India's small farmers turn hydrologists to battle drought

by Stella Paul | stellasglobe | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 September 2013 17:35 GMT

Potla Ranaiya, an Indian farmer who has attended the ‘water school’ in Mahabubnagar district, describes the water scenario in his village. TRF/Stella Paul

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An innovative 'water school' teaches farmers how to monitor local water resources and use them sustainably, improving harvests

MAHABUBNAGAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kadire Kishtaiya didn’t get to study beyond elementary level at school, but the 62-year-old smallholder from Achampet village, 233km south of Hyderabad, has graduated from a unique farmers’ school that taught him how to manage water sustainably. 

This knowledge helps Kishtaiya plan which crops to plant and when - vital because his village is located in Mahabubnagar, a district that has experienced regular droughts for well over a decade. According to the district collector’s office, 326 villages have suffered an acute shortage of potable water this year.

“The rain we receive is not enough for growing our crops, so most of us have a bore well in our field to draw groundwater for irrigation. Often these wells run dry and we lose our crops,” Kishtaiya said.

“But since I learned in the ‘water school’ how to measure rainfall and how much groundwater is available in my village, I can plan what to grow and in what proportion. I haven’t lost a crop in the past three years,” explained the farmer who gave up rice and switched to maize, tomatoes and cotton after discovering that the groundwater in his village was slowly depleting.

The first “Farmers’ Water School” was established in Mahabubnagar in 2003 by the Centre for Applied Research & Extension (CARE), an Indian NGO, in collaboration with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), under a project to support adaptation to climate change.

Since then, the school has trained more than 12,000 farmers in 60 villages in the district to monitor and map rainfall, groundwater levels and daily temperatures – effectively turning them into local hydrologists.

Similar schools have been set up in six other districts in India, and there is another one in Kenya.

The schools also train farmers to test their soil for nutrients, and make bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides. They learn how to fight degradation of their land due to water scarcity by using mulch techniques and irrigation with sprinklers.


This expertise has proved invaluable to Padma Amma and her husband Malla Anjaneyelu, residents of the neighbouring village of Uppunanthala. They used to grow paddy and peanuts on their four-acre farm, but in 2008, their village was struck by severe drought and they experienced a double crop failure.

The following year, they joined the water school and based on what they learned, decided to opt for vegetable cultivation.

“We used to see it rain and think there would be enough water underground,” said Anjaneyelu. “In the water school, we learned that only 11 percent of the rain actually enters the deeper part of the ground, and the rest is lost.”  

They also found out that while the water beneath their village could fill about 9,000 large tanks, if everyone grew paddy, they would need about 26,000 tanks of water. So they started planting tomatoes, gourds and chillies. Anjaneyelu also swapped chemical fertiliser for vermin-compost manure.  

D N Reddy, an agricultural scientist who heads CARE, said farmers in drought-prone districts where agriculture is mostly rain-fed, like Mahabubnagar, are more vulnerable to climate change.

“For nearly a decade now, rain has been increasingly unpredictable. The rainfall pattern has become more erratic,” he said. Showers come at the beginning of the monsoon and then stop for two to three weeks, followed by sudden heat waves, he added.

“This disrupts the growth of the crops and affects the yield,” Reddy said. “To deal with it, the farmer has to first know how to climate-proof his field. The Farmers’ Water School provides a contingency plan to do that.” 


The water school is run from the village school building, with the permission of the village council. The students – male and female smallholders – gather on days when the school isn’t being used by children.

They sit on the floor, looking eagerly at the teacher, who is armed with posters that vividly describe the structure of the area’s soil, the amount of rain received and how much it has recharged the water table.

Prepared by CARE, these teaching materials are a result of extensive research done by the NGO’s staff on the local topography and hydrological landscape. The posters also show how much water is available for the community to draw during the rest of the year. And they set out scenarios in which farmers grow crops that require more water than is stored in the ground, leading to failed harvests.

Outside the school building, there is a mini weather station, set up under the GEF/FAO project. Here there are simple tools the villagers can use to measure rainfall, wind velocity and temperature. They can also check the moisture level in the air and the rate of evaporation.

Every two weeks, one of the students – known as a “weather volunteer” - collects this data and adds it to a chart drawn on a board at the entrance to the village. Visible to all, including those who don’t attend the school, this information is the community’s best weapon against a fast-changing climate.

Potla Ranaiya, 27, is a marginal farmer and a weather volunteer. He says the posters are designed in such a way that even an uneducated farmer can understand them. At the school, he has also received advice on how to use water sustainably and make optimum use of his land while keeping costs down.

On the six-acre farm his family owns, rice is cultivated on two acres, while the rest is used to grow cotton, vegetables and peanuts. “I decided to limit rice cultivation…after the chart showed there wasn’t enough water underground. Now I grow cotton in the kharif season (June to October) and peanut in the winter.  After the harvest, I use the peanut husks as a mulch bed which adds nutrients to the soil. I also use water sprinklers and drip irrigation, instead of directly watering the field from bore wells,” Ranaiya explained.

Thanks to this approach, he is now able to earn some 30,000 rupees ($485) per month - a huge improvement from 2004 when all his crops failed and he was considering selling the land. He can now support his eight-member family with the income from the farm.


Yet while the farmers’ newfound knowledge about sustainable water use enables them to produce good harvests, the difficulty of accessing markets remains a problem.

Anjaneyelu harvests about 80 kilogrammes (kg) of chilli each week, which he sells at 20 rupees/kg. On the market in Hyderabad, chilli has been going for a much higher price of 60-80 rupees/kg, and it usually rises further between September and November when several Hindu festivals are celebrated. But farmers like Anjaneyelu don’t benefit, as they are forced to sell to local people who aren’t willing to pay more.

“Vegetables tend to rot faster than grains, so I need to sell them quickly,” he said. “Since I don’t have a motor vehicle, I sell to retail buyers who come to my farm. They always pay a fixed price - I can’t bargain. What if they stop coming here tomorrow?”

CARE’s Reddy said existing market mechanisms need to be revamped, but this can only be done by the government. “If the government buys perishable crops from the farmer directly and markets them, it can be a big help. Building cold storage (space) in villages and even supplying small tools such as plastic baskets to pick vegetables can also minimise loss of crops in the field,” he added.

Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.

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