2) Information technology helps farmers cope with drought

When monsoon rains got delayed last year, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) saved thousands of villagers from incurring heavy losses in Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. 

Rains in 21 villages of Adakkal block in Mahbubnagar were 90% less than normal in June and July 2009 – the driest in 80 years. Yet many villagers did not migrate. Compare this with the monsoon of 2002, when a severe drought forced villager after villager to abandon their land and cattle and flee to cities.

Along with the government’s daily wage job schemes, ICRISAT’s farming systems meant for adverse weather prevented several villagers from migrating this year.

Working with self-help groups

ICRISAT, in partnership with a women’s self help group Adarsha Mahila Samaikhya (AMS), shares techniques with rural communities that reveal how vulnerable their villages would be to drought. With over 8,000 members, and a Rs. 3.5-crore corpus, AMS, (Adarsha Women’s Organization), successfully runs a highway restaurant and a super bazaar apart from lending micro loans.

AMS volunteers have been trained by ICRISAT in a novel mechanism of predicting drought severity, which in turn benefits farming families of Adakkal. The region has over 9,300 households with over 45,000 people. Besides technological skills, the association with ICRISAT has helped AMS win national recognition. In 2007, five of its activists were awarded the fellowship of the National Virtual Academy by the former President of India, Professor APJ Abdul Kalam.
"Sharing the right information with poor dryland farmers at the right time can help them overcome the effects of drought,” points out Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT.

Preparing forecasts with science tools

As part of ICRISAT’s drought-preparedness program, surface water found in tanks, ponds, lakes and streams is measured using data and images available with the US Geological Survey that utilizes the Landsat remote sensing imagery.

Also, with the help of on-site surveys, accumulation of silt and weeds in water bodies are examined along with the encroachment on reservoir beds. Field surveys are then combined with animal and human population data to calculate the water needs of humans, livestock and fields in each of the 21 villages. The gap between water requirement and availability is carefully estimated.

Since the shortfall is almost entirely met by rains, weather predictions by institutes such as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the India Meteorological Department (IMD) are also compiled. Data are then brought together and studied to develop forecasts of the level of drought in each village.

Forecasts come in the form of color-coded maps, which are created with the help of geographic information system (GIS), where the color red points to regions likely to face an intense drought. Yellow suggests a less intense drought while green denotes slight drought conditions.

With state government support at the initial stage, ICRISAT set up an information hub with some computers and cell phone-based internet connection. What's more, village knowledge centers, also with computers and internet services, were established in eight villages. The maps are sent to the AMS volunteers through the internet, who then save them on the computers. They make color copies available for display and discussions in the villages.

The volunteers have also been trained to interpret the color-coded maps. They even know how to measure rainfall using a rain gauge, and regularly upload the data on a website maintained by ICRISAT at www.vasat.icrisat.org. The near-real time data is used to adjust the forecast of drought severity.

"It is essential to give the community a stake in monitoring relevant data such as daily rainfall as their ability to manage this process adds significantly to the overall project for vulnerability assessment and preparedness,” says one of the field researchers of ICRISAT.

ICRISAT plans to set up knowledge centers in the remaining 13 villages shortly.

Solutions for drought

Our forecasts of the June-October season of 2009 indicated that more than half of the villages in Adakkal would find themselves in the grip of a severe drought. The predictions were made available to at least 15 percent of the population in each village. These villagers spread the information among other farmers.

Twice a week, research scholars at ICRISAT link up with interested farmers through live two-way video chats. During drought this year, the video conferencing facility, which was provided by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), helped agricultural researchers and scientists suggest short duration varieties of paddy to farmers as rice is the most-sown crop in this region.

More importantly, farmers learn about alternative crops and vegetables that require less water – castor, pigeonpea, green leafy vegetables like spinach and amaranth, tomatoes etc.

“ICRISAT scientists gave us information in advance through color maps. Because of their advice, we could grow dryland crops like ragi and groundnut. We are grateful for the services offered by ICRISAT. They have helped us get better profits,” says Balchander Rakela, a 38-year-old farmer of Rachala village.

Drought or not, the video chats also help farmers learn about scientific ways of treating seeds before sowing. For example, groundnut seeds can be dipped in fungicides to prevent the later growth of fungal spores on crops. There are practices that can minimize pests on standing crops also. For instance, neem seed extract can be sprayed on pigeonpea crops before flowers bloom.

A real help

Farming strategies ranging from cropping patterns to better management of soil and scarce water resource have indeed helped farmers.

“ICRISAT’s timely information about when to sow the seeds is proving profitable to us,” adds Balchander Rakela.

“To get more returns, we follow ICRISAT scientists’ suggestions. They sometimes come and check our crops. If they find insects, they suggest pesticide sprays and powder including neem leaves extract,” says Yadagiri, a 40-year-old farmer of Nijalapur village.

The hub also hosts information on crop markets and school exam results – data valued by rural families.

The maps can also help government officials in adopting key strategies to minimize the impact of drought. Supply side improvements can be effected. For example, bore wells for drinking water could be dug beforehand in villages likely to be worst-hit by the drought.   

Brand new achievement

ICRISAT’s efforts to utilize Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for agricultural development recently received a shot in the arm from the Reserve Bank of India.

As part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), its Deputy Governor Dr Subir Gokarn visited the ICT center at Komireddypalli village of Adakkal and presented AMS members of the village a credit of Rs 2.57 crores. This amount is expected to help them develop new micro-enterprises.

Komireddypalli is one of the eight villages adopted by RBI in Andhra Pradesh and will avail of new credit facilities for its disadvantaged farmers. The state has nearly 33000 villages.

Panduga Sujatha, President of AMS says that the federation would use this credit to advance new livelihoods for dairy farmers and artisans. She said that ICRISAT’s continued advisory on crop management and drought matters is of great value.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.