A combined effort to deal with climate uncertainty, land degradation, and water scarcity is needed.
This year, the global community was alarmed by the prospects of global warming and climate change when the former United States Vice President Al Gore’s movie, The Inconvenient Truth, won the Academy Award. The movie sparked debates, but more importantly, brought global attention to the issue of climate change.
At the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), we believe climate change will make dryland agriculture even more risk-prone especially in the developing world. Thus, for farmers struggling under the burden of cultivating land under the ever-present threat of drought, floods, mid-season dry spells, land degradation, and water scarcity, such problems associated with climate change will have to be answered more frequently.
Unless the livelihoods and resource base of such vulnerable rural communities can be made more resilient, coping with climate change may be next to impossible for poor dryland farming communities. Working over decades with poor farmers in the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, ICRISAT’s research shows that a combined effort to deal with current climate uncertainty, land degradation, and water scarcity is the only way by which the resilience of these communities can be brought about.
With improved tools becoming available in studying climate uncertainty, it has now become possible for decision-makers and investors to formulate a development agenda integrating short, medium, and long-term timeframes. Short-term seasonal forecasting enables farmers and other stakeholders to plan more effectively and fine-tune their strategies for the coming season. Medium-term understanding enables them to predict the impact and profitability of improved agricultural practices. Long-term understanding helps them predict the likely impact of climate change on rain-fed farming systems, and their future development and productivity.
This integrated climate risk assessment and management framework is fundamental to ICRISAT’s collaborative research on managing climatic uncertainty and adapting to climate change. This will enable investors (governments, donors, researchers or farmers) to understand better the risks and opportunities and get greater returns from more diversified and targeted investments.
Overcoming land degradation
Land degradation, which is a persistent problem in the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, can be further worsened by climate change. ICRISAT has been working with partners for years on combating land degradation in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The following are some of ICRISAT’s effective interventions:
Desert Margins Programme: Working with five other Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other partners, it is a collaborative initiative among nine African countries — Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. This programme is guided by the principle that desertification in areas bordering deserts can be avoided and reversed by enhancing the resilience and biodiversity of the agro-ecosystem; and improving farmers’ livelihoods through more productive, profitable, and stable land management.
Fertilizer microdosing: Research has shown that poor soil fertility is a major food production constraint across much of the West African Sahel. When plants are malnourished, their roots cannot collect enough rainwater. Microdosing is the practice of providing the growing crop with the appropriate quantity of fertilizer at the right time. Microdosing is a technique that enables farmers to measure the right amount of fertilizers in the caps of soft drink or beer bottles and placing these along with the seed. This innovative technique has reintroduced fertilizer use in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Drylands Eco-Farm: An innovative trees-crops-livestock system for rain-fed crop production, it involves intercropping fast-growing trees with annual crops. Also included in the system are livestock that are appropriate for the agro-ecosystem. Profits from the eco-farms are three to five times higher than the current farming systems.
Increasing water scarcity
In agricultural research, water is often considered in two distinct categories. “Green water” represents the moisture contained in the soil profile from rain or irrigation, whereas “blue water” accounts for the run-off from rain or irrigation and contained in water bodies such as dams, rivers, lake, and aquifers. Climate change is expected to make some regions of the globe even drier — that is, make water even scarcer.
Lack of water is also the cause of major food crisis, like the one experienced in Niger because of drought in 2005. This type of crisis is a “green water” crisis, and is usually an extreme consequence of an erratic rainfall pattern in the semi-arid tropics. It is rendered more acute with current climate change trends, where soil moisture limits yield and eventually reduces food supply. Green water scarcity can be compensated by blue water if irrigation facilities and water are available. Unfortunately, given the limited volume of blue water available, the scope for increasing the area already under irrigation is limited. Agriculture in these areas will likely remain rain-fed.
At ICRISAT, we work to promote rain-fed agriculture in the drylands, and generate innovations that ensure food security and income generation, adapted to the limited green water availability, and capable of coping with extreme climatic conditions. Our research, which focusses on integrated genetic and natural resource management (using conventional and biotechnology-assisted crop improvement along with soil and water management), has been working to optimise both blue and green water, so that the dryland farmers can increase agricultural productivity.
ICRISAT’s watershed development programme, which has become a model for up-scaling in India, China, Vietnam, and Thailand, has optimised the conservation and use of blue water. While run-off water is harvested through small water conservation structures, the optimal utilisation of this resource is ensured through suitable crop rotation.
Working on generating more crop per drop of green water comes naturally for ICRISAT since its mandate crops are those that grow in the drylands — pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, pigeonpea, and groundnut. These crops have built-in capacities to grow in water scarce environments. However, ICRISAT’s continuing research efforts are to breed improved varieties and hybrids that can cope with lesser water availability.
Whenever climate change in a longer timeframe is discussed, there are global debates whether the changes in average temperatures, water availability, and crop growing conditions will actually occur or whether the claims are exaggerated.
Even while this debate continues, farmers in the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa face the day-to-day reality of climate uncertainty, land degradation, and water scarcity.
ICRISAT’s research empowers these farmers to meet present day uncertainties. Armed with the ability to deal with present day realities, the farmers of the drylands will find it easier to deal with future climate change, when it happens.
(The writer is Director-General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics [ICRISAT], headquartered at Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh.)