Dryland agriculture yields poorly because of scarce water, rapidly-spreading land degradation and soils of low fertility, leaving millions of smallholder households food insecure. The situation will worsen if these farming communities don't find ways, for now and in the future, to better manage, natural resources (land, water, soil, plants and animals in particular).
Sustainable natural resources management (NRM) requires a holistic and integrated approach at the farm and watershed level, working in partnership with all users/stakeholders.
Integrated management : systemic analysis
Rice needs about 20,000 m3 of water per hectare while sorghum needs a tenth of that. Soils with poor organic matter content have low fertility and do not hold water well. Sustainable natural resources management requires us to understand the many biophysical interactions between water, soil, plants and animals. Farmers also manage natural resources depending on social and economical reality. For instance, a farmer who owns his own land will be keener on improving soil fertility of his plots. Market and seed input systems are key to promote more drought-tolerant crops.
Integrated natural resources management (INRM) or integrated genetics and natural resources management (IGNRM) takes into account in a systematic way, the biophysical, socio-political, and economic interactions of natural resource use, including crop biodiversity, to meet farmers production goals (e.g., food security, profitability, risk aversion) as well as goals of the wider community (e.g., poverty alleviation, welfare of future generations, environmental conservation).
Women constitute more than 50 per cent of the world's population and own less than one per cent of the world's wealth. The gender inequity of access to natural resources for agriculture must be tackled.
Tackling erratic rainfall and water scarcity
How could smallholder farmers in the drylands still boost their production in erratic and scarce rainfall conditions?
Research focuses on how to enhance water availability for a more productive rainfed smallholder agriculture, including safe use of waste water , through low-cost interventions manageable by farmers and poor communities.
Findings from ICRISAT’s watershed management research in India show the impact of simple water conservation and harvesting practices such as vermicompost, adapted tillage techniques, installing silt-stopping rock bunds, planting legume trees on bunds. This experience has been transferred in Africa like in Rwanda since 2006.
Water needs depends on the cropping and overall farming systems. For instance, chickpea needs from 80 to 180 days to produce grain depending on the genotype. Early maturity varieties are more adapted to drought-prone regions.
Policies, markets and institutions should support more water effective agriculture in water-scarce regions, eg through large-scale use of efficient irrigation or promoting dryland cereals instead of water intensive crops like rice.
Research looks at community management approaches to gather all water users in collective action towards a common goal, sustainable management of water resources.
Another research question is how to increase profit and improve nutrition per drop through a livelihood systems perspective at the watershed scale.
Drylands are prone to land degradation and soil erosion due to harsh environmental conditions, but also unsustainable farming practices. Together with water scarcity, poor soil fertility is a major limiting factor of smallholder agriculture in dryland tropics.
We need to help farmers achieve optimum fertilization, including building capacity to map soil fertility / nutrient profile.
Developing appropriate fertilization techniques like microdosing combined with soil conservation farming practices can have great impact on crop yields. For instance, more than 300,000 smallscale farming households in Zimbabwe have improved and stabilised yields (up to 100% increase in some farms) and conserved moisture and built soil health. [source : EIARD case study]
Scaling up strategies for impact
This is not only a question of technique. We have to explore various approaches for large scale adoption by farmers of sustainable NRM. Policies, capacity building, farmer-friendly communication and extension systems are some of the drivers for adoption of better practices. Farmers have to be at the centre, like Geetha, a progressive farmer and farm facilitator under Bhoochetana who teaches neighbouring farmers better soil fertilization practices.
Natural resources management involves understanding interactions between water, soil, plants (integrated model). To achieve significant impact, it requires time and collective effort to drive changes at a large scale.
There is a link between NRM and poverty that can go two ways. Development and sustainable NRM can be associated
with Improved human nutrition and livelihoods of smallholder households. The challenge in coming years is to accurately assess such impacts to avoid environmental degradation while intensifying agriculture (cf planned IFPRI assessment of BhooChetana )