Farms dry up in western India


There has been little dew during winter in the semi-arid regions of northern and eastern Gujarat in the last few years. The result – farmers have had far less output from their winter crops. The summers have been hotter than anyone can remember. More crucially, the southwest monsoon that provides over 80% of the annual rainfall to south Asia has been delayed most years during the last decade and a half. And when it has rained, it has rained more intensely, sometimes washing away the crops and often running downhill before much of it could percolate underground.

These are some of the testimonies gathered by a group of NGOs – Delhi Platform, the International Union of Foodworkers, the Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union, Bandhkaam Mazdoor Sanghatan and Disha. Members of these NGOs visited four districts in the state in western India in late November and early December 2010 – Banaskantha and Sabarkantha in northern Gujarat and Dahod and Panchmahal in the eastern part of the state.

The NGOs have just published their findings in a report called “Where Have All the Seasons Gone? Current Impacts of Climate Change in Gujarat”. They concentrated on the effects of global warming on small and marginal farmers, and found that reduced yields of winter crops meant many farmers having to leave their lands fallow. Those without access to well water in eastern Gujarat were particularly hard-hit by this, and they tended to be from the poorest households. The region has a predominantly tribal population.

The report says warmer winters are also resulting in increased pest attacks in both regions. Consequently, farmers are being forced to incur a further burden of higher input and pesticide costs.

Irregular rainfall is harming agriculture in different ways. The cotton, groundnut and potato crops were devastated last year due to unusually heavy rain till late November. The monsoon usually lasts from June to September, and the agricultural cycle is geared to this. The loss of the cotton crop meant the average landless agricultural labourer had 30 to 40 days’ less work last year, and these are people well below the poverty line, who live on the margin of starvation anyway.

With the water running off the surface faster, aquifers are not being recharged as well as before, in a situation where extraction of groundwater has accelerated with the increasing cultivation of cash crops that are more water intensive. The resulting fall in the water table means poorer farmers who cannot afford the more expensive pump sets are suffering the most.

In Gujarat, milk production has long been central to household economies, particularly among the poor. The researchers found that is now being hit as both local and hybrid cows are affected by heat stress. At the same time, there is less free fodder around the villages, so the fat content in milk is going down, and the farmers get less money for it.

In almost all semi-arid regions of India and Pakistan, the winter crop – mainly maize – has been crucial for the nutrition of the poorer farmers, as they often keep this for themselves. The reduction maize yield has hot the poorest particularly hard, the NGO representatives found.

The report says the capacity to absorb the impacts of climate change is crucially dependent on two factors in any agrarian setting: land ownership and access to water. A third factor, in parts of Gujarat, is animal husbandry, given its centrality for household economies.

Coming to ways in which people can be helped adapt to climate change effects, the report suggests compensation for workers due to loss of work, and to farmers for loss in crop yields. It also talks of the importance to build more small water harvesting structures such as ponds and check dams. According to the authors of the report, global warming has revived “two crucial wider questions without which no meaningful long-term solution is possible – equity, and connected to it, reviving the notion of the commons.”

The authors say the notion of equity must be extended from landholdings to access to water, more specifically groundwater.