More efficient water use in Indian sugar-cane farming:
Ground water exhaustion is threatening the income of millions of Indian sugar farmers and the future of the sugar industry. A consortium under the leadership of Solidaridad is now presenting a solution that involves efficient water use, combining sugar cane with other crops and an innovative monitoring system. Securing the approach as a whole, also at the level of local government, should lead to sustainable improvement.
One key element in the project is crop watering by means of drip irrigation. "This method involves small, thin pipes installed by the plant root," explains Sven Sielhorst of Solidaridad. "They provide a dosed amount of water through a small hole. And they deliver plant nutrition as well. So you economize not only on water use but on artificial fertilizer, too. That saves a lot of money and benefits the environment." Besides this, a number of other, more basic techniques are being applied, such as keeping the soil covered with organic material to prevent it drying out.
The second method is intercropping. Indian farmers tend to plant sugar-cane plants too close together, believing that this makes optimum use of the land. However, it means that the plants stand in each other’s shadow and thus they produce a lower yield. In fact, they should be planted further apart. This practice is being encouraged by showing farmers that they can use the resulting open spaces for planting other crops, thus allowing them to gain extra income.
Up to this point the Solidaridad project is not really new in substantive terms. "But", points out Sielhorst, "we are now adding something extra. The Dutch company eLEAF has developed a system for monitoring the sugar crop by satellite. This supplies hard data on things like the growth of the plants and the water use. And in turn this enables local authorities to develop concrete policy, especially for issues such as how much water one can remove from the ground, and at what times."
By means of the project, Solidaridad and its partners are reaching no less than 35,000 farmers in the states of Karnataka and Telangana. Staff of the participating sugar factories are advising a number of ‘lead farmers’. These in turn pass on their knowledge to the other sugar farmers and pay them regular visits to see how things are going. "We aim to retain this structure after our project ends in four years’ time," says Sielhorst. "The factories will then continue this approach. They earn back their investment because in this way they can maintain good and sustainable sugar production in both qualitative and quantitative terms. The farmers have a business case because the crop produces a higher yield."
Sense of urgency
The project is serving as a case for an expertise centre set up by Solidaridad in collaboration with the Hindustan Unilever Foundation and other parties. The goal is to develop methods that reduce water usage in agriculture. "There’s an increasing sense of urgency regarding water supplies. The project is clearly generating a lot of positive energy, managing to break through compartmentalized thinking in government and industry. It promises concrete solutions that can be applied at various locations, both in India and elsewhere."
...includes not only Solidaridad but also the sugar manufacturers NSL Sugars and Trident Sugars as well as the Vasantdada Sugar Institute, Osmania University and eLEAF. Technical support is being provided by Wageningen UR and funding by the Hindustan Unilever Foundation and by the Sustainable Water Fund (FDW) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implemented by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.