ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Creeping Deserts and Crouching Hunger

ANANTAPUR, Andhra Pradesh, India, Jan 5 2010 (IPS) – It is just the beginning of the year, but M. Manju Laxmi already feels anxious. In four months or so, she will be back to her old routine: stuffing the wide chinks under her weathered closed doors and windows with her old saris.

Laxmi, 42, along with her three children, her husband Nagaraju and his extended family, lives in Malyam village. Despite being one of the larger landholders with a 3.5 hectare-farmland, her family has been dogged by illness and debt even before she came here as a bride 23 years ago.

Since the last three years, as summer begins, three of the six younger children in the entire family, including Laxmi’s 13-year-old daughter, have been falling ill with respiratory problems that relent until June.

Malyam is one of the 13 villages in Kanekal and Bommanahal ‘mandals’ (administrative blocks) of Anantapur district in the southern Indian coastal State of Andhra Pradesh that have been fighting off ‘predator’ sand dunes every sowing season.

From May to August each year, strong surface winds blow from the west in an easterly direction, driving the fine particle sands into people’s homes, their children’s lungs and in thick layers on their agricultural fields.

“We are more afraid of the sand mass than we would be of a ferocious tiger; you can close the door against an animal but not against the sand,” exclaims Manju Laxmi. “It settles on the food, the water, on beds, on men and children and even between your teeth,” adds Desari Mohan, 52, of Govindawada, another affected village.

There are two major seasons in the Kanekal area – summer and winter. But there is a third, the ‘wind season’ – ‘gali kalam’ in local tongue – that hits between May and August, confirms K. Govindappa, head of the Department of Rural Development and Social Work in Sri Krishnadevaraya University in Anantapur.

Farmers maintaining small plots of agricultural lands are heavily affected. During these months the fields are ploughed for sowing, as the farm folk tap into the south-west monsoons in India. But the strong surface winds carry away the ploughed loose fertile top soil – which is lighter, alluvial type in these ‘mandals’ – resulting in a poor produce year after year. Water logging and salinization of soil due to sand formation is another growing issue.

Forest Department surveys in these 13 villages show 1,360 hectares of cultivation lands and 6,840 farmers are affected by the shifting sand dunes. Of these, 6,500 are small and marginal farmers with land holdings of a hectare or less and annual earnings averaging 800 to 1,000 U.S. dollars. Half the working population is landless farm labour while 15 percent belongs to the ‘dalit’ castes.

Many of them have encroached on the Hagari riverbanks and government land to raise some cash crops.

“When the waves of sand come, no one knows on whom the curse will fall. If it falls on my field, I wait impatiently for the winds to take it away to my neighbour’s field,” recounts Sivamurthy of Bidarakuntam village.

“Meanwhile, the rain and sowing season would soon pass, so we sow something on any land that is available – it may be government wasteland. What do we feed our children the whole year if we wait the whole season for the sands to move?” he asks.

The sand dunes were formed almost 200 years ago when heavy floods in the Hagari, a major tributary of the Tungabhadra River running through this area, deposited the river bed’s fine sand particles on very large tracts of agricultural fields on its eastern bank.

The predatory characteristic of the sand dunes was aggravated in the 1980s when Hagari was impounded in the Bhairavani Thippa dam and reservoir at Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka borders for a medium-sized irrigation project.

When unfettered, Hagari flowed mightily at a width of 200 metres, generously recharging ground water and maintaining healthy soil moisture, thus discouraging the mobility of the sand mass. After its waters were dammed, it has been reduced to a seasonal river, which flows for just a fortnight in monsoons.

Even as this happened, successive droughts, ecological degradation and receding ground water had pushed Anantapur to become the second driest district in India, after Jaisalmer in Desert State Rajasthan.

Falling in a rain shadow zone, Anantapur’s climate has progressively worsened from 13 droughts in 26 years (1943 to 1976) – or once every two years – to eight droughts in 10 years, or almost yearly, from 1998 to 2008, based on government data. The average annual rainfall has shrunk one-sixth over the century – between 1907 and 2006 – from 577 millimetres to 509 mm.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is affected by the degradation of fragile dry lands. Nearly half the world’s poor people already live in dry and marginalised lands.

Together, the shrinking Hagari and contiguous droughts caused the sand dunes’ mobility to jump manifold. Migrating sand dunes are the product of extreme degradation of land affected by high velocity surface winds, also known as the ‘Aeolian’ after Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds.

Though difficult, desertification is reversible and sand invasion can be tamed. In 1995 Anantapur was brought under the central government’s Desert Development Programme (DDP) aiming to restore the ecological balance and raise people’s income and agro-production. Controlling the sand dunes was a top priority.

“Measures to protect farmlands from shifting sand dunes in windy regions comprise planting tree fences or green walls between the sand dunes and the farm lands so as to decelerate the wind speed and reduce its spread. Planting grass belts and raising sand-fixing plants on the periphery of the sand dunes help stabilize them, prevent soil erosion and facilitate moisture retention,” explains Prof. Govindappa.

According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification conversions of marginal agricultural lands into suitable alternatives, such as forests or grassland, would do much to prevent land degradation and to regenerate long-term farming potential.

Amid increasing desertification and faced with falling agricultural produce, people resort to short-term, unsustainable survival methods even if they run the risk of endangering their long-term futures.

For instance, in Anantapur, 96,000 hectares of farm land are being irrigated by deep bore wells – a practice that contributes to aquifer depletion – compared to 30,000 hectares irrigated by canals and 8,000 hectares by tanks, based on 2007 data from the Central Ground Water Board under India’s Ministry of Water Resources. Since 2005, the government, through the DDP, has been trying to reclaim and re-green degraded common property pasture lands and the banks of Hagari River, which is a reserved forest area. The community, ignoring the long-term benefits, has put up resistance, accusing the government of snatching away their already tenuous livelihood and pastures.

Hence the government’s re-greening programmes under the DDP is not an option for them. They worry that if large-scale grass lands are to come up, among other measures, the government will prohibit grazing. Cattle – goats mainly – are a very important buffer livelihood sources. Hence, they say, they have no time to keep the goats tied and go fetch fodder for them.

B. Chandra Sekhar, divisional forest officer of the Andhra Pradesh government’s Divisional Water Management Agency, says the government will not antagonise the people. Thus it has started planting fruit-bearing plants with commercial value on unencroached parcels of land.

It is also encouraging scheduled caste groups – by offering them a 100 percent subsidy on saplings and drip irrigation – to plant mango and tamarind, which have a good market potential, on 30 to 150 acres of land clusters. Until they start bearing fruits in five years, the landowners can earn from inter-cropping groundnuts. That is, if the sand dunes will allow it, Chandra Sekhar says.

For now, however, one challenge remains: How the affected communities will sustain themselves in the intervening five years – a question everyone is asking.

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