Towards a holistic approach in managing water crisis in dryland agriculture

K. Shivashankar

Water is precious for sustenance of human and animal life and for growth and development of plants, whether in the form of soil moisture or surface water (as rivers, lakes, tanks and ponds) or as ground water (as aquifers, borewells, tube-wells or dug wells) or as precipitation (rainfall and snow) all dependent on “hydrological cycle”.  Rainfall and snow decide the nature of vegetation, the crops that are grown and the livelihoods that are seen in a region.  Any development has to integrate these four forms of water with rainfall and snow as critical early inputs without over exploitation but with sound principles of sustainable use of water.

India receives an average annual rainfall of 852 mm for the whole country, which could be 1200 mm for high rainfall years.  The total precipitation around 4000 billion cubic meters falling on the land surface.  Nearly a quarter of it goes to the sea and only 690 bcm is used.  The ground water is 432 bcm, which is not over exploited in some states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. As per United Nation Standard, India would be a deficit country in 25 years with average availability of water falling below 1700 cm per head per year. In addition, the increasing global warming is contributing to declining soil organic matter with increases in potential evapotranspiration (PET) and greater mineralization of organic matter.

Rural India in drought prone areas suffers to a great extent.  Most severe droughts occurred in 1972 and 1987 and droughts of lesser intensity during 1965, 1968, 1990, 1995.  It is also common to experience 3 to 4 successive droughts in some parts of the country or the other but the most chronic states in this respect are Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This year, though food production has slumped from the targeted figure of 230 m. tonnes to 182.5 m tonnes, yet irrigated agriculture has gone upto  85 m.ha providing 65% of  the total food grain  output.  The potential of irrigated agriculture is now raised from earlier figure of 113.5 m.ha to 148 m.ha by 2016 which shows tremendous pressure on water resources in future. River water utilization in the country has been most inefficient.  There are over 4200 dams in India and more are being planned and constructed at huge costs, human displacement and settlement problems besides affecting an irreversible damage to the ecosystems.  30 major river links with about 36 dams would be perhaps executed as per National River Network plans being debated.  However, it is the rainfed and drought affected farmer who has been least benefitted by all the policies and technologies and still continues to strive hard to eke out a living. Have the ‘Dryland Technologies’ initiated in 1970’s and the “Watershed Development Concepts” being adopted since 1980’s given adequate measures of solving water crisis in these areas?  Have they improved the yields of rainfed crops abundantly?  What is the coverage of area under these technologies?  We often hear of drought and drought-proofing measures taken by the Government to mitigate the hardships faced by dryland and drought-affected farmers.  Are there any viable but permanent mechanisms to mitigate crop losses and animal life during drought?

Our experience in the past

Watershed development, though initiated two decades ago, is yet to make a big impact on the overall development and in alleviating poverty.  The principles are based on Kansas Models of watershed with a common drain and the objectives have been mainly on optimizing use of land, water and vegetation. Earlier, soil and water conservation work was largely construction of contour bunds mostly at government expenses, with no farmers participation.

Secondly, there was only a piece meal approach and no integrated effort from all the concerned development departments such as agriculture, horticulture, sericulture, animal husbandary, fisheries, poultry, rural development and panchayati raj, marketing etc. in  involving the farmers and monitoring the programmes for sustainable  yield and income enhancement with least damage to the natural ecosystems.  Most of the time was spent n administrative work rather than field based work.

Thirdly, most of the government watershed programmes are sponsored by external agencies and as such these programmes are bounded by their norms. One more glaring lacuna was that there was’nt enough technical guidance from the scientific community to these programmes.

With all these limitations, the government watershed programmes, have hardly made any dent in the overall improvement of dryland areas. What can mere land configurations and other soil conservations do for small and marginal farmers or to what avail is it all the landless?  In our dryland agriculture approach and research, we have not moved further except to refine our earlier findings.  No doubt the work on bunding contour cultivation, terraces, zing terrace and strip cultivation, vegetative barriers, gully control etc., have paved the way for higher yields, but mostly on research farms and some progressive farming situations. Most improvements in recent years have been largely through introduction of improved varieties.

What needs to be done?

Watersheds programmes should be thoroughly integrated with sustainable dryland technologies already developed to conserve water. It is here that the water harvesting practices can be of great use.  Unless the soil is made to hold moisture through in–situ practices, and biomass improvements, soil cover, mulches, crop residue incorporations and farming systems to utilize a variety of organic resources, the situation could be same as of today with 40% of the precipitation going as run – off in the farmers’s fields.  According to LEISA studies there are three systems of water harvesting namely external catment area  for collection of run off  from watershed; storage and agricultural use of flood water; and catchment  and use within the area.  We in India have concentrated on the third aspect neglecting the first two systems.

With no integration of all dryland technologies and with a clear inability to find adequate organic sources from dryland crops it is a vicious circle of ending with low yields and income.  Therefore, there is an urgent need to raise organic matter levels in soil through biomass generation to conserve water in-situ, and integrate the existing technologies with farming systems.  It is impossible to think of stabilizing yields and making the small and marginal farms sustainable and profitable only when a whole lot of farming systems research (FSR) takes place for varied agro – climatic zones.  The current dryland research should attempt land treatment and configurations so as to conserve water and introduce new crops on agro-techniques viewing it as a Sustainable Farming System with live stock, poultry, piggery, mushroom – cultivation, mulberry and silk production etc., as equally important components as that of crop production.

Management of soil and moisture through integrated farming systems has been followed traditionally by farmers since time immemorial.  The paradox is that in the name of new technology we have succeeded in making farmers leave their traditional approach and   wisdom on sustainable practices on the farm and we have now been trying to re-introduce these very concepts when they do not have any means or wherewithal to try them!  For example, Sampige, a small village in Tumkur district, which had 260 carts and that many pairs of bullocks and cows, today, has hardly 60 carts making farmers dependent on organic matter from outside.  Two critical disturbances here are: (i) loss of available organic matter as FYM and crop residues and (ii) inadequate attention to fodder crops.  It is grass cover and fodder crops which form an integral part of overcoming drought, though indirectly.  The chain of  sustainability is broken when this aspect  is neglected.  Emphasis needs to be laid on reviewing soil organic matter, conserve in–situ moisture and generate and recycle biomass. Suggenahalli is a fine example of a village where permanent fodder crops have been maintained by a few which are protecting the cattle from being sold away at “distress prices” during a drought.

Apart from various practices discussed in soil and water conservation, it is important that some measures are taken to lay down rules among the users of these resources.  When large areas have been treated to reduce water loss, to store water for critical months in the soil and underground and in renovated tanks and wells, it is not fair to allow cultivation of water intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane. Sugarcane cultivation on vast areas in Ralegaon Siddhi, cultivation of grapes and other water intensive cash crops in Bijapur district facing water scarcity, raising paddy and irrigated horticultural crops at the expense of drying tanks and other water bodies in Kolar district, are only a few examples of mismanagement of available water. One example on resource management in China, is worth quoting.  With only 550 mm of rainfall in Heibi province, in a pilot watershed of 26,000 ha, it has been made possible to raise one light irrigated crop in dry season to an extent of 43% of the area.  Strict common resource management, safe guards against illegal pump operations and collective aquifers management have brought the ground water levels to 3 meters below ground level in 3 years.  Ground water levels to 3 metres below ground level in 3 years.  Ground water available between 3 and 10 meters or any designated level below ground level along would be utilized during the year.

Most importantly, involvement of communities in all the programmes builds ownership amongst them and helps in sustaining the activities. Look at the fine example of Madhya Pradesh Government which created an additional water impounding capacity of nearly 10,000 lakh cubic meters at a cost of Rs. 415 crores under the “Paris Roks Abhiyan’ with about Rs. 100 crores contributed by the people themselves. This is a shining example of community participation in water conservation.  When people contribute, either funds or labour, they will be the responsible owners of the wealth they create. In contrast, mere Government interventions and investments borrowed from external sources do not reach the poorest of the poor, the marginal farmers, the tail enders and the landless.

In our eagerness to create water resources in dry areas, sustainable utilization of groundwater for the watershed as a whole, should receive attention.  Punitive measures of pulling out paddy, sugarcane and other water guzzler crops need to legalised.  Rainwater should be harvested in the fields as well as in all locations with feasibilities of recharging a great portion of it to wells and aquifers.   The percolation tanks need to be vigorously developed and spread across. All this would be essential to manage the storage and transmission of water to and from aquifers in the entire watershed.  The current level of management of watersheds has to be upgraded with expertise in these aspects.  Added to this, the urban conglomerate which compete fiercely with the water availability in the rural set up from rivers, tanks and aquifers should take up rainwater harvesting (RWH) which can ease the water scarcity on the whole ecosystem. Making existing percolation tanks, desilting riverbeds, water channels, tanks, building new water structures need cyclic management and these should form a part and parcel of watershed management rather than mere advocacy on land configurations and crop oriented watershed development.  The future should be in the hands of people, the participatory farmers and the dedicated well versed watershed development scientists, who can see the water and land issues in totality and act quickly for the common good of the society.

Retd Professor & Head, Dept.  of  Agronomy / Forestry, Vice – President, APOF

1359, 9th cross, J.P.Nagar I Phase, Bangalore 560 078

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