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India tests ways to help farmers cope with climate change

Concerns about how climate change may be affecting India are bringing fresh urgency – and funding – to longstanding challenges in sustainable agriculture.

By Correspondent / December 7, 2012

A farmer works in a cabbage field on the outskirts of Agartala, capital of India's northeastern state of Tripura in November. A number of new initiatives in India are testing ways to help farmers cope with climate change.

Jayanta Dey/Reuters/File

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Nagenahalli, India

Like his father, Venkatappah has spent his life growing rice and vegetables on two acres of land in this village three hours from Bangalore. Harvesting a good crop from these dry, rocky slopes has become tougher in recent years as the monsoon rains have become more erratic.

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Rainfall was poor last year, and worse this past summer. “There was a lot of rain in a few days, then there was nothing for a long time,” says Mr. Venkatappah, who uses only one name. 

This year, however, he hoped that a new government project would help him avert the worst. With the aid of officials, Venkatappah dug ponds upland to catch and store rainwater, scooped trenches and bunds around his fields to help conserve the run-off, and diversified his crops to lower his risks.

A number of new initiatives in India are testing ways to help farmers like Venkatappah cope with changing weather as concerns about climate change bring fresh urgency – and funding – to longstanding challenges in sustainable agriculture.

The biggest of these efforts is the National Initiative for Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA), a $63-million government pilot program covering 130 villages including Nagenahalli. Like the other projects, it promotes water and soil conservation and tries to improve access to better seeds and infrastructure as well as modern weather and crop data.

“The aim is to offer a model for reducing the vulnerability of farmers” in drought or flood prone areas, says Sreenath Dixit, a principle scientist and coordinator for the NICRA program.

Projected increases in temperature and variable rainfall are expected to most affect farmers in developing countries like India, where the majority of people are still employed in agriculture and most farms depend on monsoon rains for irrigation.

Small farmers are especially vulnerable as they lack the resources to cope with an unexpected drought or flood.

“It’s not about fail safe [measures] but ‘safe fail,’” says Radha Kunke of the Watershed Organization Trust, which runs a climate adaptation program in 53 villages in western and central India. “Things can fail but in such a way that it does not cause devastation.”

Agriculture has received relatively little attention in international climate agreements, and much of that has focused on the sector's greenhouse-gas emissions. Only 4.5 percent of the 3,380 climate mitigation projects undertaken in 2011 under the Clean Development Mechanism were related to agriculture, according to the UN-funded Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

“Agriculture is still considered a sideshow in the climate arena,” said Bruce Campbell, head of CGIAR’s climate change research program, in a statement calling for "global action to ensure food security under climate change.”

In India, crop yields need to increase by 30 to 50 percent in the next 20 years to keep pace with its growing population, according to a government report. But a temperature increase of one degree Celsius could significantly bring down wheat and soy yields in the same period, while more erratic rainfall may reduce rice yields in some regions.

Without intervention, “it will be difficult to bridge the yield gaps under climate change scenarios,” says Suhas Wani, a senior scientist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semiarid Tropics.

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