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Desert farming - The peasant perspectives of climate change

Last modified August 23, 2010 08:16

Where did all the waters go, wondered the old as well as the middle aged. This used to be a common recipe. The articulate ones reminisced that awesome flows of a middle order rivulet in a South Indian state knocked down a crowded passenger train crossing a rail bridge killing as many as 500 passengers. This was in 1963. Mohan Reddy Vishwavaram, FORUM FOR TROPICAL WATER, Hyderabad, India.

Mohan Reddy Vishwavaram, FORUM FOR TROPICAL WATER, Hyderabad, India []


Where did all the waters go, wondered the old as well as the middle aged. This used to be a common recipe. The articulate ones reminisced that awesome flows of a middle order rivulet in a South Indian state knocked down a crowded passenger train crossing a rail bridge killing as many as 500 passengers. This was in 1963.




The tanks (large sized irrigation water bodies) used to fill regularly to the brink with few exceptions until as late as the 1980s. Andhra Pradesh, the large sized South Indian state (270,000 sq. kms) has got 70,000 functional tanks spread across all its nooks and corners according to an official reckoning. There is one tank for every four kilometers. This is even a gross underestimate. The ancestry created an extensive network of tank and kunta (smaller versions of tanks) systems over the last 1000 years. There could be 10 kuntas for every head of irrigation tank. Numerous kuntas served the purpose of drinking water for the cattle in the main.

The point is this. The extensive network of tank and kunta systems served the purpose of up-keeping the groundwater table. Forests were logged to facilitate farming. Numerous human habitations have come up as the farming extended to the ever newer areas. Yet all this did not drive down the groundwater table thanks to the extensive network of the tank and kunta systems. The extensive loss of vegetation should indeed lead to desertification. The ancestry avoided the disastrous prospect by the sheer dint of creating numerous water bodies. There indeed is more to it.

Numerous NATURAL SPRINGS used to surface all over the rain fed upland areas as the monsoon progressed. The groundwater table peaked as the monsoon progressed. So much so that it often touched the 2 meter level below surface. The groundwater even surfaced at low points. The farmers used to raise aerobic paddy on the upland rain fed areas, taking advantage of the natural springs. The farmers as well as pastoralists used to secure their drinking water almost everywhere and they did not need to go in search of drinking water. They needed to create small pits spending a few minutes bare handed to secure their drinking water across the year and the peaking summer made no exception to it. The aged farmers fondly cherish the sweet memories that the big and small streams had surface waters flowing for most part of the year. The dug wells purported for irrigation overflowed during the monsoon season and the farmers were spared of the drudgery of lifting water from the wells using the bullock power.



The beauty of it is that the ancestry created chain tank systems over each available minor and major stream and rivulet. The chain tank systems catered to extensive command areas in the valleys. The waters from the chain tank systems washed (ran across) the paddy fields in the command areas and yet did not exhaust. The same unit of water would flow through all the tanks locked in the chain system and ran across the length and breadth of all the paddy fields spread over the entire valley, separated as they are in to different command areas served by individual tanks. The tank water - irrigation waters - in this sense recycled. The water never knew terminal consumption. Same is the case with the rain fed upland areas. The upland areas had the benefit of the universal presence of sub-soil moisture. The farmers used to call it the motherly moisture crop support. Rain or no rain, the upland rain fed areas were served by the sub-soil moisture support. You did not need providing irrigation from external sources.

The tank bound surface irrigation coupled with the upland rain fed farming were Siamese twins. The former helped in the up-keeping of the groundwater table across the rain fed upland areas, leave alone the valley portions. The peaking groundwater table helped the latter in serving as the best catchment area for purposes of turning out optimal flood water yield for the benefit of the tank system. The peaking groundwater table is behind the universal presence of motherly moisture crop support. The motherly moisture support helped in the good crop yields. Thus, the tank bound surface irrigation and the rain fed upland areas were mutually reinforcing. The two were closely intertwined in a truly Siamese bond. The two lived together and died together. We cannot afford to take a good rainfed crop in the absence of the tank bound surface irrigation and the reverse is as much truer. The tank inflows would get halved in the desert environs in the first place. The policy making is yet to realize that the climate deaths (farmer’s suicides) owe a great deal to the strangulating of these Siamese twins. It all began by killing the tank bound surface irrigation thanks to the rapid strides made by the bore well centric paddy strategy of the Government of India (GOI).

Making the external sources of moisture or irrigation support superfluous are three more important sources, namely i) the rhythmic pattern of rainfall added to the ii) sumptuous availability of dew besides iii) the mollified Sun.



The rainfall over the centuries was marked for two distinctive characteristics. It was quite predictable and orderly. June and September yielded 20% each of the rainwater, whereas July and August shared in-between them the rest of the 60% of rainwater yield as part of the south-west monsoon season in the Telugu land. It is reflective of an ascending and descending order. June stands for ascending whereas the September shows up the descending. July and August are known for down pouring. The monsoon needed to prepare itself in June for down pouring in July and August. The June yields of rainwater helped in boosting up the strength of the Hydel Green House (HGH), which in turn helped attract the monsoon clouds rather strongly.

The farmers have a keen sense to the attraction of clouds. The elderly farmers fondly reminisce that the sight of a thick piece of cloud in a distant designated corner in any given village would have implied instant down pour. The farmers used to run for shelter. The convergence used to be that strong. It is no more the case in the post Green Revolution (GR) period. Divergence is rather the rule and not an exception. Any amount of gathering of thick clouds in the same designated spot will no longer materialize the rainfall, leave alone the instant dashing.

It goes without saying that the rhythmic pattern of rainfall was both predictable and orderly and greatly helpful for crop planning. The crop planning got derailed wholly thanks to the rhythmic pattern making way to sporadic and erratic rainfall.



The dew is a rainfall by other means. It occurs all through the year - abundantly during the monsoon and winter seasons and less during summer. The dew is the recycling of groundwater. The groundwater going into the evapotranspiration process during day time gets recycled back to the soil in the nights.

The dew is not attached the due significance it deserves in the discourse on water. It could be equivalent of 1mm of rainwater yield on the lower side and 3mm of the same on the higher side. The contribution of dew to the crop raising is incalculable in the low rainfall arid and semiarid areas. The volume of water/moisture turned out by dew could figure at one third to one half of the average annual rainwater yield under such conditions. This is also called occult precipitation.


The Mellowed Tropical Sun

The predatory tropical Sun has a field day in the post GR period, thanks to the withering away of the HGH. The atmospheric temperatures have shot up by anywhere between 3 degree centigrade to 6 degree centigrade. That was not the case in the pre GR period. The predatory tropical Sun stood out mollified by the strong presence of the HGH, which acted as the protective shield to the crops and all and sundry of vegetation. The farmers cherish the fond memories of crop friendly temperatures. The rainy season hardly made a difference to the winter in the pre GR period. The obverse is equally true to the post GR period. The rainy season looks like an extended summer.


Hallucinated Assumptions of Organic school

In conclusion, the older generations of farmers make a strong case for abundant availability of freshwater in the pre GR period. They were a witness to an abundance of surface water. The groundwater reserves were left by and large undisturbed. There was the universal presence of soil and sub-soil moisture. The atmospheric water reserves were no less in full strength. The atmospheric water reserves - though not visible to the naked eye - may be regarded as no less a heavy weight counterpart of the groundwater reserves. We call it the HGH. The high presence of the HGH in turn helped in facilitating a) a rhythmic pattern of rainfall, b) materializing sumptuous dew and c) the abatement of the predatory tropical Sun. The HGH helped in keeping down the atmospheric temperatures. Thus the crops in the pre GR period enjoyed multiple sources (say all year round) of moisture support.


Contrast it with the hallucinated perceptions of the organic school (OS). The OS recommends the traditional varieties (TVs) of crops as the most befitting adaptation road as against the vicious Genetic Modification (GM) road? According to the school, the TVs can better withstand the moisture stress? It is patently clear that the school assumes that the TVs took shape in the environments of scarce moisture support? The little said the better about this absurd assumption. The OS will do well to learn even at this late hour that the TVs enjoyed abundant moisture support in the pre GR period. True, the TVs have a greater resilience to the moisture stress when compared to the hybrid varieties. This does not however mean that the TVs can withstand the desert environments. The TVs are known to have met with a miserable failure under adverse conditions. The farmers across India are known to have discovered “desert crops” such as cotton and groundnut replacing a host of food and non-food crops in the last few decades under the spell of the GR inspired climate change. The farmers do better than the organized institutions such as the OS making false claims for finding climate adaptations.



Where did all the water go? There was an abundance of fresh water till a few decades ago. All the water simply disappeared and we are in for chronic shortages of fresh water. The rural folk find it difficult to manage enough of fresh water for household needs. There are instances of disposing of the livestock for want of drinking water, particularly during summers. How do we understand the dramatic shift from abundance to absolute shortages and perpetual droughts? There is a short answer to it. Our ancestry used the rainwater as it was given to them. The rainwater comes to us as recycling water. Never before in history it was subject for terminal consumption. We have indeed affected a dramatic shift from using it as the recycling water to subjecting it for terminal consumption.

The eco-systems were self-endowing, self-sustaining and self-regulating in satisfying their water demands (Swayambhu). The rainfall could be seen more in the role of a recharging agent. The eco-system got surcharged during monsoon on receiving the rainwater and the biological activity of the eco-system perhaps reached its zenith. Post monsoon, the water kept withdrawing from the system. The undisturbed eco-systems did not subject the rainwater for terminal consumption as we do today. It kept recycling to and pro the high seas and the process is known as the hydrological cycle. We have knocked down the Swayambhu and with it the rainwater ceased to be the recycling agent. Deprived of the Swayambhu, we are left behind in the company of the desert terrain coupled with desert climate.

Bereft of Swayambhu, the rainfall is deprived of its rhythmic character. It has developed sporadic and erratic character. The monsoon season has thinned down in terms of its duration. Thus, we are left behind with desert terrain coupled with desert climate at one side and a sporadic pattern of rainfall at the other. The net result is that 40% of the rainwater yield is lost on account of the high rates of evaporation rather instantly. The minor events of rainfall claim credit for a 40% share of the rainwater yield and almost all of it is robbed by the combined might of dry terrain and the predatory tropical Sun. The rest is shared between the catchment (read upland rain fed) at one side and the tank and kuntas at the other in the proportion of 1:2 (20%:40). The share of the tanks is appropriated by the bore wells. In other words, the upland rain fed areas and the bore wells are the two important stakeholders to share the rainwater yield.

The point is this. Earlier, the tank inflows used to come back to the catchment in the form of up-keeping the groundwater table. That is no more the case. The peaking groundwater table played a critical role in the crop production on the rain fed upland. That is no more the case. Loss of peaking groundwater support, sporadic rainfall, paltry share of the rainwater yield amid souring temperatures conspired together to end up in perpetual crop failures either in part or full, besides holding down the crop productivities. Crop failures coming on top of low productivities often resulted in debt bondage and farmer’s suicides. Never before in history the crop output was directly proportional to the volume of rainwater available. There used to be multiple sources of crop moisture support. The crops in the post GR period are deprived of the multiple sources of moisture support.

The moral is this. Unless we give up the terminal consumption of rainwater, there is going to be no let up to the food and water shortages. Any effort at giving up terminal consumption requires the restoration of Swayambhu in the first place.



Let us apply some thinking on the following statements.

  1. Undisturbed forests on a large scale are self fertilizing and self watering. Such forests never knew droughts. What could be more interesting is that such forests were water yielding, even during drought years. The forests in this sense appear to be quite conservative in the use of the rainwater yield. How do we explain all this? What could be the underlying mechanism?

  1. Modern farming on the other hand is most water demanding. For the most part, it is water intensive. We have reached a point where it is simply not possible to mobilize any additional water for farm production. We can not possibly get along with the water consuming farm systems any longer. The modern farm systems have reached a point of impasse. The World Bank warns us that the future is very bleak on the water front and it is time the water is considered a precious economic good.

  1. Considering 1) and 2) above, it could be interesting to consider whether it would be possible for us to develop new water yielding farming systems quite in the pattern of the forests? If that would be possible, each and every piece of the farm holding would become not only self-sufficient in terms of satisfying ones own water needs but they could turn out to be surplus in water holding, in which case we would be left with abundant fresh water for meeting all other demands. This is in addition to successfully carrying out the farm production.


The forests are Swayambhu. Swayambhu is the one which has a self standing. It is self-endowing, self-sustaining and self-regulating. Each eco-stem is underlain by what is called the self-sustaining and self-regulating fresh water endowment. It is made up of three important constituents as follows:


a) Undisturbed groundwater reserves coupled with the undisturbed soil water and moisture reserves.

b) Universal presence of vegetative cover, including many trees.

c) Undisturbed atmospheric water reserves, which may be best known as the HGH


The abundant vegetation acts as the linkage between a) and c). Without this we are thus left in the company of desert farming. The desert farming is thirsty and its demand for water keeps increasing over time and it knows no end. We have thus reached an impasse and the food and water shortages can only be addressed successfully in case of developing water yielding farm systems.



The industrial farming is primarily responsible for local climate change. It knocked down the Swayambhu resulting in the desertification of quite some parts of the globe. Going by the myth of GHG led climate change, we are led in to the trap of inaction, and the food and water crisis, if anything, will intensify over time. It is high time to realize that the loss of HGH is behind the local climate change and try roll back the industrial farming. We will do well to develop water yielding farm systems with many trees in the place of the present water killing farm systems. We will conclude it by emphatically holding that the need of the hour is not adaptation (to climate change) but rolling back of the disastrous climate change as indicated above.


[Edited by Kees Stigter]

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