Seeds of Hope

By Neha Khator | USAID| January 8, 2018


Improved seeds and better access to water have proved a winning combination for these Indian farmers.

Three spokes in his back wheel have almost come off, but farmer Kunwar Munda adjusts his feet and continues to cycle. Even as the breeze rushes through his hair, it is never enough to match the scorching sun. Trees and the ground have been burnt stony brown and dry.

After almost an hour of cycling, Munda arrives at a tented location in Mungadih village in Angara block in the eastern state of Jharkhand in India.

This is the third Kisan Mela (Farmer’s Fest) organized by USAID, the Centers for International Projects Trust (CIPT) and Birsa Agricultural University (BAU) under the Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers’ Livelihood (SAFAL) Program. Hundreds of farmers from across 15 villages have arrived here. Munda parks his cycle next to a large tree and joins a party of known faces from his village as a few hundred farmers continue to pour into the tent.

Among the arriving farmers is 22-year-old Sapna Devi. Unlike Munda, she had to cross a forested mountain on foot to reach the event.

Farmers gathered under a tent to collect their bags of high-yielding rice seeds. / Neha Khator, USAID

The farmers wait in anticipation before officials from the USAID-supported SAFAL project began distributing 1,200 bags of high-yielding rice seeds to the hundreds of farmers that have congregated.

As names are called one-by-one, farmers queue to get their bags, each containing five kilograms of high-yielding rice seeds.

Farmer Kunwar Munda smiles after collecting his bag of rice seeds. / Neha Khator, USAID

As Munda collects his bag and rejoins his group, his face beams with a smile that’s unstoppable.

“I have heard so much about these seeds. Farmers in villages near mine have doubled their crop production since they got these. And even the drought last year did not affect them. It is my turn now,” he says.

Munda, like every farmer in Jharkhand, is trapped in a vicious and complex agricultural quagmire.

The state has a mountain topography, which means that the land here is rocky, uneven and less fertile.

“Out of the state’s entire land mass, only 35 percent is cultivable land,” explains Kamal Vatta, director of CIPT. “And even though Jharkhand receives monsoon rains twice the national average, the state’s [sloping] geography means that 90 percent of the rainwater quickly washes away, leaving the farmers distressed with severe water shortage and periodic droughts.”

To compound these problems, farmers here grow a traditional, low-productive rice variety using farming methods passed on to them through generations. And, like most farmers here, Munda owns only a small plot of land. His father upon his death divided his one acre of farmland among Munda and his four brothers, leaving only one-fifth of the land each to cultivate. As a result, Munda barely produces enough to feed his family beyond six months.

To break this cycle of extreme poverty and food insecurity, USAID organized the first Farmer’s Fest in June 2015. Through this project, 730 farming families were selected from across 10 villages to receive high-yielding rice seeds along with training in modern sowing and farming methods.

Farmer Sapna Devi after receiving her bag of rice seeds. Through this USAID project, 730 farming families were selected to receive high-yielding rice seeds and training in modern farming methods. / Neha Khator, USAID

But seeds alone couldn’t do the magic.

“In India, farming is still rain-fed and rain-dependent. To cultivate a good crop, farmers need assured access to water during the months of shortage. That is why we began building dobhas or small ponds,” says Vatta.

Adobha is a low-cost rainwater harvesting technique where a 10-by-10 foot pit is dug to trap the rainwater.

“Under the SAFAL project, CIPT and agriculture scientists from Birsa University used geospatial mapping to carefully identify rain and water stream patterns to build the dobhas in strategic locations. In the first year, we built 20 such dobhas — two each in the 10 selected villages,” adds Vatta. The farmers then draw the required amount of water from the dobha using a pipe powered by a pump.

The dobha built near farmer Sukhram Bediya’s farm / Neha Khator, USAID

Farmer Sukhram Bediya from Mungadih village proudly shows the dobha built an arms-length from his less than 1-acre farmland. Whereas before he was producing barely 150 to 200 kilograms of rice a year, after utilizing the higher-yielding rice seeds and dobha irrigation technique, his production shot up to 450 kilograms in only a year.

“After I harvested the rice, the project staff provided me vegetable seeds which again turned out very well. I sold the vegetables in the nearby weekly bazaar, and now I earn an average Rs. 1,000 ($16) every week just by selling vegetables,” says Bediya.

Currently, lush green colocasia leaves (cultivated for its nutritious leaves and root) and ripened tomatoes cover his field. These will soon be cleared to be sold at the weekly bazaar and will make way for his next rice crop.

Farmer Sukhram Bediya shows his field. / Neha Khator, USAID

“In the last two years, I have never left my fields empty. I’m producing something throughout the year now,” says Bediya, a new gold-coloured watch reflecting the sun as he smooths his crisp, light-blue shirt with his hands.

With rising farm production came rising incomes, and farmers like Bediya and Bharat Ram, who is from a nearby village, owe their newfound prosperity to the seeds and dobhas backed by USAID.

Bharat Ram’s daughter had just passed her Grade 10 exams the year he made Rs. 15,000 ($244) by selling a bumper cucumber harvest. “From that money, I paid Rs. 5,000 ($77) for her admission fees to enrol her into the Women’s College in Ranchi (the state capital).” Adds Ram with a tone of disbelief: “Who would’ve thought that cucumbers could one day pay for my daughter’s education.”

As these stories of transformed livelihoods travelled across villages far and wide, farmers like Munda and Sapna Devi began joining the SAFAL project. Like Bharat Ram, Munda too wants to send his sons to study in a private school in the city. “They are talented, bright boys and I know they’ll do well for themselves if they get the right education,” says Munda.

In the last two years, the project has built 320 dobhas in 30 villages in the Angara block alone and has enrolled over 2,100 farmers, providing them with access to water and seeds of hope.

The project has been so successful that the local state government has taken notice and plans to drastically ramp up dobha construction going forward.

“Based on the success of our program, the Jharkhand state government has now committed to constructing 500,000 dobhas across the state by 2022, collectively saving 12.5 million cubic meters of rainwater,” says Vatta. The Jharkhand state government’s efforts support the Indian Prime Minister’s flagship national goal of providing “water to every farm” and doubling farmers’ incomes and productivity.

Farmer Sapna Devi, though, has simpler dreams. With the increased farm income, she hopes to buy herself a red saree. “It would look good on me, right?” she asks. “Oh yes, you’ll look very pretty,” giggle her friends from behind.


About the Author

Neha Khator is a development and outreach communications specialist with USAID’s mission in India.


Article Disclaimer: This article was published by USAID Frontlines and retrieved on 01/09/2017 and posted here for information and educational purposes only. The views and contents of the article remain those of the authors. We will not be held accountable for the reliability and accuracy of the materials. If you need additional information on the published contents and materials, please contact the original authors and publisher. Please cite the authors, original source, and INDESEEM accordingly.


Modernizing rainwater harvesting for the dry areas


Written on Nov 26,2017


Although there is renewed interest in indigenous rainwater harvesting, traditional practices and technologies are rarely suitable or feasible. ICARDA is promoting a practical and cost-effective alternative that combines indigenous knowledge with mechanization to enhance effectiveness and strengthen resilience.

Although rainwater harvesting remains relevant, there have been few efforts in recent decades to modernize old practices, develop new ones, or create an enabling environment to unlock its full potential. Many rural communities have become overly attached to old practices and all too often the concept of rainwater harvesting is blamed for failure when in reality mismanagement and poor design are most at fault.

The limitations of rainwater harvesting

One key limitation is that the technical aspects of water harvesting structures – never simple and often complex – are usually implemented by unskilled labor. Laying ridges or contour lines is essential to the proper functioning of a water harvesting system, but this is a complicated procedure and requires special training. Proper site selection is also required. Failure to adequately tailor a method to site characteristics – topography, soil type, vegetation cover etc. – will result in failure.

In addition, the contextual environment in the drylands is increasingly unfavorable. The break-down in collective conservation systems, subsidized feed, and a corresponding increase in animal populations and overgrazing means that unless new legislation is introduced and existing institutions are reformed dry ecosystem restoration schemes will have limited success.

A practical and cost-effective approach

In an effort to overcome these constraints, ICARDA scientists worked with two communities in Jordan’s badia – Mhareb and Majdieh – to design, test, and promote a practical rainwater harvesting package. The package combines indigenous knowledge with mechanization and a contour laser guiding system to enhance the accuracy of ridges and bunds.

Efforts were also taken to improve the selection of restoration sites, design appropriate structures, select the right shrubs, and most importantly, implement sustainable grazing strategies and ensure on-going maintenance.

With support from Jordan’s National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension (NCARE), 80% and 90% of farmers in Mhareb and Majdieh used the package. Jordan’s Ministry of Environment also adopted it, allocating funds for its implementation across 2000 Ha so far – an area the Ministry is planning to extend even further.

The result? Rapid vegetation growth, more animal feed, less soil erosion, and enhanced biodiversity. The package is also cost-effective: it costs a mere USD 32/hectare – which includes the production, planting, and maintenance of shrub seedlings – and the economic internal rate of return is estimated at some 13%.

Achieving long-term sustainability

While the positive impacts of the rainwater harvesting package are clear, additional financial support is needed to extend the intervention over a wider area and ensure its long-term sustainability. Given that local communities are unable or unwilling to fully cover the costs of implementation, public funding is essential.

However, to extend benefits and reduce costs even further, public-private partnerships should be initiated to pay for the building of water harvesting structures. This would enhance the intervention’s viability across the dry areas and ensure that many more rural communities could benefit from land restoration and enhanced resilience to climate variability and change.

This blog is based on an article recently published in the Journal Environmental Reviews: ‘Rainwater harvesting for restoring degraded dry agro-pastoral ecosystems; a conceptual review of opportunities and constraints in a changing climate.’


Article Disclaimer: This article was published by the ICARDA and retrieved on 12/07/2017 and posted here for information and educational purposes only. The views and contents of the article remain those of the authors. We will not be held accountable for the reliability and accuracy of the materials. If you need additional information on the published contents and materials, please contact the original authors and publisher. Please cite the authors, original source, and INDESEEM Inc. accordingly.