Climate Change, Drought and India’s Looming Food and Water Crisis

Intensification of drought, floods and cyclones is one of the predictable impacts of climate change and climate instability. The failure of monsoon in India and the consequent drought, has impacted two thirds of India, especially the bread basket of India’s fertile gangetic plains. Bihar has had a 43% rainfall deficit, Jharkhand 47%, Uttar Pradesh 64%, Haryana 61%, Punjab 26%, Himachal Pradesh 63%, Uttarakhand 42%.

In the final analysis, India’s food security rests on the monsoon. Monsoon failure and widespread drought implies a deepening of the already severe food crisis triggered by trade liberalization policies which has made India the capital of hunger. It also implies a deepening of the water crisis which compelled me to write “Water Wars”.

The monsoons recharge the groundwater and surface water systems. This year, because of drought there will be reduced recharge. Since 1966, as a consequence of the introduction of the Green Revolution model of water intensive chemical farming under World Bank and US pressure, India has over exploited her ground water, creating a water famine.  I had written about this in 1984 in my book, “The Violence of the Green Revolution”. Chemical monocultures of the Green Revolution use of ten times more water than the biodiverse ecological farming systems.

In the 1970’s the World Bank gave massive loans to India to promote ground water mining. It forced states like Maharashtra to stop growing water prudent millets like jowar which needs 300 mm of water and shift to water guzzling crops like sugarcane which needs 2500 mm of water. In a region with 600mm rainfall and 10% ground water rechange, this is a recipe for water famine (see Navdanya’s “Financing the Water Crisis).

A new study led by Matthew Rodell of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland published in “Nature” has shown water levels in North India have fallen by 1.6 inches (4 centimeters per year, between August 2002 and August 2008. More than 26 cubic miles (109 cubic km) of ground water have disappeared from aquifers between 2002 and 2008. Most of this ground water has been extracted for chemical, green revolution style farming.

Not only has water wasteful chemical agriculture mined ground water, it has also mined soil fertility and contributed to climate change. Chemical fertilizers destroy the living processes of the soil and make soils more vulnerable to drought. Chemical fertilizers also produce nitrogen oxygen, a greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent the carbon dioxide.

The solution for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis, under which India is reeling, the same biodiversity based organic farming systems.

Biodiverse ecological farms address the climate crisis by reducing emissions of Green House gases such as nitrogen oxide, and absorbing carbon dioxide in plants and in the soil. Biodiversity and soils are the most effective carbon sinks. They also help adapt to climate change and drought by increasing soil organic matter which increases the moisture holding capacity of soil, and hence provides drought proofing of agriculture.

Biodiverse organic farms increase food security by increasing the resilience and reducing the climate vulnerability of farming systems. They also enhance food security because they have higher production of food and nutrition per acre than Green Revolution monocultures which measure the yield of our commodity, not the total food output, nor the nutritional quality of food.

Biodiverse organic systems also address the water crisis. Firstly, production based on water prudent crops like millets reduces water demand. Secondly, organic systems use ten times less water than chemical systems. Thirdly, by transforming the soil into a water reservoir through increasing its organic matter content, biodiverse organic systems reduce irrigation demand and help conserve water in agriculture.

Maximising biodiversity and organic matter production thus simultaneously increases climate resilience, food security and water security.

However, the dominant paradigm of agriculture based on the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering is based on reducing biodiversity and reducing organic production to promote monocultures based on intensive inputs of chemicals, water, and fossil fuels. And as the multiple crises deepens because of the non-sustainable practices, corporations that are the driving force behind the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering, try and transform the crisis into new marketing opportunities. Examples include the patenting of climate resilient traits that farmers have evolved over centuries and projecting this biopiracy as an “invention” (Navdanya, Biopiracy of Climate Resilient, 2009). In a recent article “Fight drought with Science”, Henry Miller, the author of “The Frankenfood Myth” has stated that “the first drought resistant crop, maize, is expected to be commercialized by 2010. If field testing goes well, India could be a potential market for this variety.” What Mr. Miller fails to
mention is that India has hundreds of thousands of drought resistant crops, some of which are conserved in and distributed from Navdanya’s community seed banks. These are the seeds farmers are using in this drought year. While cultivation of rice has gone down from 25.673 million ha to 19.13 million ha, the area under water prudent drought resistant nutritious crops, unfortunately called “coarse grains”, has gone up from 15.325 to 15.956 million ha.  The biotechnology industry is clearly a laggard in breeding for drought resistance compared to centuries of breeding by India’s farmers. Miller also fails to mention that the genetically engineered drought resistant maize seed performs badly in normal years. This is not science. Another example of corporate opportunism in this period of drought is the pushing of “Round-up”, a broad spectrum herbicide under “Zero-Tillage” and “Conservation Tillage” programmes.    Round-up kills everything green. It is therefore destroys the biodiversity and
organic matter that is needed to promote climate resilience, conserve water and increase food production.

The severe drought in India will force the government to act. It is vital that the Government does not use this emergency to act as a marketer of GM seeds and Round-Up. The alternative is clear. It involves
1.    Conservation and large scale distribution of open pollinated varieties / open source seeds of water prudent crops.
2.    The promotion of organic agriculture to increase climate resilience and food and water security.
3.    Incentives to farmers for a shift from water guzzling green revolution agriculture to water conserving biodiverse organic farming. Farmers did not create the green revolution. They should not be punished for its consequences. They need to be encouraged to create alternatives.

While long term ecological security, food security and water security needs these transition, the immediate emergency needs the provisioning of food and water to the drought hit areas.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission