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As Lands Turn Saline Due To Rising Sea Levels, Villagers In TN Abandon Agriculture 

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In Lalpuram, a small village panchayat in Cuddalore district, 70-year-old Rakkini Ammal owns an acre of land where she cultivates rice. But Lalpuram has been facing an acute water crisis for many years and yields in her land have been continuously decreasing. Presently, the village gets its water supply from Mettur Dam, but that’s hardly enough for farmers like Ammal to get by. 

In addition, the groundwater in this area is turning saline and hence becoming unfit for agriculture – forcing farmers to consider giving up agriculture and exploring alternate avenues for livelihood. 

Increasing Groundwater Salinity

In coastal districts like Cuddalore, where groundwater is one of the main sources of irrigation when the rainfall is low, increasing the salinity of groundwater has made many agricultural lands unfit for agriculture.

In Lalpuram and nearby Panchayats like Melavanniyur and Vayalur, for example, farmers usually cultivate rice, urad Dal and pulses. As per the farmers in the area,  earlier these lands would yield at least 30 bags of produce, but this has now reduced to 15-20 bags per acre of land. 

Since coastal communities are heavily dependent on groundwater, its increasing salinity has become a major cause of concern in these parts in the last few years.  It impacts the agricultural economy the most because agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the state using 75 per cent of the state’s water resources.

As sea levels rise due to climate change, low-lying coastal areas across the country are witnessing this change – increasingly being inundated with saltwater, gradually contaminating the water table. “As seawater is heavier in density it occupies the bottom level making its removal impossible. Therefore, it becomes easy for the seawater to percolate down to the depths through capillary action. Hence, the groundwater in coastal areas would also have higher salinity.” says Dr Jyoti Srivastava, a Scientist at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences.  

One of the other impacts is increasing groundwater salinity in coastal aquifers  – where continental fresh groundwater and seawater meet.  Seawater intrusion in coastal aquifers also occurs due to human activities such as over-extraction of groundwater and urbanization. The net effect of these developments includes agricultural production being negatively impacted and internal migration happening due to it. Climate change is also increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including droughts and heatwaves causing more intensive use of groundwater for drinking and irrigation, that’s is depleting the water table further. 

Impact Of Salinity On Agricultural Practice In Cuddalore

 “Cultivation in these panchayats begins during July and ends in April and earlier we used to cultivate three varieties of rice – Samba, Kuruvai and Navarapattai – during this period. We go to work in agricultural lands but don’t get much work now,” says Juliet, a 49-year-old daily wage labourer from Siluvaipuram.  

According to Juliet, due to water scarcity, farmers now cultivate only Samba rice and that too for a short time, with the fields remaining barren most of the year. “If enough water is available, we can cultivate rice all through the year or sesame seeds and urad dal which require less water. It used to be very easy to cultivate lands 15 to 20 years before. But now costs are increasing due to water scarcity and use of pesticides and profits are also decreasing,”  Juliet says.

Agricultural land in Cuddalore District. Representational image only.

The impact of this goes far beyond agriculture. Locals say that small lakes nearby are polluted and wells are also drying up. Hence, they are forced to rely on groundwater to meet their household needs.  But, most borewells here yield only saline water and families in these panchayats have to rely on existing scarce groundwater resources.  

In 2019, 24 districts in Tamil Nadu including Cuddalore were declared as drought hit due to the failure of the northeast monsoon. According to the National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India of 2017, Tamil Nadu is one of the states where over-exploitation of groundwater resources has been observed. The annual groundwater extraction increased from 77% to 81% and was around 14.73bcm. The report says that out of 1166 firkas or revenue blocks which were assessed, 462 have been categorized as ‘Over Exploited’, 79 as ‘Critical’, 163 as ‘Semi-Critical’,427 as ‘Safe’ and 35 have been categorized as ‘Saline’. 

Bleak Futures For Locals

With the availability of water decreasing and groundwater salinity increasing, agriculture in this area has become unsustainable for many, who depend on it for their primary source of income. While some continue farming despite the low yields due to a lack of other viable options and skills, many are migrating to other sectors for work. For example, women from Lalpuram and surrounding areas now work as daily wage labourers in the construction sector with pay of around Rs. 450 per day. 

Juliet with her family at her home in Siluvaipuram. Representative image only.

Men in these villages, too, are choosing to migrate to nearby cities and towns like Chennai, Puducherry, Chidambaram, Cuddalore or Thanjavur to work in cement slab making units, where they earn around Rs. 20 to make a slab. The more slabs they make, the more money they are paid and this is seen as a lucrative job in this area. 

The Draft Tamil Nadu Action Plan on Climate Change 2.0 which was released in 2020 lists several climate mitigation strategies that have been undertaken by the government. This includes recharging aquifers using abandoned open wells and defunct bore wells, diversion of excess to water deficit areas, deep ploughing to increase water infiltration efficiency, improve groundwater quality and check seawater incursion. Water conservation strategies such as micro-irrigation have also been implemented. 

The Government is suggesting farmers use sustainable crops with low horsepower pumps following spacing distances between each borewell and artificial recharge structures such as ponds, recharge pits, injunctions well etc.,” says Ashok Kumar Rajagopal, a Climate Change and Water Resources Specialist who has worked with Tamil Nadu’s Water Resources Department. “High utilisation of groundwater by heavy industries should also be restricted or taxed heavily,” he added. 

The draft also notes that a lot of work still needs to be done in popularizing technologies for managing extreme weather events, soil salinity management and the use of salt-tolerant crop varieties. It also noted that the use of crops which require less water, drought resistance and heat tolerance should be promoted during the Kharif season (from July–October during the southwest monsoon) to increase production levels. The draft policy brief also says that alternate agro-based livelihood options such as livestock rearing, honey bee rearing, goatery, mushroom production should be promoted among the farming community as alternate sources of income. 

As sea levels rise and climate change exacerbates the situation, it is clear that finding ways to manage water resources efficiently and using them to grow food without turning the soil into salt clearly requires urgent attention from both the community as well as the government.

Article and images by: Krithiga Narayanan

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