Changing habits to tackle climate change

If you can’t counter a disaster, learn to live with it. Golok Bhuyan of Borbari village in Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited island in eastern Assam has followed this formula to adapt to the growing impact of climate change.

The 49-year-old farmer has switched from a normal variety of paddy to the flood-resistant boro variety since 2008 when severe floods wreaked havoc on the island surrounded by River Brahmaputra and destroyed paddy cultivation, the major crop for a majority of its 1.6-lakh residents. “Boro paddy not only resists floods, but its production is also about four quintals more in every bigha of land. The taste of boro rice is not great but we decided to switch because of high floods between February and July,” Bhuyan said.

Flood-resistant paddy 

Annual floods almost every year have prompted most farmers in Borbari and nearby villages to take up the new flood-resistant varieties of paddy such as Swarnamasuri, Lachit, Kanaklata and Ranjit. These are being popularised by Krishi Vigyan Kendras of the Assam agriculture department in flood-prone areas.

They are also increasingly going for mustard cultivation during winter to make up for the crop loss that floods cause during the Rabi season. “Agriculture habits in the entire Majuli have undergone a massive change due to floods. More and more people are now going for flood-resistant varieties of paddy, mustard and fishery. Since our government has failed to solve the flood problem and we can’t avoid crop damage, we are adapting to climate-resistant ways to cope with the impact on our livelihoods,” Bhuyan’s neighbour Krishna Saikia said. Many are increasing the height of their ponds to avoid damage to their fisheries.

The floods in 1998 not only wreaked havoc on the 350-odd sq km island but also raised the bed of the Brahmaputra.

Recent reports of climate vulnerability assessment for the Indian Himalayan region, sponsored by the department of science and technology, Government of India, identified Assam as a state most vulnerable to climate change impact. Least area under irrigation, least forest area available per 1,000 rural households and the least number of farmers taking loans were some of the major drivers of climate change impact in the state. Apart from addressing such push factors, adaptability was identified as one of the ways forward for the state.

Triggered by global warming, the melting glaciers of the Himalayas are increasing the intensity of floods in the region, including Assam, the brunt of which is being borne by farmers in Majuli island in the form of floods, sedimentation, riverbank erosion and crop loss. 

Floating cultivation

As vegetables are easily damaged during floods and rains, many are also going for the cultivation of vegetables on floating beds to ensure food supply during the floods. The South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE), an NGO, introduced the hydroponic cultivation in Majuli, which is practised in flood-prone areas in neighbouring Bangladesh.

“We have provided 300 floating trays so far and are helping farmers grow leafy vegetables, both for consumption during floods and sale. A farmer can cultivate 2-3 kg of brahmi per week in 10 floating trays. One kg of brahmi is sold at Rs 300 per kg in the wholesale market. Some have cultivated 1.5 kg ladies finger in a week in 10 trays. Initially, they were reluctant, but now more and more farmers, even women, are coming to us,” said Saben Kalita, a community coordinator of SAFE in Majuli. “There are water bodies and ponds in most houses in Majuli. Farmers are using floating trays (24 square feet each) to grow vegetables, and to rear fish and ducks together,” he said.

“Since 38% of Majuli remains completely submerged and 23% remains partially underwater for six-seven months, we are trying to ensure sustainable livelihood and food security for marginal farmers. Our effort is to prepare the community to live with disaster with less impact on their lives and livelihood,” Dipayan Dey, chairman of SAFE said.

Prabhat Doley does not know much about climate change. But last year the auto-rickshaw driver at Kamalabari decided to switch over to an electric three-wheeler as he heard that diesel vehicles are polluting the air in Majuli, country’s only island district.

“It takes about Rs 100 more to recharge the battery daily compared to the diesel. But we have to do this bit to check pollution. Also, the foreign tourists coming here during the winter prefer electric cars,” the 48-year-old driver, belonging to the Mishing community, the second biggest community in the island, said.

Carbon-neutral district

The district administration has also installed solar lights along the newly renovated 5-km road between Kamalabari and Gormur as an alternative to the conventional energy source. Solar power is one of the components of a project of Assam government that aims to make Majuli country’s first carbon-neutral district by 2020.

After Assam government declared Majuli a district in 2016, it announced several infrastructure development projects such as better roads, and modern vessels to cross the Brahmaputra. The district’s carbon-neutral project seeks to counter the impact on Majuli’s climate. A ferry takes about an hour to cross the Brahmaputra from Nematighat in Jorhat district to reach Kamalabari.

“We have distributed LPG cooking stoves among the economically weaker sections so that they don’t use firewood and add to air pollution. The electricity department is installing a solar microgrid to provide cleaner energy. We are trying to convince people to retrofit their scooters into electric ones, convert the brick kilns into zigzag technology, plant more trees to compensate the trees to be felled for infrastructure development projects,” said Swapam Mehera of IORA Ecological Solutions, a consultancy firm hired by the state government for the carbon-neutral project. 

A baseline emission assessment conducted in sectors such as energy, transport, residential, commercial and agriculture projected estimated emission of greenhouse gas (without considering tree cover) in 2016 to be 342,531.94 tonnes CO2-e (carbon dioxide equivalent) and with tree cover, it was estimated to be 208,358.33 tonnes CO2-e.

In 2020, the greenhouse gas emission without tree cover is projected to be 378,594.24 tonnes CO2-e and with tree cover around 241,965.43 tonnes CO2-e.

 

(This story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship programme)

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