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This week’s guest post is an interview with ECHOcommunity member Shibesh Das who has been very helpful in sharing information and ideas with the network. This interview is reposted with permission from Food Tank; the original article is available here.

By: Eva Perroni

The Doba-based Livelihood Program is an initiative of the Rajadighi Community Health Service Society (RCHSS) located in West Bengal, India, that is helping small-holder farmers conserve water and mitigate against climate change. Dobas are small human-made pits or ditches that, whilst traditionally used for other purposes, can harvest direct rainfall during the wet season and provide much-needed irrigation to crops during dryer months. The reshaping and conserving of dobas within innovative farming communities in West Bengal has resulted in increased crop health and cultivation, supporting livelihoods and the agricultural economy of the region.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak to Shibesh Das of RCHSS to discuss the impacts of climate change and drought in West Bengal, and how the Doba-based Livelihood Program is enhancing the livelihoods of small subsistence farmers and their families.

Food Tank (FT): Each region throughout India differs regarding the natural environment and farming systems. Could you describe the West Bengal region and the types of farming typical to the region?

Shibesh Das (SD): The program area for the Doba-based Livelihood Program is in the Habibpur Block of Malda, located in the eastern and north-eastern fringe of the district popularly known as Barind. It is made up of ancient alluvial humps that are remnants of old riverine floodplains. The soils of this region consist of hard silty clay of a reddish hue. Organic residues in this soil are highly decomposed, leading to a non-acidic soil. Organic carbon content is also generally low. Therefore overall soil fertility remains at modest levels under non-irrigated conditions.

The State of West Bengal with its varied geographical features and climatic conditions has many farming systems including subsistence, intensive subsistence, plantation farming, mixed, and to some extent commercial farming. The majority of the farmers in the program area of RCHSS, and the majority of farmers in India, are involved in subsistence farming, where the farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their families. In this type of farming, farmers mostly cultivate cereals along with oil seeds, pulses, vegetables, and sugarcane. The output is mostly for local requirements with little or no surplus trade. The typical subsistence farm has a range of crops and animals required by the family to feed and clothe themselves during the year. However, despite the dominance of self-sufficiency in subsistence farming, today most subsistence farmers also participate in trade to some degree.

FT: What are the farmers’ perception of climate or environmental impacts in the region, and how are these affecting their farming practices and their livelihoods?

SD: Studies from different parts of the district indicate that most of the farmers are well aware of rising temperatures, changes in timing, magnitude and intensity of rainfall and reduced severity of the cold. Most of the farmers are very concerned about the scarcity of water both from the rain and also from the subsurface. The community is now aware of water run-off loss during the monsoon season, and less water recharges in groundwater stock in the post-monsoon period. Local farmers are also aware of soil nutrient loss, and increases in pest and crop diseases due to the change in weather.

Due to failure of rains and occurrence of drought, agricultural practices are immensely affected here. The hardest hit are the small and marginal farmers in the community. Few farmers who own ponds can afford to grow two crops in a year, there is a constant increase in the cost of cultivation and decrease in the crop yield, income from farm produce is decreasing, and out-migration of farmers to more lucrative nonfarm activities is increasing in the area. Also, a sizeable amount of land remains almost fallow for most of the time of the year leading to a loss of soil nutrients, while scanty and erratic rainfall keeps water bodies dry and shallow for most time in a year hindering pisciculture (rearing of fish) in the area.

FT: What kind of local adaptation measures are being developed to mitigate against these impacts? Could you please detail your Doba extension program?

(DS): The Rajadighi Community Health Service Society (RCHSS)—with financial support from Bread for the World (BFW), Germany, through Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) – implemented the Integrated Barind Development Project (IBDP) between 2001 – 2006. As a part of the program, the organization took the initiative to promote the local Dobas lying unused behind the individual homesteads as the major source of water in an area where water, the backbone of life, was scarce. The organization institutionalized the practice of ‘Doba-based livelihoods’ mainly among the tribal people by linking indigenous knowledge with academic research. It focused on the ecological effects of preserving traditional small fish cultivation, with fish acting as the primary source of protein of rural poor.

Preservation and popularization of local plants and grasses were also encouraged mainly along the embankments of the Dobas to prevent soil erosion. RCHSS provided some financial help from the project to ensure individual benefits of the families involved. This, in turn, helped the poorer families to own a water conservation structure and build a healthy homestead environment.

RCHSS provided training on sustainable agriculture, seed fish cultivation, piggery, and animal husbandry, mainly dairy largely through participatory technique with local people. Some fruit trees like guava, lemon, mango, jackfruit and banana were provided families to combat food insecurity and nutrition levels of the family members. Kitchen gardening in the limited homestead area and along the Doba embankments was also encouraged. Use of bio-fertilizer was encouraged.

The organization plans to enhance the ‘Doba-based livelihood’ program throughout the region, and generate awareness among the community about the utilization of this water structure.

FT: What are some of the successes of the Doba extension program?

SD: Although the Doba extension program was launched in Mangalpura GP of Habibpur block, its success inspired farmers from other Gram Panchayats of the same Block to approach the organization to help them to revive the Dobas in their household lands and develop their own kitchen garden. Due to a resource crunch, the organization is not in a position to help them financially, but assists them to develop an alternative source of income that depended on these Dobas.

As most of the households in this block are small and marginal farmers, scarcity of water has tremendous impact on their agricultural economy. Most of the houses of these farmers are made of mud, and hence small depressions are quite common in their home premises. These depressions were overlooked by the community and were used as dumping grounds. Today, under MGNREGA program, some of the community members got these structures rejuvenated and are utilizing its water as groundwater recharge basins, irrigation to kitchen gardens, water provision for household requirements and sanitation purposes among others.

FT: What learnings can you take from this local Doba program to inform policy makers at the national level?

SD: Adapting and mitigating agricultural problems due to climate change is a major challenge, especially in a developing country like India, where the vast majority of farmers are marginal smallholder farmers, less educated, and have significantly lower adaptive capacity. As a result, one cannot expect autonomous adaptation.

There is no single approach to drought adaptation and mitigation, nor does one solution fit all regions or countries. Thus location-focused strategies are desired. Each region (e.g., agro- ecological zone) is unique regarding its geography, topography, socio-economic and climatic conditions, therefore formulating strategies tailored to each locality or community should be given importance. Further, strategies could be at different levels of government, for example, regional, national, sub-national and local levels. Adaptation at local level is the most critical issue as local actors are the ones that realize the severity of climate change.

Abram Bicksler, director of ECHO Asia, adds: “We have something similar in Thailand, however it is great that the doba based system utilizes landforms that are already in existence - please see an article that we re-printed in our ECHO Asia Notes about similar water retention basins in Thailand.”