brought abundance or, once again, scarcity.

Three years ago I started building check dams in Auroville. By now I am finishing check dam number 28. This year’s dams were built in the Auroville communities of Certitude and nearby Gratitude and in the surroundings of the coastal village of Bommyarpalayam. The work received a big financial boost from the Dutch group “De Nieuwe Gemeenschap” whose members now visit Auroville yearly. Their financial support allows me to construct a few more earthen check dams in the Success canyon, a work that will start as soon as the monsoon is over, and then the money will have run out. 

Two large canyons have been fully canalised and no longer transport any rainwater to the sea. The water flow is halted by the check dams, forming small lakes that, within a few days, seep down into the underground. Doing so, the groundwater level increases which, we hope, will bar sea water intrusion into the groundwater.

The check dams have been built in such a way that the overflow can reach the sea. This would only happen when it would rain a few dozens of centimetres daily for at least a week, – something, I admit, I am waiting for. I would love to see the large check dams being tested and witness the waters cascading over their tops. For so far, sadly, I have never been able to properly answer those who wish to know if my dams ‘hold’ and how it is to swim in the lakes.

The check dams change nature considerably. There is a definite greening going on in the canyons where, three years ago, I built my first check dams. Trees, bushes, creepers and other plants have spontaneously emerged. Within a few years they will provide an impenetrable barrier, provided that the villagers won’t cut too many trees for firewood. The explosive greening, however, is not to everyone’s liking. Aurovilians who love to go on nature discovery tours, complain that canyon walks have become all but impossible. The flora ensures that rainwater seeps quicker into the underground and it holds the red earth and the topsoil, which otherwise would flow into the Bay of Bengal. The earth remains wet for a longer period, and that in turn stimulates more plants to grow. And without any need for human intervention, the canyon’s biotopes recover.

The beginning of this process can be witnessed in the recently finished Utility canyon. The white sand is being covered by red earth, the first grasses come up and small plants mature. Its flowers attract insects and large, colourful butterflies; they in turn provide food for small mammals, reptiles and birds. So far I have seen wagtails, brahminy kites, shikras (a small hawk), the hawk cuckoo also known as the brainfever bird, green bee-eaters, metallic blue kingfishers, redwhiskered bulbuls, hoopoes and, last but not least, the Indian great horned owl. This is an impressive bird, who loves the canyon, sitting on an perch watching for prey. As by grace, it sometimes descends on the roof of my house, sounding its low-toned bu-bo, with the second syllable much prolonged. Originally there was only one, but recently I have seen three of them which is a convincing sign that nature is recovering.

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