Tackling Climate Change

Given harsh climatic changes and dwindling water resources, farmers in Assam have come up with alternatives to manage environmental crises.

In a small village on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam, farmer Horen Nath stood gazing at his partially submerged paddy field. The floods had kept their annual date, but mercifully, the farmer said, the waters have started receding. "The weather has become very strange of late. We always had ample rain, but drought-like conditions? That was unheard of. And yet, in 2010, I remember the ground cracking up because of no rain," he said.

The effects of Climate Change – erratic rainfall, dry spells, flash floods – are increasingly being felt by the people, particularly in the farmers' community who are heavily dependent on the weather for their yield. Water management practices, therefore, have become crucial as a much-needed adaptation measure, with farmers increasingly looking towards nature to keep pace with her aberrations.

Nath, for instance, has understood the significance of rainwater harvesting as a measure against long dry spells. He dug out a pond near his field where rainwater during the monsoon can be stored for subsequently irrigating the rabi crop. A pond in front of homes or in the backyard is a typical feature of the villages in Assam. "We are just going back to our traditional knowledge in response to the changing weather," Nath said. His neighbour, whose pond is in the backyard, right on the boundary of his home and his field, serves several purposes: As a water source for the crops, to breed fish, and for ducks.

Turning back to the traditional source, surface water is also beneficial in tackling yet another Climate Change-induced problem – fluoride contamination in groundwater. According to a report tabled in the Assam Assembly in May 2017, the groundwater in 23 out of 32 districts of the state has high fluoride content. An official survey further says that fluoride levels in water above the permissible limit of 1 mg/l has been found in 11 districts across Assam, putting an estimated 356,000 people at risk of dental and skeletal fluorosis. Arsenic contamination is also an added threat.

Change in climatic patterns, says Dharani Saikia, an activist who has been working on this issue for more than a decade now, is one of the prime reasons behind this problem. Long dry spells have led to less rainwater seeping into the ground and replenishing the water table, thereby increasing the concentration of fluoride in the groundwater.

In addition to that, with the massive cutting down of trees, bore-wells are now drilling deeper to reach the lowering water table – "reaching very close to rocks that are rich in minerals like fluoride". This results in higher-than-permissible limits of fluoride in pumped-up water. And, said Saikia, using such contaminated water for irrigation has led to the discovery of above permissible limits of fluoride in crops like rice.

To tackle this problem, the state Agriculture Department sent out a directive in February this year (2018) to NGOs for assistance in setting up one lakh shallow tubewells (which don't drill as deep as bore-wells) for irrigation in different districts of the state. The Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) has marked tubewells with contaminated the water in red. Further, laboratories which can test water samples have been set up in districts, including the hill districts of Karbi Anglong, Nagaon, Hojai, and Kamrup.

"I, however, believe that using treated water from a natural, surface water resource is the best bet," Saikia said. Giving an example of Karbi Anglong where the "first fluorosis case was detected in Assam", he said that earlier hand-pumps were more in use in the area and since they don't drill beyond 80-120 feet deep, there was no problem of excess fluoride contamination. "Then there was the tradition of getting water from natural resources like rivers and ponds. With modernity and lowering of the water table, now, water pumps go 200 feet down bringing in above permissible limits of fluoride," Saikia explained.

At the policy level, the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015-2020) says: "Assam's water resource policies are distributive rather than proactive and there is still a dearth of programmes promoting water harvesting and water conservation or storage. Forests can improve groundwater recharge, reduce soil erosion and runoff, regulate flooding and temperature of a place."

Meanwhile, PHED has started taking the initiative of turning its back to nature and now supplies piped water that is treated from rivers like Kopili and Jamuna to villages in the Hojai, Nagaon, and Karbi Anglong districts. The options, it seems, are narrowing, especially when the Climate Change report talks of worsening "freshwater scarcity" in the future. Looking for solutions in what was once an inevitable resource, it seems, is our best bet for now.

(This story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Programme. The views are strictly personal)

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