Indian Farmers Cope With Climate Change and Falling Water Tables

By Meha Jain, National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee

Climate change is predicted to negatively impact millions of farmers across the globe, with some studies predicting up to a 40% decline in crop yields over the upcoming decades. For my dissertation, I travel to Gujarat, India, to understand how farmers are affected by and are responding to climate change. I have created this photostream to share what I have learned from the wonderful farmers who have shared their stories with me over the past four years.


Smallholder Farmers. Smallholder farmers comprise the majority of farmers across India. Despite the fact that agriculture is typically their primary source of livelihood, smallholder farmers have very small landholding sizes (< 2 hectares), little access to technology, and insecure access to irrigation, making them one of the most vulnerable groups to future climate change.


Dependent on Rainfall. Agricultural production is heavily tied to the quality of the monsoon rains, which only arrive for about four months of the year. Farmers state that the monsoon rains have become increasingly unpredictable over the past two decades, both in the total amount of rain that falls in a given year and the timing of rainfall. This makes it difficult for farmers to decide which crops are best to plant in order to get the highest yields during the monsoon season.


Surveying Farmers. To understand how farmers are affected by changes in climate, I am interviewing 750 farmers across central Gujarat, India, for three years. I hope to identify how farmers respond to changes in climate and whether these responses reduce the negative impacts of climate variability on their yields. My surveys show that farmers might switch the crops that they plant or delay the date of planting to better match with the rainfall in a given year.

For example, many farmers say that if rains arrive on time, they will plant cotton since it is the most lucrative cash crop in the region. However, if rains are delayed, farmers switch to castor, which is a more drought tolerant cash crop that produces high yields even in low rainfall conditions. If possible, farmers also increase the amount of irrigation that they use during low rainfall years.


Groundwater Irrigation. In this region of central Gujarat, farmers are heavily dependent on groundwater irrigation. Farmers with irrigation access are less susceptible to climate fluctuations because they can irrigate their crops during periods of low rainfall. Groundwater tables, however, are falling due to heavy irrigation use and water tables are currently 600 to 800 feet below ground.

When asked how long groundwater reserves will last, most farmers say five to six years. Farmers are digging deeper and deeper tube-wells to cope with this growing water scarcity.


Fields of GMO Cotton. Farmers have also transitioned towards planting more cash crops, which earn a larger amount of income in the marketplace. Since it was first introduced in this region in 2006, BT cotton (a Monsanto GMO variety that is more pest resistant than its indigenous counterpart) is the preferred crop to plant. The promise of BT cotton is starting to fade, however, as farmers notice an increase in pest outbreaks even with this GMO variety. This has resulted in increased costs due to the need to purchase more pesticides and reduced profits.


Livestock. Farmers have started to shift away from plant-based agriculture as their primary source of livelihood, given that farming is risky and profits are highly variable from year to year due to fluctuations in climate and market prices. One of the largest sectors that farmers are turning to is the rearing of livestock for dairy. Farmers say that investing in dairy is a low-risk livelihood since milk production is not very climate sensitive and because dairy earns high prices year round.

All farmers cannot make this transition, however, given the large initial capital needed to purchase livestock. One cow can cost up to $1,000 USD.


Investment in Education. When asked about the future of their children, all farmers say that they want a better life that is free of agriculture for their children. Most children in this region, even those from the poorest households, complete at least a middle school education, and many go on to high school, college, and vocational schools.

The hope is that these children will be well prepared to get salaried professions (for example, as engineers, computer technicians, or salesmen) in nearby cities. Because of this, there has been an increased outmigration of youth to urban areas.


Hope. At the end of the day, farmers say that despite what they do, it is impossible to predict their fate. They might diversify their income sources, send their children to schools, and build the deepest bore-wells possible, but that still might not be enough to keep their families out of poverty. Instead, most families pray for a better life, which is evidenced by the large number of temples scattered throughout the landscape (including this small temple in an agricultural field).

In the words of one of the farmers I interviewed, “Our fate is in the hands of God.” Hopefully, increased research will also improve the fate of these farmers.

Meha Jain’s work in India was sponsored by the National Geographic Society as part of the Young Explorer program.


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