Climate change, drought, looming food and water crisis

Last Updated 10 September 2009, 18:47 IST

Intensification of drought, floods and cyclones is one of the predictable impacts of climate change and climate instability. The failure of monsoon in India and the consequent drought, has impacted two thirds of India, especially the bread basket of India’s fertile Gangetic plains. Bihar has had a 43 per cent rainfall deficit, Jharkhand — 47 per cent, Uttar Pradesh — 64 per cent, Haryana — 61 per cent, Punjab — 26 per cent, Himachal Pradesh — 63 per cent, Uttarakhand — 42 per cent.

India’s food security rests on the monsoon. Monsoon failure and widespread drought implies a deepening of the already severe food crisis triggered by trade liberalisation policies which has made India the capital of hunger. It also implies a deepening of the water crisis.

The monsoons recharge the groundwater and surface water systems. This year, because of drought there will be reduced recharge. Since 1966, as a consequence of the introduction of the Green Revolution model of water intensive chemical farming under World Bank and US pressure, India has over exploited her groundwater, creating a water famine.

In the 1970’s the World Bank gave massive loans to India to promote groundwater mining. It forced states like Maharashtra to stop growing water prudent millets like jowar which needs 300 mm of water and shift to water guzzling crops like sugarcane which needs 2,500 mm of water. In a region with 600mm rainfall and 10 per cent groundwater recharge, this is a recipe for water famine.

A new study led by Matthew Rodell of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland has shown water levels in north India have fallen by 1.6 inches per year, between August 2002 and August 2008. More than 109 cubic km of groundwater have disappeared from aquifers between 2002 and 2008.

Not only has water wasteful chemical agriculture mined groundwater, it has also mined soil fertility and contributed to climate change. Chemical fertilisers destroy the living processes of the soil and make soils more vulnerable to drought. Chemical fertilisers also produce nitrogen oxygen, a greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent the carbon dioxide.

The solution for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis, under which India is reeling, the same biodiversity based organic farming systems.

Biodiversity and soils are the most effective carbon sinks. They also help adapt to climate change and drought by increasing soil organic matter which increases the moisture holding capacity of soil, and hence provides drought proofing of agriculture.

Biodiverse organic farms increase

food security by increasing the resilience and reducing the climate vulnerability
of farming systems.
Biodiverse organic systems also address the water crisis. Firstly, production based on water prudent crops like millets reduces water demand. Secondly, organic systems use ten times less water than chemical systems. Thirdly, by transforming the soil into a water reservoir through increasing its organic matter content, biodiverse organic systems reduce irrigation demand and help conserve water in agriculture.

Market forces

The dominant paradigm of agriculture based on the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering is based on reducing biodiversity and reducing organic production to promote monocultures based on intensive inputs of chemicals, water, and fossil fuels. And as the crises deepens because of the non-sustainable practices, corporations that are the driving force behind the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering, try and transform the crisis into new marketing opportunities. Examples include the patenting of climate resilient traits that farmers have evolved over centuries and projecting this biopiracy as an ‘invention’.

In a recent article ‘Fight drought with Science’, Henry Miller has stated that “the first drought resistant crop, maize, is expected to be commercialised by 2010. If field testing goes well, India could be a potential market for this variety”.

What Miller fails to mention is that India has hundreds of thousands of drought resistant crops, some of which are conserved in and distributed from Navdanya’s community seed banks. These are the seeds farmers are using in this drought year. While cultivation of rice has gone down from 25.673 million ha to 19.13 million ha, the area under water prudent drought resistant nutritious crops, unfortunately called ‘coarse grains’, has gone up from 15.325 to 15.956 million ha. The biotechnology industry is clearly a laggard in breeding for drought resistance compared to centuries of breeding by India’s farmers. Miller also fails to mention that the genetically engineered drought resistant maize seed performs badly in normal years. This is not science.

Another example of corporate opportunism in this period of drought is the pushing of ‘Round-up’, a broad spectrum herbicide under ‘Zero-Tillage’ and ‘Conservation Tillage’ programmes. Round-up kills everything green.

The severe drought in India will force the government to act. It is vital that the government does not use this emergency to act as a marketer of GM seeds and Round-Up. The alternative is clear. It involves:

1. Conservation and large scale distribution of open pollinated varieties/open source seeds of water prudent crops.

2. The promotion of organic agriculture to increase climate resilience and food and water security.

3. Incentives to farmers for a shift from water guzzling green revolution agriculture to water conserving biodiverse organic farming. Farmers did not create the green revolution. They should not be punished for its consequences. They need to be encouraged to create alternatives.

While long-term ecological security, food security and water security needs these transition, the immediate emergency needs the provisioning of food and water to the drought hit areas.

(Published 10 September 2009, 18:47 IST)

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