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Biodiversity builds resilience

Water collected in farm ponds was used to provide critical irrigation

Erratic rainfall patterns coupled with monocropping systems have made farming unreliable and highly risky, especially in rainfed regions. Simple practices like water conservation can make a huge difference in preparing farmers to cope with these climate aberrations. Enhancing biodiversity on the farm is a proven solution for improving livelihoods, environment and reducing risks.

Farming is a primary source of livelihood for most of the population in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu.

About 90% of the crop failures in rainfed farming areas of Madurai district are due to shortage of water at crucial periods of the plant growth. In recent years, erratic rainfall and rising temperatures have resulted in water shortage for drinking and irrigation, as well as an increase in water-borne diseases. Owing to water scarcity, frequent crop failures and lack of fodder, people often sell off their cattle, leave farming and migrate to nearby cities.

To enhance adaptation capacities of the communities to changing climate and help farmers stay in farming, DHAN Foundation piloted a climate-change adaptation project. The project was started in December 2011 and was implemented in four panchayats of T.Kallupatti block of Madurai district. The project focused first on building social capital, followed by promoting water harvesting activities. Farmers were educated on the choice of crops and trees to use the conserved water optimally – like growing millets and horticulture trees. Also, as an adaptation strategy, the farmers and the livestock were covered under insurance. In short, it was a holistic approach towards addressing the issues of climate change.

Following is the case of a farmer in Kilankulam village, who made a big difference to his farming livelihood by being a part of the project interventions.

Learning to change

Ilangovan is a farmer who lives in Kilankulam village of T.Kallupatti block in Madurai district. His family owns two acres of rainfed land, cultivated by his father. For the last three years, they were not able to cultivate owing to erratic and uncertain rainfall. They have been depending on dairying for income, though it is not sufficient to meet the expenses of the family.

Ilangovan took five acres land on lease from another farmer. He cleared the land of thorny bushes and started cultivating barnyard millet (Kuduravalli) and cotton. He cultivated these crops repeatedly for 3 years, but was not successful in reaping good harvest. He incurred loss.

An orientation about the project was organized to the farming community in the village. The project exactly matched with the needs of Ilangovan to overcome the challenges of climate change in form of erratic rainfall and crop failure. Ilangovan was oriented on farm pond and its benefits.  Farm Pond is a small scale water harvesting structure established in a farm land by excavating the earth, to collect and store water during the monsoon. The runoff water above the surface and below the surface in the catchment area is collected in the farm pond. The water stored in the ponds is used to irrigate and survive the crops at the time of water shortage.

An exposure visit was organised to Saveriyarpattanam of Mudukulathur block in Ramanathapuram district, to see the benefits of farm ponds. After interacting with the farmers in Saveriyarpattinam and learning about the impact of farm pond, Ilangovan decided to have a farm pond in his farm. During September 2012, Ilangovan dug a farm pond of 33m x 15m x 1.6m dimension in four cents of his land. Unfortunately, the farm pond did not receive water, as there was no rain.

Enhancing biodiversity

In 2013, with a single rainfall the farm pond was filled with water. With pond full of water available, Ilangovan decided to grow multiple crops enhancing biodiversity on his farm.

An exposure visit to the farm of Mr. Alagarsamy in Pallapatti motivated Ilangovan to raise 50 moringa saplings in his field. These plants were irrigated using water from the farm pond. Plants started bearing fruit from the month of April. For the first time, he harvested 40 fruits and used it for home consumption.

Despite inexperience, he cultivated marigold during the month of November. In February, he harvested flowers and sold it in the market in T.Kallupatti block, which is three kilometre away from his field. He earned Rs. 5800. Raising marigold facilitated regular cash flow. Leaves of the plants were used as fodder for 12 goats (2 owned by Ilangovan, 10 owned by the neighbours). Finally the land was ploughed along with stalks to increase the organic matter.

On the western side of the farm pond, he cultivated brinjal in 3 cents of land. Due to monsoon failure and outbreak of disease, the crop yield was very low. Only 25 kilograms of brinjals were harvested, of which 5 kilograms were used for home consumption. The rest, which was sold, fetched him Rs. 750.

In the same period, he cultivated chillies in half an acre. During his visit to Saveriyarpattinam, he had observed that majority of farm pond holders were mixing the ground water (Saline water) with farm pond water. He followed the same method to irrigate the crops in his field. On the bunds of the irrigation channel, he planted 10 Sesbania (Agaththi) plants and cultivated Amaranthus as intercrop. Similarly, he cultivated two kilograms of small onion on the bund of the irrigation channel.

Adjacent to chilly crop, cotton crop was cultivated in 50 cents. So far, he has harvested cotton for 14 times and earned Rs. 2500. He also raised kitchen garden with vegetables bitter gourd, ridge gourd and cluster beans. Harvested vegetables were used for own consumption, shared with relatives and sold the rest within the village. This activity reduced the expenditure of the family and increased consumption of fresh vegetables.

After harvesting all the crops, he has cultivated fodder sorghum. He raised intercrops to prevent weeds, and improve the productivity of land and water.

Additionally, he reared fish in farm pond. Ilangovan got trained in fish rearing, organized by DHAN Foundation. Later, he bought 750 fingerlings comprising three different species viz., Roghu, Mirgal and Katla. He harvested 7.5 kilogram of fish and sold 5.5 kilograms within the village. The remaining two kilograms were used for own consumption.

Table 1: Crop cultivation, yield and net income

S. No
Name of the crop
Cultivation area/ seed rate
Cost of cultivation (Rs.)
Own  consumption
Gross income (Market value) – Rs.
Net income (Rs.)
46 cents
184.50 Kgs from 10 harvests
24 cents
150 Kgs of dried Chilies
10 Kg
Small Onion
Intercrop in Chilly
154 Kgs
4 Kg
3 cents
25 Kg
5 Kg
Bitter gourd
2 packets
15 Kg
4 Kg
Cluster bean
2 packets
10 Kg
4 Kg
25 cent
62.5 Kgs
Drum stick
50 plants
First time 40 fruits
All fruits
Agaththi (Sesbania grandiflora)
10 seeds
8 bundles
1 bundle
Amaranthus – green leaves
50 grams
90 bundles
25 bundles
Ridge gourd
2 packets
6 Kg
Fish rearing
750 fingerlings
2 Kg

Water conservation and its benefits

“Often the monsoon rains fail. Purchasing water from those who have open or bore wells has become too expensive. Even if I try, people are not willing to sell water due to frequent power cuts. My heart starts pumping faster and weeps looking at the crops dying out of water scarcity. We can only produce crop and not the water! Thank God, I found a way to store water by constructing a farm pond. I don’t need to beg for water from others”, summarises Ilangovan about farm ponds.

By enhancing biodiversity, the risks in farming got drastically reduced. Sources of income included agriculture with multiple crops, livestock and fish farming.

Ilangovan realised multiple benefits by conserving rain water through farm ponds. The water in farm pond helped him raise crops on 98 cents (equal to one acre). However, the gross cultivated area was much higher at 191 cents as he practiced intercropping and sequential cropping. He cultivated marigold as intercrop in drumstick, onion and agathi as intercrops in Chilly and fodder sorghum followed on 23 cents where marigold was cultivated. This way the intensity of cultivation was much higher than before.

Lot of crop wastes were recycled, thus reducing his costs. For example, marigold and brinjal leaves served as fodder to the goats. Also by feeding Sesbania (Agaththi) grown on his field, he was able to improve the milk yield.

Farm pond facilitated ground water recharge thereby increasing ground water levels. Before establishing farm pond, water from the bore well was pumped for about 20 – 25 minutes, but now the water is being pumped for about 40 – 45 minutes.

By enhancing biodiversity, the risks in farming got drastically reduced. He now earned income not just from agriculture, but through livestock and also fish farming (Table 1). Also, the choice of food for the family increased, thereby increasing household nutrition too. Most importantly, with farm pond he could make use of the untimely rainfall, by storing and using it when necessary. As a member of Mariamman self-help group and also a member of village level climate change adaptation association, Ilangovan used these groups as platforms to share his ideas, get suggestions and inspire others.

Adhinarayanan R
Program Leader,
Climate Change Adaptation Programme
DHAN Foundation
1 A, Vaidhyanathapuram East
Kennet Cross Road
Madurai 625016.
Tamil Nadu, India
E-mail: aadhi@dhan.org