Climate Change and New Indian Crops

By Julie McCarthy, originally published at NPR.

Hundreds of miles north of Delhi, in the state of Uttarakhand, the air is clean. And here, changing climate conditions can seem more like an opportunity to exploit than a looming threat to fear.

Along the hairpin turns of the Himalayas, brightly colored houses appear as though they’re painted on the sheer cliffs, and join the steppes as they slip into the Ganges. Roaring rivers are swollen by the summer monsoons.

But the rivers don’t feed mountain agriculture — it’s too difficult to pipe water up. The villages are rain- and snow-fed.

But the villagers report that less snow is actually falling, a decline they began to notice in the 1980s.

Suruchi Bhadwal leads an experiment designed to help farmers in high altitudes capitalize on the milder conditions brought about by a decrease in snowfall.

Her group, the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute, studies the impact of climate change on agriculture in the region. We head to a village where farmers were persuaded to make the most of their less snow-filled winters by cultivating land that used to lie fallow during the cold months.

“So now, they benefit because they are taking a crop out of it,” says Bhadwal. “And it gives them more in their homes and more to sell. It was a total win-win for them.”

In the village of Huddu, its ancient terraces are indeed sprouting a new crop — organic potatoes. They’re being cultivated alongside traditional crops.

On a rocky terrace, women are planting grasses used for fodder. Watching them is Basanti Devi, perched crossed-legged on a boulder, her face weather-beaten. She recalls 35 years ago getting five feet of snow. Calculating how much snow there is nowadays, Basanti swipes an imaginary line just above her ankle — a matter of inches, she says.

Anand Kumar Sharma, in charge of the western and central Himalayas for the India’s Meteorological Department, has doubts. Perception is one thing, he says, and “reality is something else.” People confuse climate variability — short-term, natural fluctuations such as El Nino — with the phenomenon of climate change, Sharma says.

Sharma used to be the chief meteorologist in Uttarakhand and notes that there are just two stations collecting data over the vast region that is filled with micro-climates. He says it’s not possible to know whether the reduced snowfall in one village is due to climate change.

An authoritative study released last year — whose authors include experts from India’s meteorological department and Earth Sciences Ministry — appears to identify phenomena considered consistent with climate charge. It found that 23 glaciers in Uttarakhand had sharply retreated between 1960 and 2000.

It also states that between 1951 and 2000, in northern parts of India, “There are significant rising trends of extreme rainfall trends,” which cause large-scale floods.

‘Earlier, that land wouldn’t give me much’

Adapting to their changing conditions, women are now harvesting the organic potatoes they planted in January. That’s when villagers took advantage of their lengthened growing season for the first time.

Surji Devi’s digging releases the scent of fresh earth into the air. At 60, she’s nimble, rapidly separating the potatoes into piles. She pulls out several that are spoiled and crinkles her face into a frown.

Kailash Bhatt is a community organizer who helped mobilize 48 of the 100 families here to try their hand cultivating year-round. Is he happy with the yield?

“Actually, not so happy,” Bhatt says. “But this is the first time.”

Visiting agricultural experts tell the farmers that they grew the wrong varieties. Narayan Singh, a project director for TERI, explains their yield should be three times what they grew.

“It’s not up to the mark,” he says.

But with proper seeding, Singh says, next time it should improve.

The team then demonstrates best practices for planting — nine inches deep, 18 inches between rows. It’s mostly the women of the village who have gathered to watch. The visitors tell them their village could someday add fruit trees to their terraces — excellent cash crops.

Their outdoor seminar takes place in the mountains, vertical carpets of summertime green. Stands of oak trees dot the landscape.

It’s uncertain how having relatively little snowfall will affect the surrounding villages in the years to come. Will their rushing natural springs slow? Will oaks be overtaken by evergreens?

What’s certain for Prem Singh Rana, a 39-year-old father of three, is that this village experiment holds promise. He managed to get his 200 lbs. of potatoes to market — there are only three or four cars in his village — and came home 2,000 rupees ($30) richer.

Rana is hopeful about the future. “Earlier, that land wouldn’t give me much,” he says. “But once I harvest the rest of the potatoes, I’ll have another $30 to $60.”

For Rana, that’s significant. This back-breaking cultivation has added 15 percent to his annual income. His earnings may seem small, but they are the result of something big: Finding advantage in climate change.

This article was originally published at NPR, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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