Scientific strategies can save dryland agriculture

ICRISAT is helping dryland farmers mitigate drought Copyright: CGIAR/ICRISAT

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Climate change will make Indian dryland agriculture harder, but a scientific strategy offers real hope, says ICRISAT head William D. Dar.

Analysts sometimes describe India’s agriculture as a gamble with monsoons. About 60 per cent of India’s farms depend on these rains, making them crucial for India’s agriculture, which accounts for a sixth of the country’s economic output.

But rainfall patterns are likely to shift with climate change. The monsoons may be delayed and unpredictable rains and heavy downpours are likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

India is already feeling related effects, including warmer temperatures for longer periods and long dry spells during the cropping season.

The World Bank has suggested that India will see a fall in major dryland crop yields from Andhra Pradesh and that rice production in Orissa’s flood-prone coastal regions could drop by 12 per cent due to climate change. These changes will affect everyone but particularly the poorest of the poor.

Yet the perennial gamble can still be weighted in farmers’ favour. Science-based strategies being developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and its partners can greatly help vulnerable dryland farming communities cope with the impacts of climate change, including drought.

Four steps to security

ICRISAT’s studies in India’s dryland villages since 1975 show poverty is directly linked to water availability and that land degradation exacerbates the problem.

But a drought mitigation strategy, developed by ICRISAT and partners, can break this unholy nexus. Informed by science, it is based on four key activities.

First is developing drought-tolerant and climate change-ready crops to match available growing seasons and low soil moisture. ICRISAT’s genebank, with almost 120,000 germplasm samples collected from 144 countries, is the world’s biggest repository for the genetic traits required to develop drought-tolerant crops.

Supported by the Indian government, ICRISAT has created an advanced biotechnology laboratory to enhance breeding on drought tolerance in key crops. And, with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state university partners, ICRISAT has developed and released varieties of sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut that are all more drought-tolerant than currently-grown varieties.

Second is pre-emptive action to replace vulnerable crops with more drought-tolerant ones. Fast-growing crops thrive and yield well even when water may become scarce, as they mature before soil moisture gets depleted. Farmers in sorghum growing areas, for example, could plant pearl millet to escape the onset of drought.

Third is efficiently managing natural resources to arrest land degradation, conserve soil moisture and harvest water during the rainy season for supplemental irrigation.

Fourth is empowering stakeholders by building capacity, enabling rural institutions and formulating policies that support dryland agriculture. Capacity building, in the form of knowledge sharing and strategic partnerships, lets people accumulate valuable ‘social capital’. But institutional mechanisms for accessing markets and credit, rural infrastructure and other support services are also needed.

ICRISAT also recommends farmers grow an array of crops, together with rearing livestock and having other activities that generate income. This can enhance farm income when times are good and lessen the risks of total crop failure if drought strikes.

Such science-based strategies have already been shown to be effective. A pilot project at Kothapally in Andhra Pradesh has helped improve livelihoods through community watershed management. Its success has led to the project being repeated in 240 micro-watersheds in India and other Asian countries, directly benefiting 250,000 people.

Points for policymakers

With climate change likely to exacerbate water scarcity, countries need to efficiently manage their water resources. This means, among other things, immediately formulating and implementing policies and programmes to support dryland agriculture. In particular, policymakers must:

1. significantly increase public investment in dryland agriculture, including agricultural research and rural infrastructure;
2. develop sophisticated techniques for predicting and forecasting the monsoons in the context of climate change;
3. enable collective action and rural institutions for agriculture and natural resource management;
4. rehabilitate degraded lands and diversify livelihood systems for landless and vulnerable groups;
5. recharge depleted groundwater aquifers and enforce strong regulations on groundwater extraction;
6. clearly define and enforce water rights in watershed communities;
7. roll out the community watershed management model;
8. price water and power to more accurately reflect their opportunity costs;
9. support water-saving options such as drip irrigation and dryland crops; and
10. include dryland crops in the minimum support price scheme.

Substantial investments in improved water management and new technology, along with appropriate policy and institutional innovations, can significantly increase agricultural productivity.

India should start investing now for the long-term sustainability of its farming sector, particularly in dryland agriculture. Doing so will enable India’s farmers to win their gamble with the monsoons for good. And Indian dryland agriculture would become a beacon for the rest of the world.

William D. Dar is director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

This opinion is based on an article published in The Hindu.