Karnataka's farmers look for answers to dry times

by Marianne de Nazareth | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 September 2012 10:45 GMT

As the monsoon weakens in parts of southern India, farmers are experimenting with better water harvesting and conservation

HOSKOTE, India (AlertNet) - T. Narsimappa looks worriedly at the clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. He is a farmer in Hoskote, a little village on the outskirts of Bangalore, and he is worried because it is the month when the monsoon normally begins in India’s Karnataka state.

With the advent of the monsoons, his fields get drenched and he spends his days ploughing them with his tractor and planting his maize, potato and bean crop. Hoskote boasts blood red fertile soil, which the farmers are proud of and has kept them in comfortable yields over the years.

But this year, more than a month after the rains normally begin to fall, “there have been just short bursts of showers that are insufficient for me to plough my fields, let alone grow any crop,” says Narsimappa looking around ruefully at his dry fields.

“We noticed a difference in the pattern over the last few years. In fact, it was felt acutely last year as well, but this year is particularly dry,” he says , shaking his head.” There is definitely a change in climate and I am very worried as my last year’s loan still remains to be paid.”  

 G.V.Prasad, the chairman of the panchayat (village council) of the small Karnataka village of Kurubalahalli, says he also fears climate change is behind the changing monsoon patterns.

BOREHOLES DRYING OUT

 “Climate change has caused an almost complete failure of the monsoon here in Karnataka this year. It was quite dry last year too but we managed watering our fields with borewell water. Twenty years ago my first borewell was sunk at a depth of only 350 metres. Now after three failed attempts I stuck water at 900 metres and my borewell cost over one lakh ($2,170),” he said.

Some farmers have responded to the changing conditions by trying to diversify their crops – not always successfully.

“ I grow chow chow (pear squash) and karela (bitter gourd),” said S.Pappanna, another farmer in the village, “ and this year I tried a crop of watermelon which failed due to lack of water.” With the monsoons bringing only occasional showers this year, his entire crop wilted and died, he said.

Many farmers have turned to digging boreholes or trying to improving water storage to deal with the growing water shortages, but such measures have also run into problems.

“Over the years, with the shortening of the monsoons with climate change, the farmers began to sink bore wells,” explained T.Ullurappa, Hoskote’s tax accountant.” Everything seemed fine till last year the wells began to run dry and the farmers realised they have depleted the ground water table to almost 900 metres.”

IMPROVING WATER STORAGE

Farmers in Hoskote have worked together with the government to build improved water storage and groundwater recharging facilities and to clean the village pond to ensure it collects all the rain that falls. The work has not come cheap.

“The cost of the two bundhs (earthen storage tanks) and dredging of the village pond came to 3 lakhs ($6,500) because we all pitched in and helped build them. The funding by the government was fixed, so we had to make it work for ourselves by not charging for labour,” explained Prasad, the panchayat chief.” The cost of cement, granite blocks and the daily hire costs of the earth-mover was our main expense,” he said. 

Now “we are not allowed to pump the collected water out into our fields, but we know that it is going down into the ground and it is for our benefit,” said Papanna, one of the village farmers.

 K. Swaminath, an expert on forestry and climate change at the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), based in Bangalore, said rainfall has been notably falling in Kanataka over the last 10 years, a shift he believes is caused by climate change.

“Less rainfall means less crops are grown and even the prices of ordinary vegetables have sky rocketed,” he said.

The government is looking for ways to help farmers across the state and money is being pumped into saving rainwater for agriculture and teaching farmers the efficacy of saving rain water for irrigation, rather than letting it run off.

RISING CROP PRICES

In the city of Bangalore, French beans are this season being sold at 45 rupees ($1) a kilo and tomatoes at 35 rupees (75 cents) a kilo, price jumps of 80 percent and 250 percent respectively over prices earlier in the year. Coconuts and papayas also have risen significantly in price.

The problem is that “most of the money goes to the middle man while the farmer gets barely enough to cover his costs and make a tiny profit,” said G. Badriprasad, a vendor serving customers at one of the government-run HOPCOMS (Horticultural Producer’s Cooperative Marketing and Processing Society Limited) which have been opened in the city in part to try to hold down prices.

Changes in the way crops are grown could help Karnataka’s increasingly drought-hit farmers, particularly using irrigation water more efficiently, experts say.

Marianne de Nazareth is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore, India.

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