Water Portal / Rainwater Harvesting / Groundwater recharge / Check dams (gully plugs)

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Check Dam for Rainwater Conservation. NMDC Diamond Mine, Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Greenfield Eco Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

A check dam is a small, temporary or permanent dam constructed across a drainage ditch, gully, swale, or channel to lower the speed of concentrated flows (like an overflow weir) for a certain design range of storm events. They may be more categorized as a type of floodwater rather than a runoff harvesting technique. A check dam can be built from logs of wood, stone, pea gravel-filled sandbags or bricks and cement. They have been used widely in Kenya and India. These dams can also be made as leaky dams. Dams that have been built in riverbeds with no coarse sand transport (Sand dams) may end up being used in this way. These structures are relatively cheap and can last about 2-5 years.

Suitable conditions

  • Locate in natural runoff areas
  • Soil in vicinity needs to have sufficient infiltration capacity.

Advantages Disadvantages
- Water speed is slowed, which reduces erosion and prevents unwanted gully formation during a flood

- No trench design required, just uses existing gully drainage pattern
- Can assist recharge of shallow wells
- Can reduce salinity in groundwater
- Allows groundwater recharge and sediment to settle out (reduces sediment transport)
- Cost effective – these dams can use locally available materials

- If designed incorrectly, may block fish passage

- They can silt up and will need maintenance
- Levels of infiltration can be slow due to silt build-up
- Unclear land tenure can result in ownership of the structure

Resilience to changes in the environment

Rehabilitated gully in Adaga Lemne watershed, Axum, Tigray Province. Photo: Johan Rockstrom.


Effects of drought: Lower crop yields.
Underlying causes of effects: Less water to crops.
To increase resiliency of WASH system: Drought-resistant & fast-growing crops; Diversify livelihoods of farmers.

More information on managing drought: Resilient WASH systems in drought-prone areas.


With intense rain events, see if the check dam is still managing flow from its center. If it is not, the dam could crumble, rendering it ineffective, and will need rebuilding.

Construction, operations and maintenance

General advice on cement: A common cause of cracks in structures and linings (e.g. in tanks, dams, waterways, wells) is errors in mixing and applying the cement. First of all, it is important that only pure ingredients are used: clean water, clean sand, clean rocks. The materials have to be mixed very thoroughly. Secondly, the amount of water during mixing needs to minimal: the concrete or cement needs to be just workable, on the dry side even, and not fluid. Thirdly, it is essential that during curing the cement or concrete is kept moist at all times, for at least a week. Structures should be covered with plastic, large leaves or other materials during the curing period, and kept wet regularly.

Specific advice:

Cross section of wooden check dam. Overtop "pour spout" must be included.
Drawing: Water Conservation Technical Briefs. SAI.

The sides of the check dam must be higher than the centre so that water is always directed over the centre of the dam (this avoids the dam being outflanked by the flow).

The dams can be made of temporary or permanent materials in natural gullies in the land surface. Materials used are concrete, earth, vegetation, stone and brushwood. Where earth is used, erosion or destruction of the structure needs to be avoided – to do this, a concrete spillway is often constructed. As they use the existing drainage system, no design of trench is needed (as with contour trenches).

Do not construct check dams in watercourses or permanently flowing streams without specific design (because of possible restrictions to fish passage).

Water extraction

  • Water that infiltrates is used as soil moisture for crops cultivated after a rainfall event.
  • Water can be used directly for pumped irrigation.
  • Water can be taken from shallow wells and boreholes in the immediate area.


Check dams should be inspected regularly for sediment accumulation after each significant rainfall. Sediment should be removed when it reaches one-half of the original height or before. Check to ensure that the flow is over the centre of the dam and not either under or around the dam. Check that there is no erosion at the outfall.


The cost in India is reported to be between US$200-400 for temporary dams (made from brush wood, rocks, soil) and US$1,000- 3,000 for permanent dams (made from stones, bricks, cement), depending on the length and height. Variation depends on materials used and size of gully.

Field experiences

In Ethiopia, unclarity over land tenure led to progressive abandonment of cropping in gullies. See: Falkenmark, M.; Fox, P.; Persson, G.; Rockström, J. (2001) Water harvesting for upgrading of rainfed agriculture. Problem analysis and research needs. Stockholm International Water Institute.

Manuals, videos, and links