On World Water Day on March 22, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the interlinking of the Ken and Betwa Rivers between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (UP) in a 231-km-long canal. The Ken-Betwa project was the first of the interlinking of rivers proposed in the National Perspective Plan (NPP) by the government, to provide irrigation to 1 million hectares of agricultural land and drinking water to 6.2 million people.
As important as water, weather and climate are equally critical to food production. However, escalating climate events—floods and landslides, heatwaves and drought, cyclone events and others—have devastated food systems in today’s world of climate change.
Environment, like agriculture, is a pillar on which human civilisation and our very existence depends and these two are inextricably intertwined. Our world’s emergencies have to be addressed together.
The interlinking of rivers is set to cause irreversible damage to the environment through the destruction of biodiverse forests in the Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken Gharial Sanctuary. The Ken-Betwa project alone (the first among 30 proposed interlinking projects) may submerge 6,197 hectares of eco-sensitive forests and destroy irreplaceable wildlife habitats. Preserving natural forests is key to limiting climate change and mitigating the reality of damage caused by climate events to agriculture.
In 2021, heavy rainfall, flooding of rivers and overflowing dams killed 24 people in Madhya Pradesh. The following year, in another part of the state, another climate event—drought—reduced the production of rice crops to about 10 million tonnes less than 2021.
Similarly, floods devastated UP in 2021, while, in 2022, it faces a drought with the worst monsoon in 122 years. UP produces rice and a drought could impact India’s rice production and food availability to crores of people.
India has the largest land area in the world under cultivation. It is the world’s largest producer of vegetables, sugarcane, fruit, milk and cotton, and the second largest producer of the major staple food grains of rice and wheat. “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is unquestionably the largest livelihood provider in India, more so in the vast rural areas,” says the national portal, india.gov.in.
Seemantinee Khot, a “farmer by choice”, has managed her family farm alongside four decades of work in the development sector through community-based organisations, government and the United Nations (UN). In the ‘Gender and Agriculture Strategy and Action plan’ that she has drafted for Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN in 2022, she explains: “Shifting rainfall patterns and higher temperatures affect agricultural productivity. Of the 60 percent of people who work in sectors highly susceptible to changing weather patterns in the region, the majority are women, and thus, bear the direct brunt of climate change.”
On August 7, Modi asked states to step up food production in light of India’s dependence on imports of oil and global increase in food prices. His statement has special relevance within a global food crisis fuelled by the climate crisis and a war in Europe which have disrupted food production and distribution systems worldwide.
Shyam Asolekar, department of environment science and engineering, IIT-Bombay, says: “It is clear that India cannot afford to not produce food because of our large population. However, choice of crops is crucial.”
From Neolithic times, production techniques and international trade have facilitated innovation through every stage of civilisation. The Neolithic Revolution is described as the transition of humans from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, including domestication of plants and animals. In 8,000-6,000 BCE, India’s earliest food crops were indigenous varieties of barley and wheat. By about 8,000-4,000 BCE, innovations included threshing, planting crops in rows and grain storage. Evidence suggests that Oryza nivara, a wild rice indigenous to the Ganga basin between 4,530 BCE and 5,440, was cultivated indigenously before spreading to Bengal and Southeast Asia. People also domesticated cattle, sheep and goat.
Agriculture in India has been recorded in ancient texts like the Rigveda which describes ploughing, tilling and threshing in its hymns. International trade has provided not only exotic new foods but even those which we take for granted in our everyday lives. Evidence of trade in the Indus Valley civilisation shows they traded barley, wheat, melon seeds, dates and oil crops like sesame and mustard, with Mesopotamia, a valley in the ancient ‘Fertile Crescent’ between the Tigris and Euphrates river in the Middle East in 2,300 BC.
Mangoes are an indigenous fruit which originated in India 25 to 30 million years ago, according to fossil evidence, and are mentioned in Vedic texts as the ‘Fairest Fruit of Hindustan’. However, modern Alphonso mangoes, which appear regularly on 1,000 things to eat before you die type lists, are named after Alfonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese nobleman who established a colony in India in the 1,500s. Alphonso mangoes represent the technological advances of grafting techniques used by the Portuguese on the Konkan coast, which is famous for its mango crops.
Today, India supplies 45 percent of the world’s 55 million tonnes of mangoes. But mango crops have not escaped climate events. In 2020, in Kerala, the mango trees in Muthalamada in Palakkad did not flower in November as they usually do, because of unseasonal rain, adversely affecting mango exports. On the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, Cyclone Tauktae felled mango trees extensively, and, in 2022, the crop suffered.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese also brought tomatoes, native to Central and South America to India, though we cannot imagine Indian cuisine without tomatoes, now an integral part of the Indian diet. The Rambutan tree is a more recent import from Malaysia and is now planted extensively in the Western Ghats of Kerala. “Civilisation would probably not be possible without some form of irrigation. The earliest form of irrigation probably involved people carrying buckets of water from wells or rivers to pour on their crops,” says the National Geographic.
According to Asolekar, “Access to water is key.” The Vedas describe wells, which tap into subterranean groundwater systems. The ancient Harappan civilisation had a complex water system to bring water into homes, sewerage and irrigation for crops. Buddhist texts from the Mauryan Empire describe irrigation systems and, in Tamil Nadu, the Grand Anicut (canal) was constructed in the third century BCE.
Modern irrigation systems are much more complex. Drip irrigation can green the desert. India plans to inter-link major rivers. But river-linking, and other changes to natural ecosystems and land-use are a leading cause of environmental damage and aggravate climate change itself.
The idea of interlinking Indian rivers was first proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton, chief engineer of the Madras Presidency in 1919. On March 24, the NPP “has identified 30 links” and completed detailed project reports for eight of them, including Ken-Betwa, Mahanadi-Godavari and Tista-Ganga.
However, overground rivers such as these are not the only supplier of water to agriculture. Groundwater, consisting of invisible underground rivers and water systems, has traditionally been crucial to agriculture. In recent times, India’s groundwater table has dropped steeply.
According to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, it is not interlinking rivers but groundwater which holds the key to sustainable agriculture. “Interlinking rivers is not only not going to help improve the groundwater levels, it’s actually going to impact it adversely by destroying the groundwater recharge systems like forests, flowing rivers, local water bodies, wetlands etc in direct and indirect ways. Groundwater is and has been our water lifeline. Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, groundwater will remain our water lifeline for decades to come.”
Water-intensive crops like sugarcane, which are planted to replace eco-sensitive forests in the Western Ghats, also deplete groundwater and intensify the effects of climate change. Crops like sugarcane require terracing of land and intensive irrigation for water. Land use change is not only adversely affecting the environment and climate change but is impacting the long-term sustainability of agriculture too.
Prateep Basu, 34, founder of the startup SatSure that analyses satellite and weather data, explained the Haryana water table has shown constant depletion over the last 10 years due to a change in cropping patterns, as showed by their data.
Basu shares his findings with banks to facilitate loans for farmers. “We have to look many years ago and look at what we can do to sustain the planet. Data should be used to improve the condition of farmers who are the most impacted by climate change. We need to blend banking, farmers, policymakers together. So we are ensuring a two-way benefit while taking a loan from a bank.”
As India is urbanising, land which was used for farming is being taken over to provide housing. Like other land-use changes, urbanisation (which inevitably requires construction, tree cutting and terracing) can worsen the effects of climate events, including floods and landslides. Urbanisation places topsoil (without which food cannot grow) at risk from being washed away. For India, as for the rest of the world, it is more imperative than ever to ensure the good health of the agricultural sector.
Nevertheless, politicians have stressed that states should view “rapid urbanisation as India’s strength instead of weakness”.
Between July 26 and 28, the FAO met virtually for the global symposium on ‘Soils for Nutrition -Soils, where Food begins’ and debated the state of soil and food on Earth. On July 28, the FAO said the Earth relies on soil for 95 percent of its food, but that 90 percent of the Earth’s topsoil is at risk of erosion by 2050.
“Just like good nutrition is the best investment in children’s physical resilience, their cognitive development, wellbeing, and future earning power, healthy soil should be the bedrock for every country’s food system,” says HE Gerda Verburg, UN assistant secretary-general and coordinator of the Scaling up Nutrition Movement.
“Soil, soil and soil,” says spiritual guru Sadhguru, founder of the Isha Foundation and of the global ‘Save Soil’ movement launched in India.
Satellites “assess the risk of the land” as climate events take centre stage. Basu studied at Isro’s college IIST in Thiruvananthapuram. He and his team’s specialised knowledge of satellites coupled with their concern for climate change inspired them to develop systems for improvement of agriculture risk management. “Climate and sustainability data needs to be regulated and mainstreamed in decision-making.”
Young people have been most vocal about the climate crisis and have imbibed the need to combat it in their career choices and daily lives. Basu sums up their motivations. “Commercial viability is a must to survive and grow, but it cannot be the only motivation. If it were, I would do a hyper-local app or a dating app.”
Just a few months ago, a minor climate event of unseasonal rain destroyed Asha Pokhale’s coriander crop near Pune and her family was forced to move to Mumbai. She took up work as a housemaid, living in a crowded Mumbai shack while her husband, who suffers ill health, is unable to work.
The Gender and Agriculture Strategy for Asia and Pacific, drafted by Khot, emphasises that “advancing equal access and use of digital technologies will help inform rural women to get early warnings of disasters and climate changes, which enhance their decision making and equal participation in the transformation process of agri-food systems, governance of climate change combating measures; uptake of appropriate technologies/innovations for optimising food production”.
Modi, at his speech on World Water Day 2021, concluded: “India’s vision of Aatmanirbhar Bharat is dependent on our water resources. Water is not just for every family and farming land, but also for every economic aspect of life. Without effective water management, swift development is impossible.”
Though all agree that agriculture and environment are equally essential to human survival, execution of policies that protect our natural environment lags. In the midst of floods, landslides and cyclones, we look to our leaders and to our youth to lead the way even as “tears water our growth”.
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(This story appears in the 09 September, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
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