Farmers in flood-prone Assam are adapting to the vagaries of climate change by going back to the old system of growing local varieties of rice or opting for newer crops like watermelon and sugarcane

Women working in a paddy field in flood-prone Assam (Image by Diganta Talukdar)

Women working in a paddy field in flood-prone Assam (Image by Diganta Talukdar)

As predictable as day turning to night, floods in India’s northeast state of Assam have this year too wrought devastation with a fresh wave in August killing dozens of people, affecting more than a million and inundating large swathes of land. For the farming community, the suffering continues even after the waters recede and many are adapting by moving from paddy to new crops like watermelon and peanut, or going back to local varieties of rice.

According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), more than more than 70,000 hectares of land went under water this year in the second wave of floods. For a state where agriculture is the main source of livelihood, this spells disaster. But the farmers, who saw one wave of floods in April and another in August, have been learning to adapt to the changes in  climatic patterns.

Floods have been an annual disaster but things are getting worse each year. Though many farmers are unaware of the phrase climate change itself or its technicalities, the effects – erratic rainfall, flash floods and drought – is something they are all familiar with.

“Floods have always affected us. But we have felt the effects even more over the last five years when the waters, after flooding our fields, took away the rich, cultivable soil along with it and left behind a sandy layer. How can I cultivate rice in such soil? It would take at least five years for the soil to become fertile again for paddy, but what do I do in the meanwhile?” asked Dhrubo Hazarika, a farmer in a small village about 40 kilometres from Lakhimpur on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra river.

He has started  for instance, has started cultivating watermelons for the past two years on his patch of farmland. Assam is traditionally a paddy cultivating state, and Das is a paddy farmer.

“I am a farmer and this is my only source of income to feed my family. Someone in the village suggested that instead of letting the land remain like a wasteland, I could grow watermelons in the sandy soil. And he was right. After me, many other farmers started growing watermelons in their land too,” he added.

Dr. Partha Jyoti Das, head of the Water Climate and Hazards (WATCH) programme in Aaranyak, an organisation that works on biodiversity conservation in the northeast, says that Hazarika is on the right track.

“Farmers are not just growing watermelons. They are also cultivating peanuts, rajma (kidney beans) and other such crops that have not been traditionally grown here. It’s all a method of coping with the effects of climate change,” Hazarika said.

Some farmers are also growing sugarcane in their degraded, sandy land.

“Flash floods lead to soil degradation. The top soil layer gets washed away and sand deposition takes place. . .sometimes it’s about six-seven feet. The natural reclamation of the land takes about five-six years. In the meanwhile that piece of land becomes useless, like wasteland. Now, farmers are utilising that intermediary time to grow other crops that they may not consume, but which has commercial value,” Das explained.

Farmers are also opting to go back to cultivating local varieties of rice—which were grown traditionally— instead of hybrid varieties that they had switched to many years ago.

“Local varieties of rice like boka dhan, joha, samraj, moinaguri, kolomdani and the like have a better chance of survival in the floods than the hybrid varieties. Hence we have been encouraging farmers to grow the local varieties,” said Tapan Baishya of the Lotus Progressive Centre, an NGO that has been working with 4,000 farmers in the Nalbari district, which lies in the plains of the Brahmaputra valley.

The process of paddy cultivation is long and involves preparation of the seed bed, its maintenance for a month and then transplanting the ‘kothiya’ (paddy shoot) to the puddle soil bed. According to Baishya, the transplantation process takes place between July-August, when the monsoon — and chances of a flood — is at its peak. “Even then, after the water recedes by September first week, there is every possibility that 75% crop of the local rice variety will survive. But the hybrid varieties have a very narrow window period for transplantation. Hence, there are lower chances of crop survival,” he explained.

Das added that certain varieties of rice like khali dhan are seriously affected by the floods as it is harvested during the monsoon. “Hence farmers are moving to different local rice varieties, like ahu dhan and bao dhan. This is leading to change in food habits. Tribal communities which traditionally did not eat bao dhan are now doing so.”

Bao dhan, Das said, is ‘flood resistant’ in the sense that the paddy grains remain above the water level because the plant is tall, and its roots are strong enough to withstand the water current.

Farmers are also going for mixed cultivation — like ahu and bao dhan. Ahu is the early variety, so if there are early floods, like this year when the first wave came in April, the crop may suffer, but the bao dhan would be saved. If the floods come late, the ahu would be saved and bao would have a better chance of survival too. It’s all about diminishing risks.

Scientists at the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) have developed rice seed varieties that are flood resistant. Jalashree and jalkuwari, two such ‘submergence tolerant’ rice varieties, according to an AAU official, “have survived the second wave of floods and have established themselves as the most suitable variety for flood-prone areas”.

Utpal Bharali, a farmer in Assam’s Sonitpur district, said experts have advised them to grow rabi crops like mustard and chickpea, which they would not otherwise. “We have also been told the benefits of double cropping (growing multiple varieties of crops in a single piece of land in the same season),” Bharali said. Rice is a kharif crop.

But climate change is not just floods. It also leads to drought. And scientists at AAU have developed drought resistance rice varieties. Apart from that, some local rice varieties are also drought resistant. “Climate change is also leading to erratic rainfall that is affecting the agrarian community. For instance, this year, places like Nagaon and Morigaon in lower Assam, did not get good rice production; while it was raining elsewhere, they did not get the rains on time,” Das said.

Monstrous in its effects, climate change is a reality and farmers in northeast India, including Assam are doing all they can—either going back to traditional practices, or adopting new crops—to face its challenges.

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