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Can India Teach Europe how to Deal with Drought?

June 21, 2011

Europe is suffering from a record breaking drought, jeopardizing food production and restricting households’ water access. European governments have announced emergency plans and aid money to help farmers.

As June 17 marked World Day to Combat Desertification, does Europe need to start thinking seriously about adapting to recurrent water scarcity?  What needs to be done so that drought damages are mitigated?

Europe might take a look for inspiration at communities in the South, who face drought almost every alternate year but are using effective solutions to adapt to water scarcity.Those include rainwater harvesting – capturing and storing rainwater for later use – and water conservation, which includes reducing run-off and increasing the capacity of soil and vegetation to retain water.

Such techniques are nothing new. During the Roman era, rainwater harvesting structures were essential and at the centre of settlements. However, in developed European countries, such practices have largely died away with the introduction of more centralized “pipeline” water. People open the tap and take the availability of water for granted.

Much of Europe’s modernized agricultural sector now neglects water conservation principles such as maintaining organic content in the soil for better water retention. But better water use and management in drought situations is becoming more important as recurrent droughts hit Europe and agriculture remains the biggest water user.

Kothapally is a 1,500 inhabitant rural community in India’s semi-arid Andhra Pradesh state. Nearly every household is involved in agricultural activities, and water availability and water access are what stands between farmers and poverty.


Channeled rainwater drains into a well in Kothapally village in Andhra Pradesh. Photo: ICRISAT

Thirty years ago, Kothapally was a poor community facing recurrent droughts. The government of Andhra Pradesh asked the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to explore low cost water conservation solutions to improve crop yields in the face of drought.

In response, a project was designed with and managed by the community. This required a long term collaborative approach, but it has paid benefits.

The Kothapally community’s 270 farmer families all became members of the watershed association, a local group that worked with scientists to identify and build water harvesting structures.  Projects included installing drainwater gullies to divert run-off water to collection ponds or wells, creating  or maintaining bunds to stop soil erosion, and using vermicompost –compost processed by worms – to enhance organic content and improve its ability to hold water. The farmers operate and maintain these systems and the women in the village formed self help groups to run the vermicomposting as a business.

Kothapally is now a green prosperous village boasting healthy crop and high value vegetable yields even in the scorching summer. The village receives frequent visits from water experts from Asia and Africa as this participatory watershed system is promoted as a model for successful water management.

 “Kothapally proves the long-term benefits of a holistic and participatory approach to promote local low-cost water and soil conservation,” said William Dar, director general  of ICRISAT. “This is a valuable model to follow given the water crisis that many countries are now facing.”

Europeans are not so accustomed to water stress in a region where resources are normally adequate. That does not encourage farmers to apply the best agricultural practices in terms of water conservation.

In Asia and Africa, especially in dryland agriculture and in the semi-arid tropics, however, communities are under pressure and are rapidly implementing water conservation best practices when they have the right knowledge and tools.

 “Long term investments in international agriculture and natural resources research is not just about solving the challenges of developing countries,” said Lloyd Le Page, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium. “This is about investing in our children’s future, and about good stewardship of the limited resources that we have to feed the planet both today and tomorrow.

 “The drought today in Europe shows that the lessons we learn from our research in arid and tropical regions in the South can be valuable to the North given the unforeseen consequences and the global nature of climate change,” Le Page said.

Given the global nature of climate change, Europe’s drought today suggests the lessons learned from research in the South could be valuable to the North as well.

Read full story on Reuters AlertNet

Alina Paul-Bossuet is a communications specialist for ICRISAT.

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