By Janet Kirkton, Dredging Industry Steward
In the drought-affected state of Maharashtra, farmers are creating a more prosperous and sustainable future by beneficially reusing silt to enrich their soil and increase the overall resiliency of their communities.
It is well established that many parts of India have been dramatically impacted by drought, with the situation growing worse by the day. According to statistics published by Factly.in, the per capita water availability within the country has reduced by over 70% and in just Maharashtra alone, 78% of its districts have been severely impacted by drought. This is approximately 29,000 villages! The adverse effects of drought are many, as evidenced by the severe impacts on local economies, the environment, and societies. Even more devastating is the sad reality that thousands of farmers commit suicide each year.
At the gracious invitation of The Nature Conservancy, I recently took part in a trip to Maharashtra to visit villages impacted by a newly introduced policy called Gaal Yukt Shivar, which the State Government put in place to desilt more than 31,000 tanks over the next four years. Along with The Nature Conservancy, several NGOs and technical partners participated in this trip to assess this initiative and provide input on guidelines and management for the State Government of Maharashtra to reach the scale they intend. Several key members from The Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR), as well as leaders from Manavlok and Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal (SSM) were among our team.
Based upon the villages I visited, marginal (owning <5 acres) and landless farmers are who I consider to be most impacted by drought because they are also the most likely to migrate. In addition to dealing with drought, the challenges these farmers face are exacerbated by the negative impacts of migration, which often includes removing their children from school, delaying marriage, selling assets, and suffering from malnutrition or other health hazards. If these farmers were afforded the opportunity to silt their soil, they would dramatically increase their income and lessen or eliminate the need to migrate. In this way, marginal farmers would have the most to gain from the Gaal Yukt Shivar policy.
There are many factors contributing to drought in Maharashtra, some of which cannot be controlled.
- Insufficient rainfall
- Insufficient rainwater and runoff storage capacity
- Insufficient balance of ground and stored water
- Insufficient irrigation
- Poor crop selection
However, by dredging or desilting the existing reservoirs (or “tanks”) and beneficially reusing the removed silt, major improvements to storage capacity, the balance of ground and stored water, irrigation, and crop health can be achieved. The incorporation of silt, at a mix rate of approximately 200-300 m3/acre, dramatically improves the health, drought resistance, and productivity of the soil, year over year, for a period of at least 10 years.
Just like everything in life, this solution will not be right in every situation or environment. The success of this solution is based upon the quality and characteristics of both the silt and the existing soil. I don't want to present it as a one-size-fits-all method.
Cotton is one of the predominant crops in the region that thrives in silted soil. The farmers I spoke with reported a doubling of crop yield at a minimum, higher quality “threads,” and an overall improvement in crop health and resiliency. Although quality is measured slightly differently for each crop, the overall benefits of silted soil were similar for each of the other crops I observed as well, to include: sugarcane, pulses (legumes), and fruit trees. Given the nutrients and quality of the silt, most farmers also reported a significant reduction in the use of fertilizer and the presence of weeds. In addition to saving time and money, the reduction of chemicals is better for the environment.
Economic benefits of silted soil:
- Increased water retention makes it drought resistant
- Crop production doubles, at least
- Fertilizer use is reduced by 50%, at least
- Weeds are reduced, almost entirely
- Barren land can be transformed into productive farm ground
- Crop cycles increase from one to two or three, with inter-cropping a new standard
- Improved soil structure and characteristics enable farmers to group new and different crops
Social and environmental benefits of silted soil:
- Additional crop cycles enable marginal and landless farmers to stay in one village, without the need to migrate. This means children can go to school, families are healthier, and the overall well-being of communities is improved
- Access to drinking water is increased
- Access to water for animals is increased
- Overall level of poverty is reduced
You can read more about our trip on the Nature Conservancy’s blog. The bottom line is that despite being historically drought affected, this strategy enables farmers and communities to develop sustainably, whether it rains or not. I would love to hear your thoughts on projects like this. Please reach out on LinkedIn to talk more!