Spreading message

  • 29/06/2001

The message of community based water harvesting is spreading - not just in India but also globally. The Food and Agriculture Organisation ( fao ) now sees "increasing water harvesting and water conservation" as a key challenge for ensuring food security.

For a large number of people, especially those who live in degraded lands, food insecurity remains a daily reality. In its report entitled The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2000, the fao states that though the numbers of the hungry are declining and are expected to decline further - from 18 per cent of the world's population or 791 million people in 1996-98 to 6 per cent or 400 million people in 2030 - these numbers are still a blot on an otherwise richer and richer humanity. A large proportion of the hungry are small farmers living in degraded lands. India, of course, occupies a place of dismal pride. Only the hungry of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, North Korea and Mongolia in Asia, Haiti and Nicaragua in the Americas, and a number of Sub-Saharan countries are hungrier than the hungry of India. India, without any doubt, tops the list of the hungry nations - some 207.6 million out of a total population of 966.1 million in 1987, more than a quarter of the developing world's hunger-struck. What an extraordinary record! Makes you hang your head in shame.

Over the coming years, fao expert Parvaiz Koohafkan said population will grow, food requirements will increase and if mismanagement continues, the extent of degraded lands will also increase, making the task of meeting future food needs ever more difficult. With growing urbanisation and a shift of populations to towns and cities, there may one day be more land per farmer but there will be lesser agricultural land available per capita for food production. So how optimistic can we be about the future?

To understand new solutions that are emerging to meet this challenge, fao organised a special panel discussion on community-based experiences in dealing with food security and eradication of poverty for delegates attending the Committee on World Food Security. The committee plans to learn from these cases and recommend follow up action.

Jules Pretty of the University of Essex presented the findings of his review of 208 recent projects from 52 countries that used sustainable agricultural practices and technologies. This was not a random sample of projects but a purposive sample of good projects from which the world can learn the potential of these new (sometimes even old) practices and technologies. These technologies include zero tillage agriculture in Brazil, water harvesting in Peru, soil and water conservation including water harvesting in Niger and Burkina Faso, and drip irrigation in North Africa. In these 208 projects - covering roughly 29 million hectares of land farmed by some nine million farmers - Pretty found that the average increase in agricultural yield had gone up by 90 per cent after the project started. In some projects it had increased by as much as 700 per cent. Governments, on the other hand, have yet to learn from these efforts. As an example, Pretty pointed out that only two countries in the world, Cuba and Switzerland, have national policies for promoting sustainable agriculture.

As the only other speaker on the panel, I pointed out that India too has seen extraordinary community-driven experiences in restoring degraded lands with huge economic returns. All the experiences began with villagers harvesting their rainwater resources and then they went on to improve their agriculture and animal care. Once people began to internalise the importance of local water resources, they also began to appreciate the importance of their local watershed. Protecting these watersheds have brought returns to the local community from forestry as well. The entire process has taken 15-20 years and has brought an increase of Rs 4-5 crore (about us $1 million) in the annual village domestic product. In just the first 3-4 years of water harvesting we have seen numerous villages increase their income by Rs 40-50 lakh.

If we can achieve this in every village of India in the next 15-20 years we would not only banish rural poverty but also double India's gdp right at its grassroots. This would be truly remarkable economic development - through sustainable use of natural resources and at the poorest levels of the Indian society. If India is today poor, it is only because our politicians and professionals have failed their people. No minister in the present political dispensation, for instance, has ever uttered the following four words - gaon, garib, kheti or paryavaran - since it came to power.

I had prefaced my presentation in Rome saying that my message is so inspiring that it can easily get dismissed as hyperbole. But I am prepared to take people to see the change with their own eyes. The response was, however, equally inspiring. The delegation of Senegal immediately asked if I could visit their country after they have discussed my presentation with their President. But I still felt hollow inside. Whether Senegal ever learns from India or not is not so important for me but I do wish one day India's own politicos and officialdom will get inspired by India's own people.

- Anil Agarwal

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