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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.

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The farmers of Nagenahalli may not know much about global climate change, but they do know about changing weather. 

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READ THIS Monitor Focus story on drought and food prices.

Rainfall records for Nagenahalli show that while the total annual rainfall has stayed the same over the past 30 years, the number of rainy days has fallen, and dry spells lasting more than 15 days have tripled in the same period. “Bursts of torrential rain aren’t of much use to farmers,” says L B Naik, the local program coordinator. Much of the water washes away, eroding the nutrient-rich topsoil.

Soil and water conservation measures in the form of ponds, tanks, and trenches are thus a big part of the adaptation program. Farmers are also encouraged to plant a variety of crops, including a millet variety developed for shorter growing seasons. Tamarind, gooseberry, and mango tree saplings were distributed. “The fruit boosts incomes for the farmers, while the trees nourish the soil,” says Mr. Naik.

Many of these ideas aren’t new – they revitalize traditional practices. Nagenhalli has old rainwater harvesting structures including ponds and tanks. These had fallen into disuse over the years, as drilling deep wells became possible and popular. Eventually, excess demand lowered groundwater tables.

Similarly, many farmers moved to monoculture crops after high-yield rice and wheat seeds became available following the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Rice and wheat sell for high prices but consume a lot of water, another reason for groundwater depletion.

“Even better-off farmers with a large-scale monocrop can be wiped out in one bad monsoon,” says Kunke. Her group is encouraging farmers to return to older seeds. “We find the traditional, indigenous seeds to be more resilient and diverse,” she says.

The new initiatives also build on older watershed development programs. A big lesson from those projects was the importance of “building support systems in terms of grassroots institutions and infrastructure,” says NICRA’s Dixit. That’s why the adaptation program includes setting up a village seed bank and an equipment rental center, as well as a “ Village Climate Risk Management Committee,” to help keep the ideas alive after the project ends.

Finding new solutions

During drought, Venkatappah has seen some benefits to caching water. The pond he built captured enough water to irrigate an early crop of asters. “The yield was bigger than the entire crop last year,” he says.

But the absence of a second round of rains in September means that his remaining crops are still at risk. Like most Indian farmers, he has no access to insurance.

Existing conservation measures may help with climate adaptation in the short-term, says ICRISAT's Wani from the Crop Research Institute. But in the long term, scientists and policymakers will need to collaborate to find new solutions.

“To tackle climate challenges, the science must be in place,” he says. “Who is going to tell farmer what is going to happen next year?” Crop growth, for instance, is changing in ways not fully understood – crops such as coconut and groundnut may benefit from warmer temperatures.

Some programs are trying new approaches. The NICRA project has installed local weather stations in villages. Kunke’s group has roped in the Indian Meteorological Department to produce detailed advisories for 41 villages, based on locally gathered data on weather and crops.

“We want to combine the best of both worlds,” she says. “Technology, which is modern, and traditional knowledge, which understands local ecosystems.”

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