An exploration of climate-smart measures that can help agricultural communities boost their resilience in the face of erratic weather patterns.
India is regarded as a climate change ‘hotspot’ and it is estimated that seventy percent of our arable land is prone to droughts, twelve percent to floods and eight percent to cyclones.
The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Working Group II, released by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this year, reaffirms this vulnerability to climatic stresses. Given the agro-ecological make-up of the sub-continent and prevailing high temperatures, any further rise in warming may have more immediate detrimental effects by exacerbating heat stress on crops and hastening water loss by evaporation.
In India, most small-holder farmers subsist on rain-fed agriculture, and the recent IPCC report projects an increase in extreme rainfall events over the central India region. All scenarios point towards an increase in mean and extreme precipitation in the Indian summer monsoon. Such variations in rainfall will have consequences on food production and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Effects on crops
Climate change through extreme and unexpected weather events threatens to destabilise food production and the livelihood security of millions. Although it is difficult to estimate the global impact of climate change on crop yields because of great variation across locations and crops, there is enough evidence to show that the overall effect is negative. For instance, yields of maize and wheat are very sensitive to temperatures above thirty degrees Celsius. For each day above thirty degrees Celsius in the growing season, the final yield of maize reduces by one percent under optimal rain-fed conditions and by 1.7 percent under drought conditions.
Studies from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) show that for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, four to five million tonnes of wheat will be lost in India, under the current land use scenario.
In March 2004, for instance, temperatures were higher by three to six degree Celsius in the Indo-Gangetic Plains which is equivalent to almost one degree celsius a day over the whole crop season. This caused the wheat crop to mature ten to twenty days earlier than usual, resulting in a drop in production by more than four million tonnes in the country.
Likewise, the drought in 2002 was responsible for a loss of more than ten percent in food production that year. Losses are also projected for other crops, such as mustard, monsoon sorghum and fruits and vegetables. Himachal Pradesh – a state known as the ‘apple basket of India’ – is too warm today to grow apples and cultivation is shifting north to cooler regions.
So what can farmers and policymakers do to overcome these challenges? The good news is that farmers are inherently capable of adapting to climate variability and in-season weather changes. But fluctuating yields on a long-term basis threaten their ability to save, plan and invest. This is where sound policies based on field-tested adaption strategies can be real game changers.
In the current climate change scenario, it is essential to encourage a shift to resource-saving, climate-smart agriculture practices, beginning with simple adaptation strategies such as changes in sowing dates and the use of different crop varieties. Improved crop management, as well as better risk management strategies through effective and timely early warning weather information systems and innovative crop insurance policies can reduce the vulnerability of rural communities.
Climate-smart agriculture promises to deliver ‘triple wins’ to farmers- increase their resilience to climatic stresses, increase their productivity and income, and lower emissions from the agriculture sector.
Climate-Smart Villages: a community approach to adaptation
Practising these interventions in isolation may however not be fully useful to farmers. Climate-smart approaches can complement one another to be ultimately beneficial to farmers through higher income, better resilience and sustainable practices. Climate-Smart Villages started by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security, look at how a package of interventions can work together to increase resilience to climate change at the village level.
Climate-Smart Villages are locations where researchers, farmers, industry representatives and civil society groups work together to identify which climate smart interventions can work together to have the most optimum results.
For instance, by combining weather-based index insurance, community-managed seed banks, water-saving farming practices, improved cultivars and intercropping, farmers can better adapt to climate change without losing out on income and productivity.
Adaptation is highly context-specific, and requires a careful study of local conditions to be effective. Considerable investment is also needed in infrastructure like irrigation and weather stations, and research and development on resilient crop varieties at different scales.
The Climate-Smart Village model aims to build location-specific adaptation and resilience in one village at a time. By partnering with government bodies, civil society organisations, farmer groups and the private sector, the project is a truly participatory approach to climate change adaptation based on local knowledge and which can be integrated into village-level development plans.
Climate change is a reality to reckon with, but timely adaptation can make a big difference to smallholder farmers.