Gorakhpur: As world leaders and top scientists in Copenhagen debate how to deal with climate change, farmers a world away in flood-prone areas of northern India are taking it into their own hands to adapt to shifts in the weather.
For decades, inhabitants of Uttar Pradesh state have been witnessing erratic weather, including increasingly intense rainfall over short periods of time.
The rain, combined with heavy mountain runoff from nearby Nepal, which is also seeing heavier-than-usual rains, has inundated villages, towns and cities in the region.
The flooding often results in thousands of people being displaced, homes damaged and possessions destroyed. It has also brought major livestock and crop losses for many of India’s poorest farmers.
But farmers in Manoharchak village, on the banks of the Rohini river, are outsmarting nature and using simple but effective techniques to deal with negative impacts of climate change.
“For the last three years, we have been trying to change our ways to cope with the changing weather,” said Hooblal Chauhan, a farmer whose efforts to adapt have included diversifying his farm production from traditional wheat and rice to incorporate a wide variety of vegetables.
‘We are doing what we can to help ourselves’
“I don’t know what those big people in foreign countries can do about the weather, but we are doing what we can to help ourselves,” said the 55-year-old from Manoharchak, situated 56 miles (90 km) north of the bustling city of Gorakhpur.
Villagers in Manoharchak have raised the level of their roads, built homes with foundations of up to 10 feet (3 metres) above ground, elevated community hand pumps and created new drainage channels.
Supported by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group - a research and advocacy organization interested in environmental and resource management issues - farmers are also planting more flood-tolerant rice, giving them two harvests a year where they once had one, and diversifying from traditional crops to vegetables such as peas, spinach, tomatoes, onions and potatoes.
The diversity of crops, they say, is particularly beneficial when their wheat and rice fail. And the vegetables give them not only a more varied and nutritional diet but help in earning an income when excesses are sold.
Increasingly intense rain means farmers in the region also have to contend with water-logged soil. Vast swathes of fertile land in the area have been turned into massive ponds.
The water-logging is a serious problem, experts say, and is caused not only by the low-lying terrain but by build-ups of silt which restrict water flows, leaving farmers unable to work their land for months until the water has drained.
But 50-year-old widow Sumitra Chauhan, who grows about 15 different vegetables as well as rice and wheat on her two-acre plot, says she has learned ways to overcome the problem.
“We used to have to wait up to one month for the water-logged land to drain before we could plant any crops. But now we use nurseries for our vegetables,” said Chauhan, standing in her lush green plot packed with vegetables including mustard, peas, spinach and tomatoes.
“We plant our seedlings in the nurseries and then when the water drains, we transfer them to the land so there are no delays,” she said.
Crops raised above water-logged soil
Farmers have also started using “multi-tier cropping” where vegetables like bottle gourd and bitter gourd are grown on platforms raised about five to six feet (1.8 meters) above the ground and supported by a bamboo frame.
Once the water-logged soil drains, farmers can then plant the ground beneath the platforms with vegetables and herbs such as spinach, radish and coriander that require less sunlight and do not grow very tall.
Warmer temperatures and an unusual lack of rain during monsoon periods in eastern Uttar Pradesh have also led to dry spells. To cope, villagers have contributed to buying water pumps for irrigation, lowering their dependency on rain-fed agriculture.
While developing countries battle with industrialised nations at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, including over the provision of billions of dollars to help poorer nations adapt to climate change, experts say farmers can start adapting even before a deal is struck by using low-cost strategies like those in Manoharchak.
“It is true that developing countries need a lot of investment to adapt to the effects of climate change, but small and marginal farmers, who are some of India’s poorest, can make a start by using simple, cheap techniques to help themselves,” said Ekta Bartarya of the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group.
About three-quarters of farmers struggle to survive on as little as a third of an acre of land, experts say.
Most are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Shifts in weather patterns have made it difficult for them to predict when to sow, reap and harvest their crops, and meager harvests as a result of temperature hikes, floods and droughts have often left them with little to survive on.
4.5 million in India affected by climate shifts
According to Oxfam, which is supporting the action group’s work in eastern Uttar Pradesh, around 4.5 million people in India have been affected by climate-related problems.
Some have been forced into debt. Others have migrated to towns and cities to search for manual labor or have had to sell assets such as livestock to cope.
Experts say low-cost adaptation techniques, developed by combining scientific knowledge with existing community knowledge, can be used to help farmers across India who are vulnerable to climate change.
“Certainly each region in India would require a different kind of adaptation technique,” but all are aimed at building climate resilience, said Aditi Kapoor, a specialist in economic justice for Oxfam India.
But she warned that successes in home-grown adaptation do not mean developed countries should be able to avoid financing adaptation projects.
“We estimate that rich countries must provide at least $200 billion per year of new and additional public money (by 2030) to help poor countries cope with the impact of climate change,” she said.