By Azera Parveen Rahman
In a small village on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam in northeast India, 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 people, particularly among the farmers' community who are heavily dependent on the weather for the desired yield of their crops.
Water management practices, therefore, have become crucial as a much-needed adaptation measure, and farmers are increasingly looking towards nature herself to keep pace with her aberrations.
Horen 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 thereafter irrigating the rabi crop.
A pond in front of homes or in the backyard is a typical feature of villages in Assam. It provides for a staple in the Assamese diet -- fish -- and can also be used as a water source for cleaning and washing. "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 the multi-purpose of water source for the crops, as a fishery and for ducks.
Turning back to the traditional source of 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 state 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 in Assam, putting an estimated 356,000 people at risk of dental and skeletal fluorosis. Arsenic contamination is also a 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 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 groundwater. In addition to that, with massive cutting down of trees, bore-wells are drilling deeper to reach the lowering water table-"reaching very close to rocks that are rich in minerals like fluoride". This again is aiding in higher-than-permissible limits of fluoride being pumped up in the water.
Saikia further said that 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 of 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 tube-wells with contaminated water in red and laboratories which can test water samples have been set up in districts including the hill district 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 yet a dearth of programs promoting water harvesting and water conservation or storage. Forests can improve ground water recharge, reduce soil erosion and runoff, regulate flooding, and temperature of a place."
Meanwhile, PHED has started taking initiative of turning 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 once was, it seems, is our best bet for now.
(This story is as part of a IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Programme. Azera Rahman can be contacted at email@example.com)