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Using traditional strategies to address water problems

Global warming has likely already caused changes in the world’s climate by delaying monsoon seasons, causing less summer precipitation and creating longer breaks between rainy periods. In South Asia, these changes have increased already existing food and water insecurity issues. Although India is home to 17 percent of the world’s population it only has access to 4 percent of the world’s water resources. One group of women in southern India is turning to traditional farming practices for immediate and sustainable answers to address these water problems.

Using SRI, farmers can save resources while increasing their yield. (Photo credit: IATP)Using SRI, farmers can save resources while increasing their yield. (Photo credit: IATP)The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective (WC) is a federation of women’s groups from 1,500 villages. The Tamil Nadu WC has a membership of over 150,000 women and is spread over 16 districts in this state in India. The Collective’s work to improve food and water security is based on three principles:

The first principle is to empower women as political actors at the societal level and as co-decision makers at the household level. Studies have shown that women’s role in the household decision making process impacts food allocation and empowering women can ensure that all members in the household are well-fed;

The second principle is to increase women’s participation in the local government system in an effort to ensure that their concerns, including land ownership and violence against women, are adequately addressed. In rural Indian society, most women are illiterate and don’t have much decision-making power in their households or in their communities. The women of the WC are finding ways to change that by pointing to an existing legal provision that required 33 percent of local government seats to be filled by women, WC members have been able to run for office in local elections since 1996;

The final principle directly addresses the issue of water insecurity in India by calling for the promotion of multifunctional agriculture. The idea is that agriculture, in addition to providing food, can also serve many functions such as providing rural employment, protecting the environment and preserving natural landscapes.

Farmers in India historically relied on well-developed, traditional irrigation systems that consisted of over ground pools of water, that were replenished by rainwater runoff and neighboring rivers. Community level water budgeting and an organized allocation and irrigation management system made these tanks sustainable water resources for small-scale farmers.

This system eventually collapsed unfortunately, when the local management was replaced by the state government and the tanks started to disappear. To add to the water worries, the state of Tamil Nadu promoted the cultivation of cotton and sugar cane in addition to rice. The production of these three plants requires large amounts of water and agro-chemicals, including fertilizers and pesticides, and has caused severe water problems by not only depleting water resources, but also contaminating the few resources left with chemical runoff.

The WC has advocated for a number of policy interventions that will strengthen the local food system as well as rebuild the natural resource base. One suggestion is to focus on the production of traditional millets, a crop that requires little water, can grow in poor soils, and without any synthetic fertilizers. This heat resistant crop is nutritionally superior to rice, wheat and maize – it has high calcium and fiber content as well as essential amino acids.

Unfortunately, current agricultural policies encourage farmers to grow other crops and millet has seen a 44 percent decrease in production in India, between 1966 and 2006.

To increase the popularity of millet, the WC has proposed that all crops, including millet, should be subsidized at comparable prices to maize and wheat subsidies. This price should not be far below the purchasing price so that marginal farmers are still protected.

To rebuild the natural resource base, the WC has resorted to the historical practice of “natural farming”; a system that requires limited inputs that one can obtain from one’s own farm. Farmers rely on cow dung and urine, as well as tree leaves that can act as fertilizers and pesticides. This method increases the water retention property of the soil and results in higher yields of better tasting crops.

By adopting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), farmers in Tamil Nadu are able to grow rice using 30 to 40 percent less water than conventional rice growing systems. This system requires fewer crops to be grown per acre and keeps the soil moist rather than submerging the plants completely in water. Farmers using this system increase their yield while saving money that would have been spent on chemical fertilizers. Farmers are also able to use the water saved for other domestic needs.

Improving water security does not simply mean increasing the amount of water available, but also means ensuring the water available is uncontaminated. Because fertilizer is available at a very low price, farmers in Tamil Nadu tend to use more than is required, which creates agricultural runoff that pollutes water sources. WC is advocating to end subsidies for fertilizer and pesticide companies and instead have direct payments made to farmers who can make their own decisions on which inputs are suitable for their fields.

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