Drought looms, soil health needs care

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is reported to be reviewing its rainfall prediction as the monsoon rains appears to be falling short of normal. Skymet, a private weather forecaster, has already revised its prediction of July-September rainfall shortfall to 92% of long-term normal. Such a condition hints at the possibility of a drought-like, or even a full-blown drought, affecting the agrarian sector.

One of the most obvious effects of drought is the lack of nutrient uptake by crops, as water is the medium transporting nutrients from soil to plants. Lack of soil moisture and higher soil temperature impacts soil microbial activities and nutrient processing, both of which are important for plant use for biomass and grain production.

Droughts also affect soil organic matter decomposition and increase the release of carbon dioxide. To moderate drought’s effect on soil health, practices such as crop residue and cover crops are recommended as they enhance soil health by improving the soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties.

Crop residues can provide important benefits like improving soil moisture, increased soil water infiltration as well as recharge of the sub-soil profile. Crop residues also moderate soil temperature, acting as an insulation layer. Cover crops provide many critical cumulative effects from previous years to ward off drought conditions. They promote better soil biological and physical conditions, increase soil water infiltration and recharge of the soil profile. They also contribute to the increase of the soil organic matter pool, which is essential for building soil health.

On the other hand, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, endorsed by the global community with single exception of the Donald Trump-led US, aims to work towards a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The Paris accord can be said to have heralded a new phase as it marks a generational change in international governance on global climate change policy matters. It has shifted the paradigm from negotiated, legally-binding targets for reducing Green House Gas emissions to a system of non-binding, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or Targets (INDCs), supported by a binding but non-punitive transparency system.

Proponents of this have argued that a system of binding emission targets with strict penalties might sound good on paper but is difficult to enforce in international order. Rather, it has brought in an approach based on a country’s actual capacities and its ability to determine its own target, and pushing countries to do more.

One such initiative for individual nations is in the form of the ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative, launched by the French government. The ‘4 per 1000’ was launched at the COP21 at Paris with an aspiration to increase global soil organic matter stocks by 4 per 1000 (or 0.4%) per year as a compensation for the global emissions of greenhouse gases by anthropogenic sources. 

The ‘4 per 1000’ initiative aims to boost carbon storage in agricultural soils by 0.4% each year. Thus, it aims at two most important objectives: one, to help mitigate climate change by sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil; two, to increase food security by means of increased food production as a result of healthy soil environment. Higher soil organic content reduces the need for synthetic plant nutrients like urea and other agrochemicals as well. Thus, this initiative directly promotes three Sustainable Development Goals, SDG #2 ‘Zero hunger’, SDG #13 ‘Climate action’ and SDG #15 ‘Life on land’, and helps several other goals.

India is a signatory to the Paris accord and has submitted its first report of INDC as well. The price tag for implementation of India’s INDC has been estimated by the Government of India as at least $2.5 trillion at 2014-15 prices. One of the key goals in India’s INDC is earmarking of reduced emission intensity of GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from the 2005 level. The generation of electricity from renewable energy sources is the path chosen by India and it aims to generate about 40% power from non-fossil fuels by 2030. Progress on this front is impressive so far.

For instance, it has been reported that for the first time ever, Karnataka has this year generated more power from renewable sources than from non-renewable sources. But Karnataka also has the notorious distinction of facing drought or drought-like conditions in some districts for 13 out of the last 17 years, and the area falling to drought conditions is increasing. Indeed, on Tuesday, the Karnataka government declared 86 taluks across 23 districts as drought-hit following deficient rainfall. Marginal and small farmers, constituting the majority of farmers, are most vulnerable. There is a clear need to develop drought-proofing measures.

The ‘4 per 1000’ initiative deserves attention from our policymakers, agricultural scientists and district administrations as it will help reduce the vulnerability of farmers to drought and to make the state drought-proof. It will also empower farmers to increase farm production and consequently farmers’ household incomes.

(The writer is associated with Karnataka State Women’s University, Vijayapura, Karnataka)

  • Soil
  • soil health
  • Drought
  • Paris Climate Agreement
  • Climate Change
  • INDCs