CLIMATE-SMART agriculture is again in the spotlight, courtesy COP26. Agriculture affects the largest section of the global population and climate change is affecting the sector in numerous ways as the increasing temperatures affect rainfall patterns, glaciers melt, sea levels rise and water demand grow. Water is the lifeline of agriculture and climate change impacts water availability.
Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water in many countries, including India. That puts additional pressure on agriculture as water availability is adversely affected and water demand goes up. There is no doubt that demand side management measures are required in agriculture’s use of water, but the question is how do we achieve that? Mere lecturing will not help, as it affects the livelihoods of the largest section of India’s population.
- Helps farmers build resilience to adapt to climate change
- Sustainably increases agri production and farm income
- Reduces emissions of greenhouse gases
Among the key issues concerning water consumption in agriculture is soil moisture. For the farmer’s crop and livelihood security, the moisture in the soil is the most important source of water as it is directly available to the roots of the crop. The more the carbon or organic content in the soil, the more is the soil’s capacity to hold moisture and the longer is the duration for which the roots continue to get water from the soil.
To achieve more carbon in the soil, the use of organic fertilisers is an effective option. Unfortunately, the government’s policies and plans have few provisions to achieve this, particularly when compared with the kind of resources allocated for chemical fertiliser use. If we could effectively incentivise greater use of organic fertilisers, it can help in multiple ways. Agricultural residue and other organic matter, which is currently a nuisance in many cases, would become a resource. The burning of paddy residue is one such example; the millions of tonnes of sewage flowing in rivers across the country is another. The increased carbon content in the soil would mean much less carbon in the air, which would become a massive climate change mitigation exercise. Similarly, if we can ensure that the organic fertiliser that can be generated at sewage treatment plants is used by the farmers, possibly through incentives initially, it can also help improve the state of our rivers and in turn improve the availability of cleaner water.
One of the impacts of climate change is the increased gap between two rainfall events and high-intensity rainfall when it does occur. Increased soil moisture-holding capacity would help in both cases: provide the roots access to water when the gap between two rainfall events increases and absorb more of the rainfall when it does rain. Thus, increased soil moisture can help farmers adapt to the vagaries of rainfall induced by climate change to a significant extent.
Another similarly win-win solution can be the increased adoption of a set of practices called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) for paddy cultivation and System of Crop Intensification (SCI) when a similar set of practices is used for other crops. Under SRI, rice seedlings are transplanted at a younger age, and are planted much farther apart, with just one seedling allowed at one spot, and paddy is not cultivated with standing water, but irrigated as per plant requirements. SRI gives best results in organic conditions. This set of practices allows much larger space for the growth of the roots, thus also allowing healthier plants and higher yields. It reduces the seed requirements by up to 90%, the water requirement by up to 50% and yet can lead to much higher yields of up to 8 tonnes per hectare of paddy or higher. A similar set of practices in other crops can also provide similar results. This has been practised in India (and many other countries) for decades now, and has also been recognised by state and Central governments, but mostly without sufficient commitment or enthusiasm. This set of practices needs to be incentivised with pilot demonstration plots in each village, particularly in North West India.
The SRI/SCI crops survive much longer in conditions of above or below normal rains to a significant extent. With much lower inputs per unit output, the SRI/SCI crops have much lower carbon footprint and much higher adaptation capacity. Since paddy is cultivated without standing water in SRI, it can hugely reduce methane emissions from paddy lands. When SRI crops are cultivated with lower or no chemical fertilisers, it also reduces nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxide is another highly potent global warming gas.
It is now an accepted reality that over two-thirds of irrigated lands are getting irrigation (as also water in other sectors like rural and urban domestic use, industrial and commercial use) from groundwater across India. Groundwater has been the water lifeline for the country for at least four decades, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future as well. It is also an equally striking reality that our groundwater use is not sustainable. While groundwater use has been going up, the recharge has been going down as the recharging systems get systematically destroyed. Even today, India’s water resource establishment continues to push for more large dams and large projects, not realising that these are working as force multipliers during disasters that visit us with greater frequency, intensity and spread.
The best and possibly the only option we have to sustain the groundwater lifeline is to harvest rain and make it the central theme of our water resource policies, plans, projects and practices. We need to recognise and protect the existing groundwater recharging mechanisms and increase their efficacy and spread. Local regulation of groundwater is our best bet. Such bottoms-up regulation would require that communities are legally, institutionally, technically and financially empowered to regulate groundwater use at village/ward/aquifer levels and only residual functions will go to the next wider level. Hundreds of examples are available from across India where such local regulation is successful, but our government is yet to accept this reality.
We also need to work towards reducing the demand for water in agriculture; appropriate cropping pattern is an obvious priority here. But we need to factor in the livelihoods of millions of people. Unless the government inspires confidence, there is little scope for change. The current standoff should be resolved with the withdrawal of the controversial farm laws.
While declaring that India has not signed the COP26 agreement on sustainable agriculture, the Agriculture Ministry claimed that the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) was already operating in India. The trouble is that the NMSA or the National Water Mission are essentially a collection of business-as-usual activities with at best an addition of band-aid schemes. These do not reflect the realisation that we need to break from the past (in the right direction, not the wrong one) and focus on the priorities.
The author is the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)
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