Farmers Day: Science-based approach required to tackle drought and farmer distress

Water is a fundamental driver of economic development and human well-being across the world. In the near future, water demand is expected to far outpace supply. In South Asia, the impact will be felt very acutely as it is home to 23.7 per cent of the world’s population but contains only 4.6 per cent of global annual renewable water resources, which are unevenly distributed.

More than 90 per cent of all water abstracted in South Asia is used for agriculture, in comparison to 70 per cent  globally. About 60 per cent of agricultural water uses in South Asia rely on surface water and 40 per cent on groundwater. While the contribution of agriculture to GDP continues to fall in the region, this sector generates half of all employment opportunities. Agriculture has been instrumental in rural poverty reduction in a region where over 20 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

About 40 per cent of natural disasters recorded globally occur in South Asia. Among all the types of natural disasters in South Asia, droughts have caused the largest number of casualties in the last century. Nearly 6.1 million people have died from droughts, of which 69 per cent are from India and the majority of the remaining 31 per cent is  from Bangladesh.

Climate change has dramatically increased the frequency of drought occurrence and has resulted in severe farmer distress in South Asia. While the importance of water is recognised in the seven South Asian countries’ climate and water policies, it is rarely converted into concrete action, responses and priorities.

A drought not only increases farm distress, but also worsens groundwater extraction, leads to migration from rural to urban areas, and further inflames water conflicts between states and between farms, cities and industries. Sadly, drought management continues to be inadequately addressed in South Asian nations, not due to lack of policies and institutional framework, but due to the lack of a scientific approach, non-research-based policy making and absence of coordination between different functioning units and implementation at the ground level.

The very approach of drought management is in fact a question mark that focuses on quick-fix solutions without taking into consideration the long-term sustainability and livelihood issues of farmers. The key for long term alleviation of agrarian woes in the region is a systems approach to drought proofing and amelioration of farmer distress by evidence-based policy making and research-driven implementation.

Strategies to cope with drought and farmer distress through comprehensive research and  development (R&D) in the area of integrated water resource management (IWRM), land management, stress-resilient crops would bring much needed success to tackle agrarian distress. Revitalising institutions and creating evidence-based, research-driven government policies could reduce farmers' distress and build the system's resilience.

Quick fixes and fire-fighting attitude, hunch based policy-making, adhoc ground-level schemes would not help liberate the region from the recurrent curse of drought and farmer suffering. The need of the hour is to bring together top experts from private and public sector/ stakeholders/ R&D academia from agriculture universities under one virtual umbrella organisation of Drought Action Network (DAN) to focus on a science-based comprehensive approach to drought and farmer distress alleviation.

DAN, could be a virtual think tank and a socio-economic research laboratory, that can improve the quality of knowledge and usefulness of information in fighting drought. This network can develop itself into a state-of-the-art research institute, with the necessary resources, knowledge and skills. It can be an enabler in carrying out interdisciplinary research in drought resilience and water management practices in South Asia and assist in the application of research in reducing the farmer’s stress in the region.

-By Suhas Joshi

Joshi is head of Corporate Social Responsibility, South Asia for Bayer.

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