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Climate-wise techniques help Indian farmers face drought

Story by USAID publications June 4th, 2016

Every year since Naresh Bediya was a child, monsoon rains have flooded the small plot of land along the side of his family’s mud brick home so that his rice seedlings can be planted and grow to their full height.

It’s an annual transformation of reddish brown soil to a velvety green.

For his family of eight in the eastern Indian village of Manduadih in Jharkhand state of India, monsoon season was life giving.
In recent years, the 50-year-old farmer has noticed a change. There are fewer rainy days and long dry spells cause cracks to form in the earth.

“It was too dry last winter to plant anything. We did not have enough water stored to farm, cook with or clean,” said Naresh, who moved to a neighboring town with his brother to earn extra rupees from daily wage jobs. “We struggled.”

Dangers of drought

Across India, many farmers are feeling the effects of a deepening two-year drought. Overused water tables are severely depleted and the situation is only made worse by climate change.

Temperatures across the subcontinent are soaring and small lakes and streams are drying up and fields, leaving fields parched.

As the world’s second most populous country, drought is dangerous for India.
Nearly 800 million people rely on farming and less than half of cultivated land is irrigated.
Without income to support their families, thousands of farmers have given up hope and taken their own lives, leaving widows behind to face the drought alone.

Making every drop count

Through USAID support, Naresh and other farmers in his village learned how to dig small ponds or “dobhas” to capture and store rainwater during monsoon season to use for irrigating crops during dry months.

“I have enough water now and my paddy yield is five times bigger,” Naresh said of the difference he saw after digging a pond to collect water.

This has meant a boost in his family’s earnings of about $900 per hectare.

special sensor saves water

Even areas of India that benefited from the agricultural advances of the Green Revolution in the 1960s are vulnerable to India’s drought. Overuse of fertilizer and intensive cultivation had already depleted the soil, leaving it vulnerable to climate change effects like this intense drought.

“Drought is very common now in my area,” said Manpreet Singh, a rice farmer who lives in the village of Mangal in the state of Punjab. “The crop is a water guzzler and before it was a challenge to grow it.”

While he struggled to irrigate his 1-hectare rice field during the drought, Manpreet and other farmers wasted too much water during monsoon season.

To help farmers be more efficient with water, USAID is promoting an affordable soil moisture sensor. The $8 device enables farmers to monitor soil dryness and determine water need for crops.
“I haven’t had to apply water as frequently,” Manpreet said of the impact of his new sensors. “Now, even when there are dry spells … I’m producing more high quality rice and vegetables with the same amount of water.”
Manpreet has cut the number of times he irrigates each season by 25 percent, reducing the cost of water, labor and power for his irrigation equipment.

About 13,000 farmers in Punjab now use these sensors and have cumulatively saved about 21 billion liters of water and 3.6 million kilowatt hours of energy.

Just a click away from conservation

Other technologies are also being introduced to help farmers cope with drought.

Using an App designed by India’s Centers for International Projects Trust, farmers now get vital weather and crop updates over their mobile phones. Such information can be critical, especially as climate change alters familiar weather patterns.
“With two clicks on my phone, I’ve got tips I didn’t have before on how to grow rice in my paddy,” said Gurdeep Singh, who lives in the village of Dangaon.
Gurdeep gets invaluable farming information from the app in his local language. He can sign up for alerts about pest outbreaks and current market prices, and even determine whether he needs to fertilize his crops.

USAID also uses the app to teach farmers about using a seed drill to sow rice directly into the ground, eliminating the need for a flooded field, thus conserving water.
These water-saving devices and techniques are vital for farmers in Punjab, said R.S Sidhu, director of agriculture extension services at Punjab Agricultural University, which is working closely with USAID partners and the state government on the program.
“Water is becoming scarce. These combined approaches are making an enormous difference,” he said.
For farmers like Bediya, a simple technique like digging dobhas can mean the difference between a very lean season and food for themselves and their families year-round.


Discover more about USAID’s support for agriculture in India

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Footnote: Photos by USAID India