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.

Jayanta Dey/Reuters/File
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.

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.

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.

Reviving old traditions

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

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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