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Indian farmers beef up below sea-level system for climate fight

Source(s):  Thomson Reuters Foundation, (TRF)

By Manipadma Jena

KUTTANAD, India - Farmer Moncy Joseph, who grows rice on land below sea level in India's Kuttanad region, is determined not to be beaten by climate change.

Last year, the 44-year-old bought two Kasaragod Dwarf cows, an endangered native breed that grows just 3 feet (91 cm) tall and whose dung makes extra-rich fertiliser.

Last season's bitter gourd vines, now withered grey, hang from plastic nets above the grazing animals. It's been three years since Joseph diversified into two-storey vegetable farming, using overhead trellises.

"Plan B - in readiness," he said at his home in Champakulam village, making light of the uncertainty faced by farmers in the southwest coastal state of Kerala as temperatures and the ocean rise.

Here in Kuttanad, scientists are working to adapt a 150-year-old Indian farming system used on land 2 metres (6.56 ft) below sea level that has withstood saltwater infiltration and monsoon floods, hoping it could help fight global warming, rising oceans and coastal storms. As the only part of India where rice is farmed below sea level, it was designated in 2013 by the United Nations as a globally important agricultural heritage system.

But since India's Green Revolution began in the 1960s, farmers came to rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost rice yields.

That damaged fish populations and distorted the system – an effect that has worsened in recent years as they use more chemicals to keep up production in the face of climate change.

Now efforts are underway to rejuvenate the traditional model as a wider "ecosystem approach" that treats rice, fish, ducks, cattle, humans, houses, coconut and cash crops as part of a single system, said Leena Kumari S., a scientist who leads Kerala Agricultural University's Rice Research Station in Moncompu town.

The aim is to make farmers self-sufficient, cutting the use of chemical inputs and costs, and providing an alternative income if crops fail due to weather or climate extremes, she explained.

Half of the Kuttanad region, a trough of 110,000 hectares (271,816 acres) covering 79 villages in three districts, is under sea level, consisting of reclaimed delta swamps fenced by dykes, out of which water is pumped every few days, similar to the Dutch polder system. It supports 30,000 farming families.

The rest consists of higher dry land where coconut trees are grown, as well as wetlands and a maze of water networks including canals and sea-water inlets.

Four rivers, fed by monsoon rainfall, drain into Kuttanad, bringing fresh water, fertile silt and flooding that can last for weeks between June and October.

When the rivers' flow slows from December to May, the water level drops below that of the sea, enabling salt water to leach into the low rice lands.

"So adapted were traditional rice varieties to local deep water situations that they grew taller with the rising flood water, keeping their panicles (grain-producing tips) above water at all times," explained Leena Kumari.

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  • Publication date 04 Apr 2017

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