December 14, 2009 / 5:48 PM / 8 years ago

Indian farmers adapt to shifting weather patterns

<p>Women labourers are silhouetted against the setting sun in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh December 11, 2009.Ajay Verma</p>

GORAKHPUR, India (Reuters) - As global leaders and top scientists in Copenhagen debate how to deal with climate change, farmers in flood-prone areas of northern India are taking it into their own hands to adapt to shifts in the weather.

For decades, people of Uttar Pradesh, whose population is more than half that of the United States, have been witnessing erratic weather, including increasingly intense rainfall over short periods of time.

The rain, combined with heavy mountain run-off from nearby Nepal, which is also seeing heavier-than-usual rains, has inundated villages, towns and cities in the region.

Such floods have destroyed homes, crops and livestock, highlighting the fact that the poorest in countries such as China and India are most at risk from climate change.

While world leaders in Copenhagen argue over who should cut carbon emissions and who should pay, experts say low-cost adaptation methods, partly based on existing community knowledge, could be used to help vulnerable farmers.

In the fields of Manoharchak village, where terms such as "global warming" are unknown, such experiments are bearing fruit, changing the lives of poor farmers who outsmart nature using simple but effective techniques to deal with rising climate variability.

"For the last three years, we have been trying to change our ways to cope with the changing weather," said Hooblal Chauhan, a farmer whose efforts have included diversifying production from wheat and rice to incorporate a wide variety of vegetables.

"I don't know what those big people in foreign countries can do about the weather, but we are doing what we can to help ourselves," said the 55-year-old from Manoharchak, situated 90 km (55 miles) north of the bustling city of Gorakhpur.

IMPROVISATION

Villagers here have raised the level of their roads, built homes with foundations up to 10 feet above ground, elevated community hand pumps and created new drainage channels.

Supported by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group -- a research and advocacy group -- farmers are also planting more flood-tolerant rice, giving them two harvests a year where they once had one, and diversifying from traditional crops to vegetables such as peas, spinach, tomatoes, onions and potatoes.

The diversity of crops, they say, is particularly beneficial when their wheat and rice fail. And the vegetables give them not only a more varied and nutritional diet, but also help in earning an income when excesses are sold.

Increasingly, intense rain means farmers in the region also have to contend with silt deposition from long periods of water-logging in their farms.

But 50-year-old widow Sumitra Chauhan, who grows about 15 different vegetables as well as rice and wheat on her two-acre plot, says she has learned ways to overcome the problem.

"We plant our (vegetable) seedlings in the nurseries and then when the water drains, we transfer them to the land so there are no delays," she said, standing in her lush green plot packed with vegetables including mustard, peas, spinach and tomatoes.

CLIMATE REFUGEES

Farmers have also started using "multi-tier cropping" where vegetables like bottle gourd and bitter gourd are grown on platforms raised about 5-6 feet above the ground and supported by a bamboo frame.

Once the water-logged soil drains, farmers can plant the ground beneath the platforms with vegetables and herbs such as spinach, radish and coriander.

Warmer temperatures and an unusual lack of rain during monsoon periods in eastern Uttar Pradesh have also led to dry spells. To cope, villagers have contributed to buying water pumps for irrigation, lowering their dependence on rain.

According to Oxfam, which is supporting the action group's work in Uttar Pradesh, millions of people in India have been affected by climate-related problems.

Some have been forced into debt. Others have migrated to towns and cities to search for manual labor or have had to sell assets such as livestock to cope.

"It is true that developing countries need a lot of investment to adapt to the effects of climate change, but small and marginal farmers, who are some of India's poorest, can make a start by using simple, cheap techniques to help themselves," said Ekta Bartarya of the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group.

Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Alex Richardson

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