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Local solutions to climate change

In developing countries, 11% of arable land could be affected by climate change. Indeed, farmers are already facing the impact of climate change. The need of the hour, say Sreenath Dixit and B Venkateswarlu, is not to wait for global agreements on mitigating climate change but to act locally, intelligently and consistently, as is being done with water harvesting solutions for rainfed agriculture in Andhra Pradesh

Around 2200 BCE, there was a shift in the Mediterranean westerly winds. This far-off change had an effect on the Indian monsoon, leading to three centuries of reduced rainfall and colder temperatures. The phenomenon hit agriculture from the Aegean Sea to the Indus; it’s said the change in climate brought down Egypt’s pyramid-building Old Kingdom and Sargon the Great’s empire in Mesopotamia.

After only a few decades of reduced rainfall, cities lining the northern reaches of the Euphrates -- a region that was the bread-basket for the Akkadians -- emptied out as populations migrated. Even intensively irrigated southern Mesopotamia, which boasted one of the most sophisticated bureaucracies of its time, could not react fast enough to the new conditions. With no supplies of rainfed grain from the north, irrigation canals running dry, and waves of migrants from the northern cities, the empire simply collapsed.

Societies have always depended on climate, but are only now coming to grips with the fact that the climate depends on their actions. Left unmanaged, climate change could reverse developmental progress and compromise the wellbeing of current and future generations. As the earth warms, the impacts will be felt everywhere. But much of the damage will occur in developing countries. Millions of people from Bangladesh to Florida will suffer as sea levels rise, inundating settlements and contaminating freshwater. Greater rainfall variability and more severe droughts in semi-arid Asia and Africa will hinder efforts to enhance food security and combat malnourishment. Shrinking Himalayan and Andean glaciers -- which regulate river flow and supply water to over a billion people on farms and in cities -- will threaten rural livelihoods and major food markets.

Croplands, pastures and forests that occupy 60% of the earth’s surface are progressively being exposed to threats from increased climatic variability and, in the longer run, to climate change. Abnormal changes in air temperature and rainfall, and resultant increases in the frequency and intensity of drought and flood events, have long-term implications for the viability of these ecosystems. As climatic patterns alter, so too do the spatial distribution of agro-ecological zones, habitats, distribution patterns of plant diseases and pests, fish populations and ocean circulation patterns which could have significant impacts on agriculture and food production.

Those least able to cope will likely bear additional adverse impacts. The estimate for Africa is that 25-42% of habitats could be lost, affecting both food and non-food crops. Habitat change is already underway in some areas, leading to species range shifts, changes in plant diversity, including indigenous foods and plant-based medicines. In developing countries, 11% of arable land could be affected by climate change, including a reduction of cereal production in up to 65 countries, about 16% of agricultural GDP. Changes in ocean circulation patterns may affect fish populations and the aquatic food web as species seek conditions suitable for their lifecycle. Higher ocean acidity (resulting from carbon dioxide absorption from the atmosphere) could affect the marine environment through deficiency in calcium carbonate, affecting shelled organisms and coral reefs.

Climate change impacts are both biophysical and socio-economic. Biophysical impacts include physiological effects on crops, pasture, forests and livestock; changes in land, soil and water resources; increased weed and pest challenges; shifts in spatial and temporal distribution of impacts; sea level rise, changes in ocean salinity; and sea temperature rise causing fish to inhabit different ranges. These will, in turn, bring socio-economic stresses with decline in yields and production; reduced marginal GDP from agriculture; fluctuations in world market prices; changes in geographical distribution of trade regimes; increased number of people at risk of hunger and food insecurity; migration; and civil unrest.

The failure of the recent Copenhagen climate change summit is only a symptom of the deep divide in the international community. No path-breaking outcome can be expected from a world so polarised. The need of the hour is not to wait for miracles to happen but to act locally, intelligently and consistently. For, small consistent efforts bring about big and lasting change.

The most important primary industry that sustains the world is agriculture and its allied sectors. It is this sector that has the potential to decide the future of human civilisation. There are plenty opportunities here. We elaborate on one such opportunity in rainfed agriculture, where water is going to be a serious limiting factor as an impact of climate change.

In arid and semi-arid ecosystems, rain is the only source of water for agriculture and human and livestock consumption. One of the prominent impacts of climate change has been frequent heavy rainfall interspersed with long spells of drought; many such events have been recorded by our meteorological department in the last decade. In 2008, for instance, parts of Andhra Pradesh’s dry Anantapur district experienced 114 mm of rain (more than a fifth of its average annual rainfall of 500 mm!) in less than three hours, after a prolonged drought of over 25 days. This event devastated groundnut, the only profitable commercial crop in the region, resulting in heavy economic losses. Such events are being increasingly reported across rainfed regions in recent years, causing loss of livelihood, agrarian unrest, even farmer suicides.

The sustainability of rainfed agriculture therefore depends on managing drastic changes in weather patterns through local adaptations that require consistent policy and institutional support.

The National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) stresses rainwater management in eight drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh (see map). Implemented by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA, an institute of the Natural Resource Management Division, Indian Council of Agricultural Research), rainwater management is being practised in a cluster of villages in each of these districts, a cluster being selected as an action research field laboratory. Each cluster represents a unique agro-ecology with opportunities for rainwater harvesting and its efficient use. The annual rainfall in these clusters ranges from a mere 500 mm (in Pampanur cluster of Anantapur) to over 1,100 mm (in Thummalacheruvu cluster of Khammam).

Soil type varies too, from deep black soils (Seethagondi, Adilabad) to medium and shallow red soils (Pampanur, Anantapur). Hence, the runoff and infiltration rate, therefore rainwater harvesting potential, also vary. The Seethagondi cluster of villages in tribal Adilabad district is blessed with fairly good rainfall (above 1,000 mm) and a deep black soil. Besides these, the undulating topography offers an ideal opportunity to harvest runoff, storing and reusing the same to tide over brief spells of drought during the cropping season. The technical and economic feasibility of runoff harvesting through farm ponds for profitable crop production and diversification was amply proved over two years (2007-2009). Emphasis is also being laid on scaling up farm ponds through convergence with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) as an option for enhancing productivity (see box).

The Pampanur cluster of Anantapur is extremely arid, hence rainwater harvesting through percolation ponds and recharge of groundwater is preferred as it is not feasible to store water in the porous red soil of the region. Groundwater is judiciously used through sprinklers and drip irrigation systems which have been deployed across the cluster by converging with development programmes such as the Andhra Pradesh Micro Irrigation Project (APMIP) and National Horticulture Mission (NHM). Custom hiring centres at Pampanur and Y Kothapalli are equipped with sprinkler sets and pipelines that are in great demand among farmers. Farmers hire sprinkler sets and pay user fees to a committee of fellow farmers (called ‘salaha samiti’, meaning ‘advisory committee’), which maintains records and accounts. The money collected is used to maintain and repair the equipment.

In the B Yerragudi cluster of Kadapa district, in the dry Rayalaseema area, attempts are on to augment water availability through de-silting of the Gajulakunta tank near Konampeta village. The effort began after villagers said they wanted to increase the volume of the silted-up tank. The work was undertaken under the NREGS, thereby ensuring the participation of households in the cluster. The community now feels empowered to employ the NREGS to create assets for the village. Says Veeranna, a small farmer: “We knew that the government was spending a lot of money to help us. But we were unable to use it to create good facilities for our villages.”

The Jamisthapur cluster in Mahboobnagar is extremely drought-prone, with an average annual rainfall of just around 600 mm. The soil is shallow, with poor water-holding capacity. The rainwater harvesting strategy here comprised digging a series of percolation ponds, trench-cum-bunds and repairing old check-dams and other water harvesting structures. Promotion of nursery and plantation activities to green up barren hillocks in the ridge area was also encouraged. An old check-dam that was leaking and unable to arrest runoff (and store it to recharge groundwater) was repaired at a cost of Rs 38,000, with people contributing their labour towards the repair. A trench-cum-bund over 5.2 km long was dug in the ridge area, and trees planted along bunds. Two percolation tanks were dug in the cluster to enhance groundwater resources; local youth have been trained to monitor groundwater levels periodically so that the community is aware of the relation between rainfall, conservation measures and groundwater exploitation. The custom hiring centre here too is equipped with efficient groundwater using systems like sprinklers. The farmers of Jamisthapur are being motivated to choose irrigated dry crops in place of paddy during the rabi season, and zero-till maize is being promoted in paddy fallows through careful training and capacity-building activities.

Dupahad cluster of Nalgonda is one of the most drought-prone areas in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Groundwater resources are meagre and the soil porous and shallow. For ages, agriculture here has depended on water harvesting structures like tanks and open wells. However, tanks chronically silt up while open wells remain dry as a result of the collapse of people’s institutions and the indiscriminate digging of borewells.

Two strategies were adopted to augment water resources in this cluster. The Jalamalakunta (kunta means ‘tank’) was de-silted by mobilising people under the NREGS. Project staff carried out a detailed survey and estimate of the work, and the village community was encouraged to submit this for inclusion under the NREGS.

They were sanctioned Rs 2.5 lakh (translating to 2,500 person-days at Rs 100 per day per person) for the job. Work began during the summer of 2009. Although there was a severe drought during kharif 2009, rainfall at the end of the season provided some runoff that could be harvested, pushing the water table up in this land of parched fields and dry wells.

Around 50 open wells had been abandoned. After a detailed topological survey, five were selected for recharging using low-cost techniques. This involved diverting runoff from a nearby waterway into a silt trap (a pit filled with loose pebbles) and then leading clear water into the open well through a PVC duct; the whole system costs no more than Rs 1,500. Initial results have been encouraging as farmers were able to grow short-duration vegetables by lifting harvested water from the open wells.

An entirely different approach was adopted in the Ibrahimpur cluster of Rangareddy district, adjacent to the peri-urban areas around Hyderabad city. The objective here was more efficient use of available groundwater by networking six borewells belonging to different farmers and distributing the water to around 18 farmers (their combined land being 45 acres) with the help of sprinklers. The process of linking and networking the wells required greater social skills than irrigation engineering (see box)!

The Jaffergudem cluster of Warangal has proved progressive in terms of the agricultural practices adopted by farmers. However, the shallow and gravelly soil has poor water-holding capacity and needs protective irrigation support for better productivity. Farmers therefore use groundwater for irrigation support. The strategy for rainwater harvesting and use in this cluster is mainly through farm ponds and percolation ponds, and appropriate cropping options. All the soil conservation and rainwater harvesting measures in this cluster are being carried out in conjunction with the NABARD-funded watershed project.

Farmers who own borewells generally cultivate paddy in both the kharif and rabi seasons, upsetting the water balance. While technical support for the watershed activities here was provided to the NABARD project, simultaneous training and capacity-building was launched to educate farmers on the importance of maintaining a water balance. Farmers growing two crops of paddy were convinced to change their methods, at least for the rabi crop. Of the group of five farmers who initially agreed to take up zero-till maize in paddy fallows during the rabi season, one was able to finally sow zero-till maize in rabi 2007. A sustained campaign and farmer-to-farmer training and interactions facilitated by the project team resulted in this practice spreading to 20 farmers during rabi 2008. Now, zero-till maize has been accepted not only as a viable water conservation option but also a remunerative alternative.

The success of ‘proofing’ rainfed agriculture against climate change lies in judicious use of scarce resources like water, nutrients and biomass, facilitating a support system, and developing people’s capacity. The changes brought about by farmers in these eight drought-prone districts show that technologies need a favourable environment in which to work and produce results. The catalyst to making technologies work is community capacity and supportive institutions that are able to sustain the change beyond the project period. CRIDA’s work here shows how synergies between different development schemes can be employed to influence sustainable development. These need-based, site-specific innovations and methods reveal how local solutions are more suited to climate change than technology-intensive prescriptions pushed through a top-down approach.

Farm ponds: Scaling up and converging with the NREGS

Farm ponds as an option for harvesting and recycling rainwater have been recommended for over two decades. Such ponds are meant mainly to provide life-saving irrigation to small patches of crop when they are exposed to mid-term drought that is very common in rainfed agriculture.

However, this simple technology has not really taken off, the main reason being that by the time the need for life-saving irrigation arises, water in the pond has dried up. This is either because the soil is so porous it does not retain water for long, or the pond is too small to meet water needs during an intense period of climatic stress.

Keeping these shortcomings in mind, several options like lining the pond with various materials have been tried, especially in shallow, porous red soil regions. But they have proven too expensive for farmers to invest in without assistance.

In black soil regions, water remains impounded for a longer period as fine clay particles in the soil act as natural sealants. Despite this, farm ponds do not find wide acceptance even in these regions. In fact, black soil regions with a rainfall of around 800 mm are ideal for rainwater harvesting and reuse. With this in mind, an attempt was made in Adilabad district’s Seethagondi cluster to impound a large volume of rainwater by digging farm ponds whose volume (20 m x 20 m x 4.5 m for 1,800 cubic metres) was nine times the recommended size (10 m x 10 m x 2 m for 200 cubic metres). Initially, it took a lot of persuasion to convince farmers to part with some of their land to dig a pond. Finally, a farmer called Namdev reluctantly agreed. The farm pond was not only a huge success, it managed to pull Namdev out of a debt trap.

This success generated a lot of interest among farmers and within line departments in Adilabad. Namdev became a household name in the surrounding villages. Several farmers who had earlier resisted the idea of a farm pond began to approach project staff to pledge their willingness to surrender part of their field for a pond. This change came about thanks to a systematic awareness programme that included inviting key officials of development departments and encouraging them to arrange for exposure visits to Namdev’s pond.

Namdev’s experiences were widely shared at discussions, meetings and seminars with the media; they were also highlighted on the project’s and ICAR’s websites. Taking advantage of the changed attitude of farmers towards farm ponds, a detailed ground survey was carried out in all villages in the Seethagondi cluster and a proposal was prepared identifying 30 suitable sites for farm ponds. The proposal was later submitted to the nodal agency (the District Water Management Agency) that processes NREGS works through gram panchayats. It was closely monitored by project staff and the community. Finally, the agency approved 30 farm ponds at a cost of Rs 20 lakh.

 

 

Social regulation for efficient groundwater usage

This project in the Ibrahimpur cluster of Rangareddy district is committed to judicious use of scarce resources such as groundwater by investing in technology as well as community capacity. It involved a series of consultations with borewell-owning farmers and their neighbours who did not have water sources to irrigate their lands. Initially, the two farmers who owned borewells were opposed to the idea. Project staff decided to repair a defunct borewell as a goodwill gesture, and approached the farmers again. By then, the farmers had begun seeing the benefits and agreed to share water, provided the project assisted the community in digging a few more borewells so that there was enough water to share across a large area.

This time, the project contacted NABARD for assistance. The bank responded by financing the digging of two borewells in the area, under its comprehensive land development programme. This raised the hopes of several farmers, including those who owned borewells, because with the pooling of water they could now irrigate patches of their dry fields that were currently beyond reach. Thus, year-long negotiations with the community to implement social regulations on groundwater usage finally bore fruit. Over 60 acres of land belonging to 18 households were brought under protective irrigation by laying a network of pipelines and borewells. The entire group of farmers has now agreed not to cultivate rabi paddy, and to share borewell water among themselves.

 

(Dr Sreenath Dixit and Dr B Venkateswarlu are scientists at the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010