Ayyappa Masagi helps poor farmers improve their economic condition by teaching them to take charge of their water resources. Through his education programs, and by constructing physical structures for water management, farmers work to reduce the impact of droughts and secure sustainable sources of water for their regions.

This profile below was prepared when Ayyappa Masagi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Ayyappa Masagi helps poor farmers improve their economic condition by teaching them to take charge of their water resources. Through his education programs, and by constructing physical structures for water management, farmers work to reduce the impact of droughts and secure sustainable sources of water for their regions.


All people depend on fresh water for their survival, but when water is plentiful, it is often taken for granted. Pollution and increased consumption have combined with inefficient practices of management to make clean water a scarce resource in India, causing conflicts between farmers—even between states—over the control of rivers and aquifers.

Masagi resolves such conflicts by putting an effective and comprehensive set of water management strategies in the hands of farmers. He trains farmers in his programs to measure and trap rainwater, most of which now passes quickly through their land on its way to the sea. He guides them on how to budget their water needs, equipping them to make informed decisions about the crops they want to grow. He demonstrates effective strategies for reclaiming wells and building water enclosures, helping neighbors work together with local materials to keep costs low. Through his efforts farmers become self-sufficient, increasing their income and dramatically reducing their dependence on external sources of water. They also become advocates for strong water management policies throughout India, joining campaigns founded by Masagi to make their voices heard.


In India, traditional use of rainwater and floodwater has declined, and the growing reliance on surface and ground water has strained these resources to their limits. The country is riddled with conflicts over water, such as the dispute between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for control of the Cauvery River. Exploitation of rivers and aquifers has led to severe and sustained water shortages. Dams have blocked the natural flow of rivers, causing community displacement and ecological havoc. Groundwater sources are also heavily overused: in many areas, indiscriminate construction of bore wells has emptied aquifers and rendered them barren, leading to a drought-like situation throughout the year. In the seasons when real drought sets in, water scarcity assumes frightening proportions.

Water scarcity presents a serious threat to the more than 800 million Indian people who rely on farming to make their living. Unfortunately, few systems exist to capture the millions of gallons of rainwater that falls on the country each year: it is estimated that more than half of the rainfall that Karnataka receives runs off into the sea. As little as 6 to 7 percent of the total annual rainfall makes its way into groundwater supplies. The portion of water that is available to farming industries is often misused by wasteful fertilizer factories and farmers seeking short-term gain at the expense of a reliable water supply in the long term.

Government efforts to ensure groundwater recharging have been enormously expensive and ineffective, in part because they have lacked any farmer participation. Rather than encouraging farmers to lead and develop the water management policies needed to secure their prosperity, authorities put forward coercive measures like denying farmers electricity or bank loans if they fail to implement government policies. Such measures have convinced many farmers that water conservation programs are annoyances imposed from on high, when in truth they can be powerful tools for farmers to ensure their financial health and secure the future of food production in India.


Masagi positions farmers at the head of a nationwide campaignto professionalize their industry and build strong, stable water supplies for their regions. On the ground level, he trains farmers to recharge aquifers and make the most of the rainwater that falls on their lands. Thus far his training programs have reached hundreds of thousands of farming families who in turn spread knowledge to their neighbors and kin.

Initial studies suggest that if most Indian farmers harvested at least 20 percent of their rainwater, they would be self-sufficient, requiring no external sources of water. To this end, he helps farmers perform a Catchments Area Analysis to calculate the amount of water that falls on their farmland. With straightforward formulae and explanations, he helps farmers use this data to develop their own strategies for harvesting rainwater.

Masagi also supports farmers in planning their cropping patterns to maximize their income and minimize their consumption of water and to reduce cost of cultivation. He introduces them to water-efficient systems of drip irrigation, sprinkler, perforation, plastic mulching, and bottle-feeding. He trains them to select and plant crops that yield high returns and conserve moisture, and encourages them to plant forests and cover crops that prevent soil erosion. Through his training, farmers learn to quantify the benefits of crops like pipal trees, which yield no fruit but generate air and moisture worth up to 1.5 crores every year. Armed with this kind of information, the farmers can make perform cost-benefit analyses and decide for themselves which crops to grow or which animals to rear.

Analytical training for farmers goes hand in hand with the practical work of building new structures for water management. He is spreading a new method for reclaiming bore wells that have run dry: first he digs a 10-by-10-by-20 foot pit around a bore well. Then he perforates the casing of the bore well and wraps it with a thin filter enabling purified rainwater to flow through the well to the underlying aquifer. To ensure that this water reaches the aquifer he fills the pit with porous pebbles, sand and cement rings (4 foot diameter). The treated bore well casement is also installed to prevent silting and also increase the intake of the treated bore well. This unique method is patented with ITK. The reclamation of one barren well can recharge an entire aquifer, bringing water to other wells within a 50-acre circle. He has restored more than 36,000 bore wells, which have in turn brought water to more than 5,000 additional wells and succeeded in connecting individuals to the broader message and giving them a sense of ownership over the project.

Masagi works with farmers to build lakes and ponds to trap water and help it percolate into the ground. He has also trained farmers to replace traditional check dams with nala bunds, which can be produced for a sixth of the cost, but have proven remarkably effective in creating on-site water reserves. These simple bunds can be constructed by the farmers themselves, built with local material and relying on local investment and labor. When a problem arises, farmers find themselves in a novel position of power and independence; they can make repairs without needing support from an external agency. Masagi has recruited more than seventeen engineers and thousands of masons and trained several “community water leaders” for tomorrow to help farmers understand and build these structures.

In the realm of policy, Masagi pushes for sensible water management systems at all levels of government. He is setting up village watershed committees of about 30 members, at least a third of whom must be women, to take responsibility for monitoring local use of water. In four districts these committees have already established region-wide policies for farming and water management. On a state level he has helped to organize Savayava Krishikar Balaga, a team of three thousand farmers who recently won a milestone policy for sustainable organic farming in Karnataka.

Masagi is spreading awareness of his successes through a water literacy campaign called Jala Sakshartha Andolana, Male Neeru Nagaari (Water literacy) and leveraging his many posts in farmer organizations to further spread his ideas. He maintains alliances with many civil sector organizations in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, preparing the younger members of these organizations to train their colleagues in rainwater harvesting. He gives lectures and workshops in a wide range of public spaces, raising awareness and recruiting new volunteers to his cause. His book, Nela-Jala-Jana (Ground Water and People) will have its seventh printing this year. He contributes regularly to dailies and magazines with readers throughout India. He reaches out to thousands more through radio and television programs.


Ayyappa Masagi grew up in a drought-prone region of Karnataka, watching his hardworking farmer father lease lands from wealthier farmers, only for them to cancel the lease once the lands began producing impressive yields. Determined to help, he stayed in the fields for hours, watching his father’s traditional techniques and trying to understand the science behind them.

He went to university to become a mechanical engineer, and took a lucrative job at a large industrial firm to support his large family and help educate his siblings. On the side, he purchased agricultural land in 1994 and began to experiment with methods of sustainable farming. He saved up to buy a piece of land for his father as well, freeing him to work without the burden of exploitative leases.

Realizing the consequences of water scarcity in the drought-prone region of northern Karnataka, Masagi began to investigate and implement techniques for the conservation of rainwater. In 1998, he began to share his learning with other farmers, and four years later he retired from the industrial firm to spread his ideas full time.