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Field Trenches

Author/Compiled by
Corinne Waelti (seecon international gmbh)
Dorothee Spuhler (seecon international gmbh)
Executive Summary

Field trenches increase precipitation harvesting by breaking the slope of the ground and therefore reducing the velocity of water runoff. By decreasing runoff, they enhance water infiltration and prevent soil erosion. Trenches can be seen as an extended practice of ploughing fields. They may be applied to all soil types and are not dependent on slope or rainfall conditions (SUSSMAN 2007).

Applicable to all soil and rainfall conditions
Prevents soil degradation and erosion
Enhances surface water infiltration and soil moisture
Helps to reduce flood hazards
Comparably simple construction, requiring only basic construction material
Intense labour is needed for maintenance
Less land is available for cultivation
May create temporary waterlogging in dense soil
In Out

Precipitation, Freshwater

Freshwater, Food Products



Continuous contour trenches. Source: SUSSMAN (2007)

Continuous contour trenches. Source: SUSSMAN (2007)

Basically, trenches can be seen as extensive ploughing to the right angle of a field’s slope. By breaking the slope and therefore reducing the velocity of water runoff, field trenches filter runoff water from rainfall and hence reduce soil degradation, erosion and enhance infiltration of surface run-off and soil moisture.

A great advantage of field trenches in comparison to other types of water harvesting measures (such as bunds, planting pits, micro basins, retention basins, and controlled drainage) is their applicability to all soil and rainfall conditions.

Trenches may be added to steep slopes as well as even land and can be used for all types of soil depth.

Basic Design Principles

Adapted from SUSSMAN (2007) and RAINWATERHARVESTING (2011)

 Interrupted field trenches. Source: UNDP (2008)

Interrupted field trenches. Source: UNDP (2008) 

For optimal performance, trenches are constructed along contour lines, similar to contour bunds. Therefore, the lines need to be marked before starting shovelling (for a simple technique to define contour lines, see SUSSMAN (2007)). When digging the trench, the excavated soil is placed downslope along the edge of the trench. Crops are then planted on the elevated land between the trenches.

The design of contour trenches can be continuous or intermittent. While the continuous ones are best suited for moisture conservation in regions with low rainfall, interrupted trenches are best suited to high rainfall areas.

The optimal distance between two trenches depends upon the slope of the field, where steeper grounds require less distance.

Hill Slope

Distance between trenches

0% to 4%

10m to 12m

4% to 8%


8% to 15%


15% to 33%


Selecting the right intervals between trenches. Source: SUSSMAN (2007)

Entirely preventing water runoff may be dangerous if extremely heavy rainfall occurs. To control excess water, it can be channelled away by building drains or waterways.

Cost Considerations

The costs for field trenches depend on the cost of the filling material, and the labour needed (which can differ according to soil conditions).

Due to their simple construction, only basic material is needed for building trenches, such as stakes, shovels, picks, crops, and possibly a tractor (depending on the slope of the field).

Operation and Maintenance

For reaching best outputs, sediment should be removed from the bunds and be reapplied to the field uphill the trench from time to time (SUSSMAN 2007). Berms may need more frequent repairing as long as vegetation has not been established to stabilise soil.

At a Glance

Working Principle

By making field trenches, water runoff is hindered, leading to increased infiltration.


Construction is simple, requiring only basic tools and skills. But, depending on soil conditions, labour can be intensive. Trenches may be adapted to most areas and soil types.


Field trenches increase soil moisture and prevent soil erosion.


Costs depend on the filling material as well as the labour needed. As basic material can be used, there are hardly any expenses for special tools.

Self-help Compatibility

As only little material is needed and the construction is comparably simple, trenches may be implemented and maintained without outside help.


Sediment should be removed from the trenches and reapplied to the field uphill the trench. Vegetation may stabilise the trench and therefore decreases the need for repairing.


If construction and maintenance is done well, reliability of trenches is high.

Main strength

Broad suitability: field trenches are useful for most soil conditions.

Main weakness

On-going maintenance is inevitable and can be time consuming.


Field trenches suit most soil and rainfall conditions. Their design may be adapted to different rainfall conditions: While continuous trenches are good for dry regions, interrupted bunds can be helpful for water harvesting in regions with higher rainfall.

Library references

Green Water Management Handbook. Rainwater Harvesting for Agricultural Production and Ecological Sustainability

This handbook highlights the principles and technologies that can be used to harness the huge untapped potential of rainwater. Instead of a stereotyped view focusing only on rivers and groundwater, the book directs readers in recognising rain as the ultimate source of water for food production and other uses in rural economies across Africa.

MALESU, M.M. ; ODUOR, A.R. ; ODHIAMBO, O.J. (2007): Nairobi: The World Agroforestry Centre URL [Accessed: 09.05.2012]

Design Manual. Contour Trenches

SUSSMAN, D. ; (2007): Santa Barbara, CA: Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California URL [Accessed: 08.08.2012]

Soil Contour Bunds

UNDP (2008): (= Infotek Extension Sheets Myanmar ). Yangon: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) URL [Accessed: 08.11.2012]
Further Readings

Rainwater Harvesting Technologies for Small Scale Rainfed Agriculture in Arid and Semi-arid Areas

This paper is a review of simple water harvesting techniques, which have been tested and found useful in arid and semi-arid regions, and which might be suitable for use in other areas. The paper also tries to show some successful cases of application of water harvesting techniques in African countries, which have increased the overall productivity of smallholder farms and hence improved farmers’ livelihood.

IBRAIMO, N. ; MUNGUAMBE, P. ; (2007): Maputo: University Eduardo Mondlane URL [Accessed: 08.08.2012]

Water Harvesting

Water harvesting has been practiced successfully for millennia in parts of the world – and some recent interventions have also had significant local impact. Yet water harvesting’s potential remains largely unknown, unacknowledged and unappreciated. These guidelines cover a wide span of technologies from large-scale floodwater spreading to practices that collect and store water from household compounds.

MEKDASCHI STUDER, R. ; LINIGER, H. ; (2013): Guidelines to Good Practice. Bern/Amsterdam/Wageningen/Rome: Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), Rainwater Harvesting Implementation Network (RAIN), MetaMeta, The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) URL [Accessed: 01.10.2013]
Case Studies

The Design of Contour Trenches in Vietnam

Master thesis showing scenarios of probable impacts, water flow and additional storage of a contour trench. It further includes recommendations on measurements, and how to attain the best result when implementing a contour trench.

PRAMANA, K.E.R. ; (2007): (= Master Thesis ). Delft: Delft University of Technology (TUDelft) URL [Accessed: 08.08.2012]

Alternative Versions to

No Structure Described.