A little stress on water management, cropping methods, research programmes and policies can help coping with droughts
Dr B Venkateswarlu | September 19, 2015
Marathwada of Maharashtra comprising eight districts (Aurangabad, Jalna, Parbhani, Nanded, Latur, Beed, Osmanabad and Hingoli) is traditionally a drought-prone region. The situation has worsened with rainfall deficiency for three consecutive years. Rainfall deficit for 2014 was 45 percent, this was followed by a deficit of more than 50 percent in many districts till the end of August 2015. The region has struggled with frequent droughts for the past 50 years (see table 1). Even a moderate rainfall deficiency is impacting agricultural output significantly due to increased water demand.
Changing cropping pattern
One of the important factors for the increased water demand is the change in cropping pattern. The change has happened mainly due to the farmer’s urge for higher returns, market demand and availability of improved varieties of crops. Area under cotton cultivation has increased from 27.21 lakh ha to 41.60 lakh ha during 1990-91 to 2013-14, sugarcane cultivation area has increased from 5.36 lakh ha to 10.99 lakh ha and soybean cultivation area has increased from 2.01 lakh ha to 35.20 lakh ha. Area under horticulture has also increased considerably in all parts of the state. In the same period, there is a significant decrease in area under jowar (sorghum) (from 63.00 lakh ha to 30.00 lakh ha), bajra (pearl millets) (from 19.40 lakh ha to 7.62 lakh ha), oilseed crops like groundnut (from 8.64 lakh ha to 3.15 lakh ha) and safflower (from 6.34 lakh ha to 1.07 lakh ha). Change of crops was able to improve the returns and economic status of the farmers but at the same time it has increased water supply demand. Agriculture in Marathwada is primarily rainfed with only 12 percent area under irrigation. Therefore, the agricultural progress depends on how efficiently the available water, rainfall and ground water, is managed. In the last two decades, ground water exploitation has increased with substantial private investment on tubewells. The expansion of area under horticulture and sugarcane cropping is largely driven by the exploitation of ground water.
On the other hand, rainfall pattern in Marathwada is becoming erratic and is impacting the water availability in the region. Although the delayed monsoon and mid-season breaks are not new for the region, droughts of the same intensity as in the past are impacting more adversely today mainly because of the shift towards water demanding crops. For example, sorghum crop was able to stand dry spells in the region up to 15 to 20 days but soybean crop, which has replaced sorghum in large areas, cannot stand dry spells for more than 10 to 15 days. During monsoon breaks and prolonged dry spells, soybean yields particularly in light soils decline significantly despite the availability of relatively drought tolerant variety like MAUS 71.
The change in cropping patterns has also affected fodder availability. With drastic fall in jowar and bajra cropping, the availability of both dry and green fodder in the region has declined. This remained a major constraint in development of livestock and dairy sector. In other parts of the country, like Rajasthan and Gujarat which receive equally less rainfall, livestock sector helps farmers by providing assured income when crop-based agriculture fails. Many districts in Marathwada are witnessing a shortage of milk which is thus supplied mainly from western Maharashtra.
Climate change and water management
The projected increase of temperature due to global warming might further increase water requirement of future crops due to more evapotranspiration. This means, in future, we might need more water to produce same quantity of crops. Although the total rainfall has not changed significantly in India as a whole, the distribution over time and space is becoming highly erratic with long dry spells and short duration heavy rainfall occurring simultaneously. Short duration rains cause soil erosion and runoff, and does not help recharging ground water effectively. Climate models predict that such erratic rainfall pattern will further increase. So regions like Marathwada might continue to receive heavy rains for a few days followed by prolong dry spells. The crops are thus damaged due to drought as well as due to water logging. Hence, water management plays a crucial role in such a scenario of climate change. Water conservation programmes which conserve soil and recharge ground water are the only ways to face the drought challenge in Marathwada. The Jal Yukt Shivar programme launched this year, focusing on village level decentralised water conservation, is an ideal strategy.
Dealing with drought requires short term as well as long term planning. Water management is a crucial short-term strategy, including focus on water conservation, watershed management, irrigation methods like drip and sprinkler and large-scale adoption of mulching technologies. In the long term, however, we need to match the cropping pattern with rainfall pattern, soil types and ground water availability.
For example, area under sugarcane has to be regulated in water stressed area of Marathwada and all areas need to be brought under drip irrigation. The total water requirement for sugarcane is about 2,400 mm. Considering an effective rainfall of 600 mm at many locations in Marathwada, the net water requirement through irrigation is about 1,750 mm. Therefore, diversification from sugarcane in water stressed Marathwada can be a major long-term strategy. A recent study by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) revealed that water used for irrigating one ha of sugarcane can irrigate 25 ha of tur crop with a protective irrigation method. Research across the country by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) showed that one protective irrigation method for tur crop during flowering can increase yields by 50 to 60 percent.
Hence, using the available water in a drought-prone area like Marathwada for protective irrigation of pulse crops in place of regular cultivation of sugarcane will not just benefit farmers but will also meet the shortage of pulses which we are importing. Universities and agricultural institutes have to demonstrate alternative options to sugarcane.
Recharging groundwater and millets
Cost-effective technologies are available to recharge ground water through percolation tanks, nala bunds and individual open wells and bore wells through diverting field runoff directly into the wells by passing through the filter beds. Adequate water literacy and awareness on water budgeting at village level has to be created among farmers. This should be the guiding principle in crop planning in drought-prone areas.
It is well known that millets are the most climate resilient crops. These crops have lost popularity due to falling market demand, changing food habits and delayed rains in September that damage these crops. However, there is a need to revive interest in these crops among farmers and consumers. Some states are organising millet festivals to create awareness among people and increase the demand. For example, Karnataka has announced a bonus of '500/q over the support price for ragi (finger millet). With certain efforts, the area under jowar and other millets can be revived in drought-prone areas of Marathwada. This will indirectly help the livestock sector through availability of green fodder and will help farmers sustain during droughts. In drought prone areas, it is vital to promote allied sectors like livestock and poultry along with crops.
We also need to strengthen our agricultural research programmes. We have to evolve varieties with multiple abiotic stress tolerance (drought, excess water, heat and cold). The advance weather forecasting system needs improvement. Monitoring droughts on seasonal basis and contingency crop planning have to be mainstreamed in the agricultural planning at the state level. Drought-proofing of agriculture requires long-term investments in research in crop breeding, water management, weather forecasting and new techniques in protected cultivation along with policy reforms that encourage prudent use of water.
Dr Venkateswarlu is the vice-chancellor, Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Krishi Vidyapeeth, Parbhani.
(The article appears in the September 16-30, 2015 issue)
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