Rain dependent agriculture is the norm for the smallholder mountain farmers of the Himalayan region in India. The dependence on rain for agriculture production has always been risky. The effect of climate change with increase in weather uncertainty has now increased the risk manifold. The mountain farmers, already equipped in water management with traditional practices have been innovating further - learning, trying, adapting new knowledge acquired from research institutions, NGOs, media and various miscellaneous sources. These are shared for the benefit of similar rain dependent smallholder farmers.
Water management by use of mixed cropping
A traditional risk resilience measure, this entails planting of crops - mostly broadcasting of seed of crops with varied water requirements in one field. Whatever the quantity of rainfall i.e. scanty, medium or high; early or delayed rain, there would be failure and success. The crops with favorable conditions survive and prosper, others are lost partly or fully. The disadvantage is that it leads to loss of some seeds which can be expensive unless it is the farmers own traditional seed and has not been paid for.
Traditionally, mixed cropping has been the major response to deal with variations in rainfall and manage available water accordingly. This is supplemented with small irrigation, where feasible. Small water channels are made upstream to bring in water from streams and rivers using gravity.
Water management by use of appropriate seeds
Farmers have bred seeds of crops and have developed early sowing and late sowing varieties. These are used depending on the conditions appropriate for their germination. The farmers also arm themselves with drought resistant varieties of crops and seeds which require less water.
Both the traditional methods mentioned above are useful but often not very efficient and may lead to less production. In recent years farmers have been introduced to and innovated many more methods which help them to cope with rainfed farming situation and also help increase productivity of crops with self labour and small financial expenses.
Water management by combination of bunding and trenching
Bunding on edges of terraced fields, inward slope creation and making shallow trenches along the inside length of the fields enables rainwater to stay awhile with the excess draining into the trenches on the inside edge of the field. The depth of the trench will depend on soil depth and rock formation. The combination of bund and trench allows rain water to cover the field and moisture to percolate and be retained in the soil. The farmer is thus able to get over dry spells without the crop being affected.
Water management by mulching
Mulching is the covering of field with layer of biomass. The biomass layer prevents penetration of sunlight and is a deterrent to unwanted growth of weeds. The biomass eventually degenerates into humus cover, essential for fertility of soil. For the farmer, the mulch reduces evaporation and hence helps retain moisture. This lowers water need of plants. In times of rain, mulch traps rainwater, allows for slow percolation, prevents evaporation and sustains moisture content in soil for longer period which is essential for crop production.
Aspect and sun movements
Mountain farmers use the natural movement of the sun to classify their fields on the basis of the amount and length of sunlight received. Crops appropriate to this factor are then sowed in the fields. The crops which require little water are sown on south facing slopes which get longer period of sunlight. The northern facing slopes have crops which require less water and sunlight.
Water management by farm ponds
Following the natural drainage and slope of fields, farmers make small dugouts or miniature ponds to store water for emergency irrigation. Depending on location and need these ponds may be covered or left open. To prevent seepage the dug outs are plastered with clay. They are also lined with low density polyethylene (LDPE) sheets to prevent seepages.
Water management by pond cascades
Ponds created at every level on terraced fields and connected to each other allow water to flow and be collected serially in small farm ponds at each level on the terraced fields. This enables in situ small irrigation as required on the terraced fields.
Farmers have been using waste plastic or even sacks to cover seed planted for raising nurseries. The seeds are sown in a nursery bed, sprinkled with water and then covered with waste plastic or used sacks. The sacks are then covered with soil to keep them in place even in windy weather. This helps to conserve water and helps in germination without additional water.
Water management through manures and growth promoters
Factory made nitrogen and other fertilizers require irrigation after application. Lack of water after application leads to burning of crops . Composts and farmyard manure do not have this limitation. However, they are often cumbersome. Liquid manures and growth promoters made using cow urine and botanicals are easier to prepare. Small quantities are required for dilution with water and they have shown good results.
No to fire
The practice of burning biomass not only leads to loss of valuable nutrients but also hardening and structural changes in the top soil. This practice thus reduces the capacity of the top soil to absorb and retain water. Soil fertility is also reduced as favorable micro and other organisms present in the top soil and close to surface get destroyed. Stoppage of the practice of burning biomass in the field leads to better ability of the soil to retain water and moisture, reducing the need for external irrigation.
System of Rice Intensification and System of Crop Intensification use a grid formation for sowing keeping equal distance between lines and rows. The seeds are raised in nurseries and shallow transplantation is done at an early stage. The technique has shown good results by reducing the water requirement and increasing productivity.
Water management by earthworms
The presence of earthworms in adequate quantity on the farm helps to increase water moisture. The burrowing by earthworms makes the soil porous. The presence of air pockets in the soil allow rainwater to be retained. The length of soil moisture availability in the field increases.
The practices mentioned above have been taken from smallholder farmers of the central Himalayan region of India who are rain dependent for farming. They do not have monetary resources to spend on water harvesting and water retention technologies currently available and so have devised and adopted various techniques which cost least money and give good results.
1. Practices observed, recorded and promoted by Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE),Uttarakhand, India.www.inhereindia.org
2. Wikipedia on SRI