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Annex XIV



Drought prone countries in Asia and the Pacific experience wide fluctuations in agricultural productivity. The prevalence of traditional subsistence agriculture increases the possibility of crop failures during frequent periods of dry weather. This paper discusses the impact of drought on the agricultural sector in Asia and the Pacific. After taking into account the present scenario and following the implementation of strategies for drought management, this paper sets out several recommendations. They include intervention at various stages to meet short, medium and long-term goals.

Farmers' participation in technology development, drought monitoring, contingency crop planning and the overall agricultural decision-making process are considered important in working towards measures to mitigate the effects of drought. Various options for soil and rainwater conservation, integrated nutrient and crop management, development of water resources and watershed and alternate land use systems are examined. This paper advocates the development of agro-economic farming zones and proposes a structure for on-farm research, including capacity building for farmers.


Figure 1.
Water balance components of monsoon
Asia showing hydrological regions

Source:Isamu Kayane, 1971.

1. The Asia-Pacific region comprising 35 countries stretches east west from Iran to Cook Islands and north south from Mongolia to New Zealand. The Indian Ocean provides moisture for the summer monsoon over the southwestern area, while the China Sea, Gulf of Siam and Bay of Bengal are the main sources of water for the winter monsoon, which affects the northeastern region. Northwest India and much of Pakistan are extremely dry and receive limited rainfall annually. The desert and semi-arid conditions found here are in marked contrast to the tropical areas of coastal India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where annual rainfalls range from 1,000 to 2,000 mm. The wettest terrain is found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region where rains are abundant. On a national basis, most Asian countries receive an annual rainfall of between 1,000 and 4,000 mm. Its seasonal pattern can be classified into (i) a single rainy season, (ii) two rainy seasons, and (iii) uniform seasonal rain with no distinct wet season. A composite map of water balance for Asia (Isamu Kayane, 1971) shows that except for Indonesia, Malaysia, Central China, and Japan, all other countries in the region have a distinct dry season (Figure 1). Agricultural productivity throughout the region is strongly related to variations in precipitation.

2. The population engaged in agriculture in the Asia and Pacific countries varies from 50 per cent in Malaysia to 94 per cent in Nepal (ADB, 1996). Traditional agricultural practices continue to dominate in most countries. Widespread droughts and floods have caused severe crop failures leading to strained economies, abnormal food shortages, and at times famine (Table 1). The annual increase in human and livestock population further adds to the agricultural problems. In lowland areas (with altitudes of < 300 m), which represent a significant proportion of the total agricultural area in most countries, rice cultivation followed by wheat (irrigated) is the main cropping system. In the intermediate elevations (of 300-1,500 m), rice, maize, millet, sorghum, cotton, pulses, oilseeds, rubber, oil palm, coffee, sugarcane, fruits, and vegetables are grown. This paper discusses the issues of drought management in this zone.

Table 1.
Areas Most Vulnerable to Drought in the Asia-Pacific Region


Vulnerable Regions


Baluchistan, Northwest Frontier, and Sind provinces


185 districts in the western and southern regions


Hills and Terai region


Mandalay in the rain shadow dry zone of the Arkan mountains

Sri Lanka

Northern, eastern, and south-eastern regions


Northern, north-eastern, and central regions


Eastern half of the State of Negri Sembilan and eastern quarter Of the State of Sabah


Southeast of Jogjakarta on Java island and Lombak in Nusa Tenggara


Northern provinces


Battambang, Prey Veng, and Svay Rieng provinces


Ilocos and Cagayan valleys in Luzon island

Source: Steyaert, et. al. 1981.

3. Drought is a temporary negative deviation in the region's moisture status. Because of the variability of monsoon rains in Asia and the Pacific, the actual annual rainfall is sometimes significantly below the `normal' expected. This results in drought, which leads to crop failure, depletion of surface and groundwater resources, large-scale human migration and loss of livestock and human lives (Oliver and Fairbridge, 1987).

1.1 Causes of Drought

4. Widespread and persistent atmospheric subsidence arising from general circulation of the atmosphere causes drought. Recent studies show that El Niño contributed substantially to summer drought. Krishnamurthy and Surgi (1987) observed a close relationship between deficit rainfall years and the ENSO index (Figure 2). Drought frequency is also influenced by climatic changes arising from increased concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. The indiscriminate release of gases (e.g., chlorofluoro carbon) has altered the radiation balance of the atmosphere and thus caused temperatures to rise. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the World Meteorological Organization projected a temperature increase of 0.1 to 0.3oC by 2010, and 0.4 to 2.0oC by 2020 in South Asia. This may result in a decrease in cereal production by 5 to 15 per cent in the region (Houghton, et. al., 1990). Extensive deforestation over the centuries has also altered the hydrologic cycle and thus enhanced aridity in several countries.

Figure 2.
Relationship between drought area in India and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI)

Source: Krishnamurthy and Naomi Surgi, 1987.

1.2 Frequency of Drought

5. A study of moderate and severe droughts in India, indicated that except for small pockets in northeastern India and Kerala, the country has been frequently affected by dry weather (Anonymous, 1994a). Based on historical records, Jaiswal and Kolte (1981) reported 120 drought or famine-like incidences in various parts of the country between 1291 and 1979. During the 20th century alone, droughts of various intensities were experienced over a span of 28 years in India (Venkateswarlu, 1997). Only limited data on their occurrence between 1950 and 1980 are available for the Asia-Pacific region (Steyaert, et. al., 1981). During this time, a minimum of four droughts were recorded in Laos and Nepal, while a maximum of 14 occurred in Thailand (Table 2).

Table 2.
Frequency of Drought 1950-80 in the Asia-Pacific Region


Drought Years


1958, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1975, 1979


1950, 1951, 1952, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979


1964, 1974, 1977, 1979


1950, 1957, 1959, 1965, 1972, 1974, 1979


1954, 1957, 1960, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1977

Sri Lanka

1961, 1966, 1967, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979


1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979


1958, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978


1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979


1957, 1963, 1966, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980


1954, 1955, 1958, 1963, 1968, 1960, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1979


1954, 1976, 1979, 1980


1957, 1958, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1978

Source: Steyaert, et. al. (1981).

1.3 Impact of Drought

6. Aridity leads to crop loss, human and animal malnutrition, land degradation, economic downturn, disease outbreak and migration of people and livestock (Kulshrestha, 1997). It also adversely affects food security at the farm and national levels. Agricultural losses in India were as high as 50 per cent during the drought of 1957-58. The 1982-83 drought in Australia (caused by accelerated wind erosion and massive bush fires) reduced crop and livestock output (Allan and Heathcote, 1987). Crop production fell by 31 per cent and the sheep population by 6 million, while cattle dropped by almost 2 million. Farm incomes were reduced by 24 per cent and the cash surplus per farm fell by 45-50 per cent. National employment dropped by 2 per cent and rural exports decreased by approximately US$ 500 million Chemical fertilizer manufacturers and flour and cereal processors lost 10-11 per cent of their normal production.

7. The 1987 drought in India caused pearl millet production in the rainfall zones of <300, 300-400 and >400 mm to drop by 78, 74 and 43 per cent respectively (Ramakrishna and Rao, 1991). Groundnut production was also substantially reduced (Victor et. al., 1991). For eastern India, the annual food grain loss over the 1970 to 1996 period was estimated at US$ 400 million, which is equivalent to 8 per cent of the value of the region's food grain production (Pandey et. al., 2000). The overall impact was even more pronounced on fodder availability than on food grains.

8. The duration of fluid availability in water bodies is greatly reduced during a dry year. They evaporate even before the onset of summer. The groundwater table declines and shallow wells become dry. Sometimes, the concentration of toxic elements such as arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate increases. In deep wells, salt concentration rises due to the lowering of the water table. The poor suffer most since they own shallow wells and cannot afford to deepen them.

9. Drought causes land degradation because of the depletion of forage resources, overgrazing and indiscriminate cutting of vegetation. This is followed by the distress sale of cattle and even small ruminants. Next, migration occurs and with it, the extension of land degradation to other areas. There have been instances where large-scale mortality of livestock and mismanagement in the disposal of carcasses has brought about epidemics and environmental hazards. The size of herds fell by as much as 52 per cent (Anonymous, 1994a).

10. Recurring aridity changes the socio-economic values and attitudes of the people affected by it (Purohit, 1993). Rising prices, contraction of charity, credit reduction and consequently increasing interest rate on loans, diminishing grain trade, growing petty crime rates and abnormal migration of people and their herds, etc. are some of the more common outcomes. The agricultural sector can no longer provide basic employment for rural workers. The consequences are out-migration, unemployment, and the creation of city slums. The rural women who are left behind are compelled to do extra work in order to survive. Poor quality drinking water, human exodus and taking of infants to the workplace are responsible for high infant and child mortality, while high female motality is caused by meager diets, which are well below the levels required for hard labor.

11. The entire society suffers because of rising prices and additional taxation, but the farmer is hardest hit, as it is the agricultural sector, which bears the brunt in terms of production loss. There is thus a need for both national and international intervention to protect them from devastation caused by dry weather.

12. This scenario in the Asia-Pacific region indicates that drought is a growing threat to the very fabric of its society and environment. Therefore, more efforts are required to concentrate on policy, infrastructure and technological issues that are related to this natural calamity at national, regional and global levels, and they should involve both governmental and intergovernmental agencies. National agricultural research organizations, international institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector need to work together to achieve the goal of sustainable agriculture based on the most efficient use of available natural resources, i.e., land, water, and vegetation in an integrated manner and within a viable farming network.

13. Drought is not just a temporary adversity. Relief measures such as foreign assistance, and tax imposition on the middle class to meet food needs are merely national attempts to address the secondary problems brought about by it. The basic ones are continuing land destruction and creation of deserts in vulnerable areas, which if left unchecked will become irreversible in the near future. There are also many direct factors that impinge on land degradation. But, since drought has a direct impact on agricultural production, any effort aimed at controlling it and protecting natural resources will greatly alleviate its adverse impact on agricultural productivity.


14. A farming system comprises several components such as land, water, plants, inputs, livestock, equipment, credit, and marketing (Raman and Balaguru, 1992). It attempts to deal more effectively with the problems associated with complex, marginal, diverse and risk-prone agriculture and disadvantaged farmers who operate in a harsh environment. Such a system should be regarded as a part of a larger socio-economic framework that includes the overall rural way of life and its related administrative structure. In the case of dry-land farming, it must consider several factors such as natural resources, commodities, external and internal inputs, and marketing. It has been implemented in Nepal through an agricultural research and extension network so that agro-ecological farming operations can be established (Devendra and Yokohama, 1999).

15. After decades of monocropping using traditional slash and burn methods, a growing interest in intercropping and crop sequencing to overcome drought in Asia and the Pacific region has emerged. In the latter half of the 1980s, crop yields rose due to the introduction of new crops such as kohlrabi, snow pea, Chinese kale, green onion, and indigo to traditional agriculture (Anonymous, 1994b).

16. Small-scale upland farming in the region is generally rainfed and on marginal land, and this is responsible for the high risks experienced. Rather than depend on annual crops alone, it would be desirable to spread the risk by engaging in a wide range of farming activities including tree crops and livestock. In the upland areas of Asia, perennial tree crop agriculture such as fruit, paulownia, rubber, and white mulberry cultivation along with arable crops have been the traditional practice. Recently, many Malaysian farmers have integrated livestock and forestry with arable crops (Anonymous, 1994b). In drought-prone northern Indonesia (Prasetyo et. al., 2000), many farmers have adopted a mixed crop-livestock production system to overcome water shortages. In the uplands, cattle rearing is combined with vegetable and maize cultivation. In the Philippines, an integrated sugarcane-livestock farming system is practised to reduce risk and improve overall productivity. Agro forestry has only being promoted on a large scale in the last 15 years. Some exploratory surveys carried out in eastern India revealed that the most common mixed cropping systems practiced include a combination of rice with pigeon pea, mung bean, black gram, and sesame and pigeon pea with black gram, pearl millet, sorghum and sun hemp. Niger + sesame intercropping is adopted in some upland cultivation (Singh and Singh, 2000). In eastern India, pigeon pea and common beans are, by tradition, planted on field bunds. Thus, in Asia and the Pacific where small upland farms are in the majority, crop diversification is more popular than production diversification, i.e., horticulture, livestock, and fisheries are integrated with arable crops. The existing gap in agricultural research and development in arid and semi-arid areas requires renewed attention not only for risk management to fight drought, but also to capitalize on location specific strengths and be competitive in global trade.

17. In the dry zones of Myanmar, sesame + sorghum, cotton + pigeon pea, groundnut + butter bean and rice + mung bean are important inter-crops (IRRI, 1991). In the drought-prone lowlands of Indonesia, the primary crop is rice. The main feed supply to livestock is rice straw, supplemented by fodder tree leaves and residues of baby corn (ADB, 1996). Hence, there is a combination of crops, trees, and livestock. In the case of eastern India, farmers practice mixed cropping such as wheat + mustard, chickpea + mustard, wheat + barley, and wheat + linseed, after the main lowland rice crop has been harvested. Rice-rice, jute-rice and rice followed by wheat, lentil, chickpea, mustard, linseed, pea, sunflower, mung bean are the other rice based cropping systems in dry parts of eastern India (Singh and Singh, 2000). In the Philippines, rice-corn, rice-mungbean, rice-groundnut, and rice-tobacco cropping is adopted in the arid Ilocos and Cagayan valleys in Central Luzon Island (IRRI, 1991). The growing period for rice is shortened if transplanting is late because of a delay in the onset of rains. In jute-rice cropping, jute harvesting extends into the rice-planting season. This increases the risk of water stress during the grain filling stage of rice cultivation. Farmers tend to use older seedlings in many instances to overcome this problem. Changes in cropping pattern, variety, input use, and replacing rice with more remunerative crops are some of the recommendations made for areas which experience less severe droughts, and where their occurrence is confined to the early growing season (Pandey et. al., 1999).

18. Most of the innovations in horticulture and cropping systems are based on decades of research. Some originate from indigenous technical knowledge. Horticulture and animal husbandry are important considerations to alleviate drought in the lowland, and hence research on them merit attention. There have been success stories to amply demonstrate that the more diverse the production system, the lower the risk of failure at the farm-level.


19. Drought is a natural disaster with serious and long-term socio-economic implications. It is therefore vital to develop appropriate measures to overcome it. They are currently being implemented by the following sectors:

  1. Government Sector
  2. Non-government Sector
  3. Research and Development Institutions

20. Research and development (R&D) in the areas of agro-meteorology, dry-land farming and hydrology have contributed substantially to the knowledge base for drought management in Asia and the Pacific. Progress has, to some extent, been made to devise useful technologies, inject some dynamism into agricultural production and create appropriate farming systems. Of late, the focus has shifted significantly from crisis response to risk management through weather forecasts and advance planning to meet emergencies. This shift in R&D strategy has had some significant impact.

21. In the case of India, where drought has been endemic for the past 150 years, a fairly organized management system to tackle it has emerged. However, the steps taken in the early stages were essentially ad-hoc in nature. Relief work was confined to providing employment to the distressed population rather than having any long-term perspective. This method proved to be ineffective. It was only with the launching of the Drought Prone Areas Program (DPAP) in the 1970's, that a long-term plan incorporating both technological and organizational innovations for the integrated development of drought-prone areas was evolved (Anonymous, 1994a). It succeeded in dealing with the infamous droughts of 1987 and 1999-2000. Its functions are as follows:

  1. Distribute essential commodities such as water, fodder and food at subsidized rates,
  2. Optimize utilization of resources in affected areas with emphasis on primary ones, viz., soil, water, vegetation, livestock, manpower, etc. through integrated watershed management,
  3. Provide employment to the stricken population (e.g. the Food for Work Program), and
  4. Create direct and indirect wage employment and implement short gestation development programmes to improve overall living conditions of the rural poor.

22. During the past three decades, major research efforts have been made to improve the productivity of rain-fed areas in India and other countries of the region, with the aim of curtailing the adverse consequences of drought. Relevant agricultural practices such as suitable crops, improved varieties, modern tillage and seeding practices, soil and rainwater conservation, water harvesting, fertilizer usage, weed control, alternative land use systems, and plant protection have been developed through intensive and location specific research efforts. However, farmers, especially the small ones who form the bulk of the stakeholders, have not adopted many of them to conserve natural resources (soil and water). The integrated watershed management approach, which is the core strategy of the national programme to develop drought-prone areas in India, has not had the desired impact. Even the implementation of successful pilot projects has been poor despite the huge investments made on them. The following factors among others, are responsible for this setback:

  1. Technology bias on biophysical issues (lack of appreciation of farmers' conditions, their priorities and resources),
  2. Poor top-down extension strategy,
  3. Lack of on-farm research in rainwater harvesting and watershed management,
  4. Excessive reliance on new crop varieties (lack of appreciation of farming system perspectives and insufficient diversification of production systems), and
  5. Inadequate rural infrastructure.


23 In view of the formidable task involved in drought management, a great deal remains to be done to tackle the problem. Projections for the next two decades must be considered, and new approaches and strategies adopted to meet the challenge.

4.1 On-farm Research

24. On-farm research has been conducted in India since the mid-1970s. However, its focus is primarily on demonstrating or, at best, testing the results from the research institutes and agricultural universities. Virtually no attempt has been made to tailor them to the needs of farmers. Therefore, once the projects were completed, the farmers reverted to their original practices. This was the case in many pilot projects, including many of the model watershed ones (46 in total) implemented in various agro-ecological regions in India during the 1980s. Hence, technologies suited to the farmers' socio-economic conditions and the indigenous environment can only be adopted if on-farm research is conducted with the participation of scientists, extension workers and farmers as a team.

4.2 Farming Systems Perspective

25. Farming systems in Asia and the Pacific are by and large complex and characterized by several environmental and socio-economic variables. Addressing only one of these components, e.g., crop variety or fertilizer use does not generally result in a dramatic increase in productivity. Mixed farming - crop production and animal husbandry - for risk aversion, remains the mainstay of subsistence farmers. Hence, it is the only management strategy that is suitable for their adoption.

26. Planning farming systems research requires an understanding of current farming practices. The following four sets of information are needed to initiate such research in real field situations:

  1. Socio-economic conditions of the people, their perceptions, priorities, and levels of education,
  2. Natural resource conditions,
  3. Technology (research information) developed at the research centers, and
  4. Infrastructure (market and input issues) (Singh, 1997).

27. This data must be collected and carefully analyzed before selecting the technological options for field-testing. Emphasis should be placed on improving the farmer's technical knowledge and strict prescriptions of component technologies should be avoided. Where necessary, adjustments should be made to suit their requirements.

28. In the next two decades, there is a need to continuously enhance productivity and economic returns in rain-fed agriculture in Asia and the Pacific. This, together with the protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources, will eventually lead to an improved quality of life for all Asian countries. The growing human and livestock population in the region demands a constant increase in land productivity.

29. In irrigated areas, a synergy of production components (viz., improved variety, water management, fertiliser use, and plant protection) usually results in a quantum leap in productivity. Farmers are impressed and will readily accept the new technology. However, in rain-fed areas, such improved technology could at best only operate at a very low level. Water, which is the most important input, is an uncertain component. Fertilizer is seldom used because of inherent risks. Given this scenario, it is difficult to convince farmers to adopt cost intensive farming methods. This has been one of the main reasons for their non-adoption, despite the vigorous extension efforts made to promote them. As long as the risk associated with their application appears high, they will remain unacceptable.

30. Crop cultivation alone cannot sustain dry-land farming. All factors of production must be carefully examined. With their integration, it is possible to achieve an optimal system that can increase productivity in rain-fed areas.

4.3 Farmers' Participation in Technology Development

31. In the past, farmers in rain-fed areas have, by and large, ignored technological advancements in agriculture. Pretty (1995) developed the following set of typologies regarding their participation in development programmes:

32. Most extension efforts have hitherto been oriented towards the first four types. However, a methodology to include the following additional aspects may be appropriate to involve farmers in overcoming drought:

33. Constant interaction may eventually lead to voluntary farmer participation or self-mobilization. This should be the strategy for technology transfer in rain-fed areas in the next decade.

4.4 Early Warning, Drought Monitoring and Decision Support Systems

34. Rainfall distribution and its quantum are the two key factors that determine crop productivity. Weather forecasts can broadly be classified into three categories, viz., (1) short range (validity of up to 3 days), (2) medium range (validity from 3 to 10 days), and (3) long range (validity from 10 to 30 days). Early warning is given by the meteorological departments in many countries and relayed through the press, radio and television. The latest technological innovations to monitor droughts include remote sensing. Kawan Nawa (2001) reported its use along with geographic information systems (GIS) in Zambia. Monitoring of spatial drought conditions (at block level) in a few villages in Rayalaseema, India using satellite data was reported by Jayaseelan et. al. (2001). The threshold Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) was compared with moisture deficit values to assess the extent of aridity in affected areas.

35. Management of mid-season and terminal droughts is important as it impinges on productivity. Various methods have been devised but they could not be applied because of the lack of Early Warning System (EWS) on the onset of dry weather. Medium range weather forecasts are now in use in India as a form of EWS to control diseases and pests. These, together with recommended practices to alleviate aridity can help arrive at optimal decisions for drought management. An example is the harvesting of sorghum for the fodder or ratoon crop based on physiological maturity. Groundnut harvesting is based on planting date and pegging. Intercropping with legumes should also take advantage of this technology. Although the yield is reduced, it is compensated by higher prices in the market. Thus a decision support system incorporating components such as crop growth models, advanced agricultural practices, short-term market forecast, and resource information can help produce the range of options available and assist in giving a weighted optimal decision from a number of choices. This approach can save a crop and thus assure farmers of some economic returns.

4.5 Contingency Crop Planning

36. Several technologies have been developed and tested to enhance crop production under adverse weather conditions. Often, variable rainfall distribution poses a constraint. Therefore, every cropping strategy should be based on water availability from year to year. The contingency crop plans during times of rainfall deficiency are given below:

  1. Normal monsoon season followed by inadequate rainfall: If the latter occurs after planting, mid-season corrections such as a reduction in plant population (thinning), the use of green material as fodder or for organic recycling, spraying anti-transpirants (e.g., atrazine, borax, kaolin), weeding, and soil mulching, can be adopted to overcome water shortage.
  2. Late monsoon season followed by normal rainfall: Here, the crop-growing period is between 40 and 90 days. The selection of short-duration varieties is important to suit arid conditions and accommodate the late onset of rain. Pulse and oilseed planting is recommended. Fodder and mustard can be grown after the seasonal crop harvest to make use of the late rainfall.
  3. Late monsoon season followed by inadequate rainfall: Leguminous crops and oilseeds perform better under such conditions. They mature in a short period and give reasonable yields. To minimise risk and avoid complete crop failure, mixed cropping is advisable, in case the rainfall pattern is not suited to any specific crop.

37. These recommendations can be made following a comprehensive analysis of location specific situations through early warning and correct decision-making.

4.6 Integrated Watershed Management

38. The watershed is the most appropriate ecological area unit for the efficient and homogenous management of land and water resources in any arid terrain. A suitable watershed area can be selected for purposes of easy implementation. Based on a detailed survey of resources, such as land capability, a combination of conventional and participatory approaches and technological options with respect to soil and water conservation, and rainwater harvesting, agroforestry and livestock management can be adopted to minimize the risks caused by drought. This approach ensures planning based on available water, its priority use and the preparation of an integrated action plan to exploit natural resources, after taking into consideration the capacity and the socio-economic status of the rural people.

39. The central objective of watershed management is to conserve soil and water for productive farming in rain-fed areas. The first task of soil management is to reduce erosion by controlling runoff. The next is to conserve rainwater for plant, domestic and livestock needs. In this context, runoff control can be implemented in the following two stages:

  1. Retain the bulk of rainwater within the field, subject to available soil and water storage capacity, i.e., in situ water harvesting, and
  2. Divert excess water for:

40. Maintaining an adequate supply of rainwater to the village pond is the first priority as this is a common property resource utilized for domestic (e.g., washing) and livestock consumption. Recharging shallow aquifers is the next best option, as they are owned by a large number of farmers. Recharging groundwater is possible only in wetter areas and those with adequate catchment. Such situations are scarce and also, sharing by landowners can be a problem. When recharging aquifers is not possible in the absence of water bearing rocks, the farm pond remains the only option to conserve excess runoff. It can be used to serve both the community and the individual farmer. The latter is easiest as it eliminates sharing cost (labor, inputs). Small ponds owned by individual farmers merit greater attention.

4.6.1 In-situ Rainwater Harvesting

41. This is a vital factor in drought control. The principle here is to reduce runoff to facilitate either greater water intake in the soil or direct it to planting by modifying the land configuration to enhance its storage in the soil. Extensive research efforts in this area began in India in the 1930's and intensified during the last three decades. They resulted in the development of several useful technologies. Field and contour bunding, ridging, and key line and contour cultivation have in the past enhanced in situ soil storage of rainwater. In the 1980s, the concept of vegetative barriers to replace or supplement earthen bunds was tried in a number of countries but with mixed results. This approach is scientifically sound and warrants further on-farm research. A study was made to compare constructed micro-catchments of 4 per cent slope, ridge-furrow system (60:40 cm), and flat regular planting with soil moisture storage and the yield of pearl millet. The ridge-furrow system and micro-catchments resulted in 210 per cent and 120 per cent higher yields, respectively than regular flat planting. The surface runoff varied from 7 per cent to 15 per cent, and was highest in flat planting followed by bed planting and ridge-furrow (Singh, 1973). Tree crops with deep roots can use water stored in the substratum and hence, are recommended in sandy soils (Singh, 1978). The results of studies on in situ rainwater harvesting for jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) supported this hypothesis (Sharma et. al., 1986). It was observed that the crust forming nature of sandy soils cause the natural catchments to be sufficiently stabilized over 2 to 3 seasons (Sharma, 1986).

42. Gupta and Muthana (1985) developed circular catchments of 1.5 m radius and 2 per cent slope as runoff generating areas. The technique proved effective in improving the moisture content of the plant root zone. Later, Singh (1998) reported that these circular catchments should be constructed as half-moon terraces to divert maximum rainwater to the planting basin.

4.6.2 Village and Farm Ponds

43. The former is larger and can serve as reservoirs to mitigate the scarcity of drinking water particularly for livestock and to provide for the daily needs of villagers such as washing, cleaning, and bathing. Here, water is available from two months to a year after the wet season, depending on the catchment characteristics, runoff volume and its utilization. Heavy sedimentation, high evaporation and seepage, and pollution limit the utility of these ponds. The following is recommended for pond development and the optimum utilization of stored water:

44. Natural farm ponds are for pre-sowing, protective irrigation and livestock consumption. The scheduling of limited water supply and setting priority for its allocation are important considerations. The first task is to reduce conveyance and evaporation and to direct water to the root zone. One supplemental/life saving irrigation of 20 mm at the most critical stages of crop growth during prolonged drought can increase the grain yield by 30 to 80 per cent (Venkateswarlu, 1981).

45. A pond size of 10.5 m * 3 m * 4 m = 126 m3 is adequate to provide life-saving irrigation of 20 mm to 0.5 ha of cropped land. This includes water loss of up to 26 mm due to evaporation and seepage. The reason for the abnormally small width is to make it practical for covering the pond with locally available material such as stone slabs and thatched blocks across the length to check water loss via evaporation.

46. Prior to the advent of the watershed concept, rainwater storage in drought-prone areas were by traditional means, i.e. rainwater collected from rooftops and underground cisterns were used to store runoff from natural or constructed catchments. In the past, these methods have met the drinking needs of the rural people, especially those in remote areas. For the present, these sources are used primarily for livestock consumption, washing, cleaning, etc. and also for nurseries or trees planted in the vicinity of backyards.

4.6.3 Underground Cisterns

47. They, together with constructed or natural catchments (including rooftops) are prevalent in areas with up to 300-mm rainfall. Rainwater from such storage is still being used for human consumption in remote areas. The cisterns are locally known as tanka in Rajasthan, India and are built by individual households or the community since ancient times (Vangani, et. al., 1988). An annual rainfall of 130 to 250 mm (at 60 per cent probability), and a catchment area of 420 to 780 m2 can yield 21,000:l runoff, and this can meet the drinking and cooking needs for a family of 6 throughout the year.

4.7 Crops, Varieties and Cropping Systems

48. The prevailing cropping system may not necessarily be the most suitable one. Farmers grow certain crops either for convenience or by tradition. Their first priority is to produce food for the family and livestock. This needs to be balanced with the requirements for natural resource management on the one hand, and socio-economic and market demands on the other. Alternative crops and varieties for different periods of sowing, together with those that are suitable despite any delays in sowing or re-sowing, and yet can sell globally need to be identified. Due recognition must also be given to indigenous technical knowledge. Among other practices of crop management, integrated pest management (IPM) assumes special importance in drought mitigation. The healthier the plants the better would be their ability to tolerate the dry weather.

49. Inter-cropping has been studied extensively in several countries to sustain production in rain-fed areas. The broad principles governing the choice of crops in this system, together with focus on soil moisture stress management are discussed below.

4.7.1 Crop Combination

50. A short-duration, shallow to medium rooted and a long-duration, deep-rooted crop would be desirable. Cropping intensities adopted would vary from additive series in higher rainfall areas (>800 mm) to replacement series in lower rainfall terrain (250 to 800 mm). The best inter-cropping practices are now available. Research however, should continue in these areas so that new varieties emerging from crop improvement programmes can be evaluated.

4.7.2 Weed Management

51. It poses as a formidable task for farmers. Weeds compete with crops for moisture and nutrients, both of which constitute the most limiting factors for crop growth during drought. When improved management practices are adopted, efficient weed control becomes even more important, otherwise weeds and not the crops benefit from the costly input. Most crops are sensitive to weed competition in the early stages of growth. Timely weed control is thus essential.

4.7.3 Planting Density

52. Optimum plant population and row spacing are also crucial considerations. Generally, wider plant spacing is recommended in drought-prone areas. Water can thus be saved for use later in the season, so that the harvest index and total grain yield can be increased. However, too low densities may not fully utilize the available water during the season, while high ones may use too much early in the season. Hence, a balance between the two must be maintained, depending on the situation at hand. Half the battle to overcome drought is won if a good and healthy crop stand is established. The above inputs, when provided on time will contribute to this prerequisite. Simple and efficient farm implements and tools are necessary. For instance, their availability for ridge-furrow planting, weed control, and simultaneous planting of two crops for intercropping in required crop row ratios, can substantially promote the adoption of these practices in dry and semi-dry areas. Concerted R&D efforts are thus justified to achieve partial mechanisation of the small farm sector in rain-fed terrain.

4.8 Soil and Crop Management

53. Different land configurations to prevent runoff have been discussed earlier. Other major aspects that may merit attention are tillage and the control of surface evaporation.

4.8.1 Tillage

54. It has a marked influence on soil and rainwater conservation and makes the soil surface more permeable to water intake. Deep tillage (25-30 cm) breaks the hard layers, facilitates faster penetration of rainwater and enhances the root system. The subsoil resources are thus utilised more efficiently. Off-season or pre-rainy season tillage also has a visible impact on rainwater intake and weed control, besides improving soil moisture content for off-season planting (Table 3).

Table 3.
Effect of Ploughing on Soil Moisture in Alfisols

Depth of soil (cm)

Moisture (%)*

Ploughed Area

Non-ploughed Area













Source: Anonymous (1986).
* After a total of 81 mm rainfall in May.

55. Excessive tillage however is not recommended. It accentuates wind erosion in sandy soils and does not permit build-up of soil organic matter. Therefore, minimum tillage together with organic waste recycling is best to support a good crop stand. This may also lead to an increase in organic matter due to reduced exposure to high atmospheric temperature.

4.8.2 Surface Mulching

56. It can help conserve soil and rainwater. Studies in various locations in India demonstrated its usefulness in reducing water loss from the soil surface. It also significantly lessens runoff from cropped fields and assists in weed control. However, it is generally not popular with farmers due to operational constraints. In mixed farming, using straw as mulch adversely affects the fodder supply. Organic waste material can be utilised as surface mulch instead. This practice is feasible in tree crop areas where only the planting basin needs to be covered.

57. Work has recently begun on green material soil or land cover, i.e., to combine mulch and manure in different locations in India. After planting, Gliricidia and Leucaena branches/loppings are used as cover and incorporated in the soil following canopy development. Encouraging results from this practice have been reported (Singh, et. al., 1998).

4.9 Integrated Nutrient Management

58. Good soil quality is vital for plants to withstand the dry weather. It can be realised by adopting integrated nutrient management (INM), which is the key to maintaining and sustaining soil productivity. Extensive studies conducted at research and on-farm stations have shown the importance of farmyard manure (FYM), composted organic wastes, and bio fertilisers in supplementing the nutrient requirements of crops and providing stability to yields under rain-fed conditions (Singh, et. al., 1999; Venkateswarlu and Wani, 1999). Fifty per cent of the fertilizer nitrogen (N) could be replaced with the use of FYM or compost in various soils. Manure application not only substantially reduces the fertilizer N requirement but also improves soil quality and crop yields to a sustainable level (Table 4).

Table 4.
Chemical Fertiliser and Farmyard Manure Applications and
Yields of Finger Millet in India-1

Treatment (annual)

Mean Grain Yield

Yield (t/ha-2) In Years




















NPK (50-25-25)







FYM + NPK (25-12.5-12.5)







FYM + NPK (50-25-25)







Source: Hegde and Gajanan (1996).
1 Effects of continuous application of chemical fertiliser and farmyard manure on the productivity and stability of rain-fed finger millet for 17 years (1978-1994) in red loam soil in India.
2 FYM = farmyard manure @ 10 t/ha; NPK = nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium in kg/ha.

59. The availability of FYM in sufficient quantities for field crop planting is a major hindrance to its widespread adoption. Thus, alternative sources such as green leaf manure and crop residue have been evaluated at a number of locations in India. Recent studies recommended fertilizer application of 20 kg N/ha supplemented by green leaf land cover, including lopping of Leucaena or Gliricidia for Alfisols and Vertisols.

60. Most drought prone farms have a single crop-growing season. Double cropping is possible in higher rainfall areas where a legume crop can be rotated to contribute towards maintaining soil fertility. In lower rainfall areas (350-700 mm), there are little opportunities for producing green manure without competing with the main crop. Therefore alternative strategies need to be evolved. Some approaches tried at the Central Research Institute for Dry-land Agriculture (CRIDA), include bund farming where N-fixing trees and bushes are raised on either side of the field bunds and lopping applied on the soil. A post wet season cover crop (e.g., horse-gram, cow-pea) can be grown with the help of the off-season rain after the existing crop (before flowering) has been ploughed back into the soil (Katyal, et. al., 1994). Leguminous trees or shrubs can also be cultivated on marginal lands and lopping utilised in the nearby crop fields. Preliminary studies at CRIDA revealed that within two years, Leucaena leucocephala grown on 0.25 ha of land could meet the nitrogen requirements of about 0.67 ha of sorghum. A minimum of two cuttings can be obtained in one season for use in the crop field.

61. Composting of organic waste can substantially contribute towards maintaining and upgrading soil quality. Its quantity rises by several folds but the benefits remain the same or slightly better than FYM. The additional cost of composting it with FYM is negligible. It has been reported that termite infestation is greatly reduced when compost is used instead of FYM. The organic matter build-up from the latter provides resilience to withstand stress.

4.10 Alternative Land Use Systems

62. Data from several locations in India indicated that annual crops cultivated on land capability Class IV and above are prone to drought. The soils here are better suited for perennial grasses, legumes, and woody trees. Agro forestry, which includes silviculture, horticulture, hortipasture, and silvipasture, can be successful alternatives. Less arable land can consider adopting them and integrating livestock with crops to attain a viable production system.

63. Multi-location studies have identified several agro forestry systems for different rain-fed areas in India. In alley cropping, the perennial crop forms the hedgerows, which is grown mainly on contour lines and as an annual crop. Pruning from the tree crop can be used as fodder during drought years or applied in the cropped field as mulch cum manure. Although the tree crop competes with the annual crop for moisture and nutrients causing yields to decrease during dry years, fodder from the trees can be used to support livestock. Moreover, by cutting the hedgerows, competition for nutrients can be minimised. More studies on geometry and distance between hedge and crop strips to lessen competition are required. Irrigated areas can practice horticulture and this gives significantly higher income than arable cropping. This type of farming is suitable for in areas with an annual rainfall of 750 mm and above. A number of fruit tree and crop combinations have been identified and the water management techniques standardised.

64. Silvipasture is ideal for rehabilitating marginal or degraded lands. A perennial tree crop such as Leucaena leucocephala is planted either with Cenchrus ciliaris or Stylosanthes hamata. Such pastures can support up to 6 sheep per hectare on a continuous basis without the need for any supplementary feed, while native pastures can support only 2 sheep per hectare.

65. Ley farming is another approach where a legume or a non-legume forage crop is rotated with food grain crops. This system improves soil quality besides providing fodder. In a 4-year study conducted at Hyderabad (annual rainfall 750 mm) on shallow Alfisol (depth <45 cm), raising Stylosanthes hamata in rotation with sorghum and castor improved the soil quality (organic carbon, total and available N) and increased the yield of sorghum (Table 5). Ley farming can be successfully practised yearly on a section of the holding. Stylo or grasses can be grown for 2-4 years followed by arable crops. With this cycle, the entire holding can be covered in 5 to 10 years depending on the farmer's forage requirement and his farm size. This system can thus sustain the soil quality of the entire farm.

Table 5.
Effect of Stylosanthes on Sorghum Yield and Soil Fertility,
Alfisol in Hyderabad, India

Crop Rotation for Four Years*

Content before Year 4

Grain Yield of Year 4 Sorghum (kg/ha-1)

Organic Carbon
(per cent)









































CD (0.05)



Source: Korwar (1992).
* C = Castor, S = Sorghum, SH = Stylosanthes hamata, F = Fallow.

66. In view of the long gestation period of tree crops, a number of bushes such as henna, curry leaf and annette have been evaluated at CRIDA and found to be remunerative both as pure crops and as intercrops with short-duration pulses (greengram and blackgram). Network research carried out in India revealed that alternative land use involving perennials (tree/crop, grass shrub or a combination of both) has advantages and can conserve natural resources and increase productivity. Some of the advantages of planting them are as follows:

  1. Provide permanent vegetative cover to the soil or land surface and thus substantially control erosion caused by both runoff and wind,
  2. Improve the microclimate for crop growth,
  3. Provide good quality green fodder, which is in short supply to support livestock. Thus the integration of livestock farming with arable cropping is highly recommended,
  4. Protect the environment and upgrade soil quality through their deep root system,
  5. Enhance organic matter by recycling biomass into the soil,
  6. Reduce runoff, surface evaporation and weed growth and improve water use efficiency when lopping from the trees is spread on the soil surface for recycling,
  7. Provide fuel, timber, and minor forest products (e.g., gum) and thus lessen the farmers' dependence on forest reserves,
  8. Supplement the diet of poor farm families by giving the necessary vitamins and minerals, and thus enhance their nutrition needs,
  9. Generate much needed cash when aromatic and industrial value plants are grown,
  10. Support the development of soil microbe, and
  11. Generate employment throughout the year for farmers (when the agro forestry system together with livestock husbandry and water harvesting are established), and thereby substantially increase their income level.

4.11 Research and Development Strategy

67. Strategic planning in the areas of on-farm research and participatory technology development for optimum farming systems is essential to achieve sustainable management of arid areas. On-farm programmes can fall into 3 categories - short-term (5 years), medium-term (10 years), and long-term (20 years). They can be integrated wherever possible on a watershed scale, or on the basis of a unit area and initiated in a phased manner. This will ensure not only the peoples' involvement from the onset of the programme but also sustain it and extend it to other locations.

4.11.1 Short-term Measures

68. Such steps are meant to bring immediate benefits to farmers. An ideal approach would be to start from refining the local technology. It does not need much monetary input, but may lead to tangible benefits such as improved crop productivity. This would build the confidence of farmers in the programme and motivate them to adopt medium and long-term measures that require greater labor and financial inputs. Short-term solutions are such that farmers are able to adopt them at farm level (irrespective of farm size), with little or no help from external agencies. Drought tolerant varieties, inter-bund treatments (key-line and appropriate tillage), summer tillage, ploughing and planting across the slope, green lopping land cover cum manure treatment, vegetative barriers, ridge-furrow configurations for planting, opening of conservation (dead) furrows, etc. are some such examples. They are meant to create an impact within a short span of 2-5 years and act as "starters" or "stepping stones" for the longer-term task of managing water stress by creating sustainable water resources. Such development together with improved crop management can enhance crop yield under erratic and uncertain water supply conditions. In short, the core objective of short-term projects is to orientate farmers towards the adoption of low input practices and trigger their willingness to participate in further technology improvement.

4.11.2 Medium-term Measures

69. Once farmers realize the benefits of adopting new methods (through short-term measures), they can better understand the necessity of controlling aridity and participate in the implementation of medium and long-term measures. The former addresses the problems in a time frame of 5-10 years. Watershed based measures such as the regularization of runoff and storage in medium size reservoirs, renovation of existing tanks, and adoption of alternative land use systems fall into this category.

4.11.3 Long-term Measures

70. These have a time frame of 10-20 years. Besides building large-scale surface and groundwater resources, rehabilitation of wastelands should receive special attention to diffuse the pressure on existing arable land resources. The emphasis should be on creating alternative land use systems, e.g., the integration of silvipasture with livestock production as the main enterprise. Extremely degraded and rocky terrains can be utilized as catchments to generate surface water to serve adjoining areas. Such long-term measures can make wastelands productive.

71. Others include the construction of structures to regulate overland flow and reduce peak flow. They will also improve the relief, physiography, and drainage features of watersheds on a macro scale of 2,000-5,000 ha.


72. With a growing human and livestock population, the pressure on cultivated land in drought-prone rain-fed areas will undoubtedly increase in the foreseeable future. The constant rise in demand for food grains will in all probability force farmers to encroach on marginal lands and thus accentuate the problems of land degradation. Despite a slowing down in livestock numbers, the shrinking forage resource is likely to result in a huge demand-supply gap for both green and dry fodder due to the expanding area under food and crops. Although definite trends are not available, fears exist that the predicted change in climate may cause global temperatures to rise and thus accelerate the frequency and intensity of droughts. Consequently, deterioration in soil quality, and vulnerability to crop losses during dry seasons may become more pronounced. Further, to meet the projected demand for food and fodder, intensive land use is likely to occur in rain-fed areas in the years ahead. The ability to meet such predictions without further degrading the already fragile land will be a major challenge in the years ahead.

73. The scenario is complicated by projections on farm size in the coming two decades. It is estimated that its average in rain-fed areas in India will decrease by 100 per cent from the present level by the year 2020. Such tiny holdings will not only constrain partial mechanization, but may also limit the livelihood of the rural populace.

74. Rapid trade globalization is giving new dimensions to small-scale farming. Hence, focus has to be on products and their quality in which a country or a community has the competitive edge.

75. Strategies to combat drought should address food security both at the national and the farm level. Programmes and policies to overcome it should aim at improving the per unit area of production as well as the quality of produce and, at the same time, reduce production cost by adopting practices such as integrated pest management. Achieving sustainable production in unproductive areas brings about profitability, and the enhanced income will increase the purchasing power of their inhabitants and enable them to attain food security. In India, there is a reserve stock of 35 million tons of food grains in 2000-2001. But millions of people do not have access to this surplus due to poverty.

76. The following activities may merit consideration when formulating national action plans:

  1. Characterize in detail the nature of droughts, their types and frequency based on past weather records, any strengths, and weaknesses, opportunities and/or dangers that emerge, and analyse the agro-ecological environment,
  2. List indigenous technical knowledge for drought management,
  3. Study current farming systems and available technologies for drought mitigation and the extent of their adoption, and examine gaps in research and technology development,
  4. Identify agro-ecological sub-regions affected by droughts; prioritize problems and areas for allocation of resources,
  5. Implement grass root extension system,
  6. Develop consortia on drought management,
  7. Structure on-farm research and farmer participation in the technological development of farming systems, and
  8. Programme development with focus on short, medium, and long-term intervention, and examine policy issues.

5.1 Gaps in Research and Technology Development

77. The following areas require additional work:

5.1.1 Grass Root Extension System

78. Despite advancements in agricultural research and education in several countries, which brought about impressive gains in productivity, a vast number of villages either lack modern technology or are inadequately covered by past and current development. The R&D-NGO-farmer linkage has succeeded in developing appropriate technology for rain-fed areas in India. But it is impossible to extend this technology to the entire country in the foreseeable future. Moreover, it will work only if the NGOs possess the desired level of technical competence and commitment. Such NGOs are few. Besides supporting the dedicated ones, another approach is for a village or a group of villages to be mobilised and function as a NGO. The Panchayat Raj Institution in India, can be organised to carry out this task. The self-help group (SHG) approach has proved successful and is now taking shape as a movement in many states in the country. User groups and village volunteers' concepts are also being implemented with some success. These positive signals can be employed and consolidated to assist encourage the village Local Self-Governance System evolve into a community organization. This may eventually lead to a "save and nourish your own land for sustained productivity" model. Such an institution at the grass-root level can be supported by the country's R&D programme.

5.2 Consortia Development

79. At present a multitude of government institutions, NGOs, and private sector/corporate organisations are working towards improving agricultural productivity in drought-prone areas. Their efforts are handicapped for want of skilled manpower and exposure to the latest research technologies. It is therefore necessary to adopt a consortium approach to exchange knowledge and experience, with a view to solving the problems in the right perspective. Each agro-ecological region or sub-region must establish a consortium of its own to control land degradation and improve farm productivity. The research organisation in the region may be the focal point of activity.

5.3 Structure for On-farm Program

80. On-farm research and technology development should be structured to carry out short, medium and long-term projections in an organised manner. Gradual capacity building of farmers should form the basis of all such efforts.

81. Based on available research information, participatory technology development can be carried out efficiently at one or two sites of each agro-ecological unit. As problems in rain-fed areas are location specific, the smallest unit of agro-ecological classification should be taken for this activity. The next step would be to initiate Technology Assessment Refinement (TAR) projects at a number of locations to develop appropriate and acceptable modules of technology, taking into consideration the location specific problems and micro-farming situations. These efforts can then lead to pilot projects on watershed development and management.

5.3.1 Policy Framework

82. Issues relating to policies to fight droughts are being highlighted for redressal at various national and international forums from time to time. Rural infrastructure (roads, inputs and credit supply and markets, etc.) is the underlying issue that must be tackled at the national level.

83. Droughts have been disastrous in the past in many countries and their intensity may grow in future. Hence, a major shift has to take place to wrestle with the problem from the grass-root level in a holistic and integrated manner and utilising the best combination of resources, implementation approaches, institutions, and technologies, and with the fullest involvement of farmers and other stakeholders. This paper attempts to provide some leads to meet the challenges that are being handled by LIFDCs at various levels.


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* Prepared by FAO Consultant, H.P. Singh, Director, Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, India.

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