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India Water Action: Picking Up The Pieces —Tamil Nadu Farming After The Tsunami

India Water Action: Picking Up The Pieces —Tamil Nadu Farming After The Tsunami

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Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

India: Picking Up The Pieces —Tamil Nadu Farming After The Tsunami
January 2005

By Lalitha Sridhar Freelance development journalist and member of the ADB Water Media Network

A BLEAK PONGAL For many farmers living on the Tamil Nadu coast, Pongal will be bleak this January. Pongal is the harvest festival and the most important annual celebration of agrarian communities in Southern India. At 8.40 am on December Manickapangu village: fresh and salt 26th, on the verge of the water combined in this irrigation canal harvest season and after excellent monsoon rains which had brought an end to three years of crippling drought, the tsunamis struck along the southeastern coast of India. Seawater came up to two kilometers inland, depending on the topography of the terrain. Within minutes, tens of thousands were dead. All productive land close to the shore - shrimp farms, coconut and mango groves, floriculture of malli and mullai (varieties of famously fragrant jasmine), and paddy and groundnut fields - were a meter deep in a sand and a debris-mixed sludge of seawater. TSUNAMI'S SALT THREAT Over the last few years, farmers had been reporting increasing salinity as agriculture has shifted from riverfed irrigation to fields watered with deep commercial submersible bore wells. But never salinity on this scale.

Mariappan's story is told over and over again throughout India's southeastern coastal communities. The seawater affected the entire agrarian coastal stretch from Vedaranyam Kodiyakarai to Kollidam, with between 250 and 300 villages losing all their fertile lands. While, official estimates of losses in the region amount to Rs 2,730.7 crore (approximately $US6.2) in Tamil Nadu, the full extent of the agricultural sector's loss -- in both human and financial terms -- could take much longer to calculate. P.Gandhi, a worker in the Land for Tillers initiative in Nagapattinam, the worst affected district, said, "We have been distributing rice bags among landless labourers who now face unemployment in a harvest season that is usually the most prosperous one. Farmers need rehabilitation, too. If something isn't done to assess and mitigate the damage soon, another tragedy looms." PICKING UP THE PIECES Assessment and mitigation of the affected areas has begun. Desalination plants have been transported from Hyderabad and Ahmedabad to ensure that drinking water supplies are maintained within rural communities. Post-tsunami soil profile tests have already been undertaken in parts of Cuddalore and Sathangudi village: water from a Nagappatinam. handpump 10 feet deep turned out to The report into the soil shows that seawater has seeped to a depth of 90 cm into the soil, completely affecting the root zone (15-30 cm below the ground). The tests also show that in the coastal villages of Subbauppalavadi, Madalpattu, Gunduppalavadi and Nananedu, the soil salinity had a high ph value ranging between 6.8 to 9.10. Says the Nagapattinam District Collector M.Veera Shanmugha Moni, "We estimate that a tonne of gypsum (a mineral used extensively as a soil conditioner in agriculture) will have to be applied per hectare of land. Restoring fertility to the soil is going to be a slow process that will take three to four years. The administration is alert and sensitive to the distress of farmers."
be unfit for drinking after the tsunami

"This was once one of the richest agrarian deltas in the country. Not anymore", said Dr. R.Mariappan, retired agricultural scientist and traditional farmer of the Erukkattanchery Village near Tarangambadi (Tranquebar), who has lost 25 acres of fertile paddy fields.

Sathangudi village: Just 0.5 - 1.0 km from the sea, rice crops in flowering stage were completely scorched due to sea water

He continued, "Our family has been farming for the last eleven generations and we have never seen anything like this. My crops bleached into hay in a matter of days. The water in the network of embankments and feeder canals that irrigates my fields is now saline. The bore wells have gone brackish. The soil is covered by a thick sludge. In a matter of one hour, our only harvest of the year was wiped out. I don't know how we are going to make our land fertile again."

EXPLORING ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS Moni also suggests that other crops will have to be considered in the future, "Paddy cultivation is impossible with this degree of salinity. We will have to encourage farmers to grow a salt-resistant crop like cashew. It remains to be seen how well that will work, however, given the other factors native to the Thanjavur delta - alluvial soil, high humidity, a tropical climate and 6 weeks of monsoons every December." Others argue for an influx of fresh water from elsewhe;re. Arupathy Kalyanam, General Secretary of the non-political Federation of Farmers Associations continues, "The need of the hour is to bring in electric pumps to suck out all the salt-mixed water in the common ponds. These small water bodies will have to be replenished with fresh water brought in from elsewhere." The Federation has also suggested that water be released from the Mettur Reservoir to wash the waterlogged and sludge-layered soil. The new government's plans to build a man-made wall along the coast are met with disdain. Locals point out that many of the natural barriers - unspoilt mangroves and savukku trees (casuarina palms) - would help to provide much greater resistance to tsunamis. This was the case in the relatively unscathed areas around Pichavaram and Muttipettai. And then there is the question of government financial support. Applying gypsum to salty soil can restore fertility, but farmers will need a 100% subsidy on gypsum. Says Kalyanam, "We are suggesting something along the lines of an Area Agricultural Lands Protection Special Package. As per our estimates, the worst affected are farmlands around Sirkazhi, Tarangambadi, Vedaranyam and Palatthur. The loss per acre on which crops were standing is Rs 10,000 (US$229). At least that should be compensated."

LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY What is clear is that a long recovery period lies ahead as people try to rebuild their livelihoods. Dr. Mariappan concludes, "Initially, we were just glad to survive the Tsunamis. Our irrigation channels were clogged with seawater, our roads were gone and our crop was looking like bleached straw, but at least we were alive. Now we need the government authorities to help us. We may be alive but only just."

____________________________ *Following the devastating tsunamis in South and South East Asia, journalists from the water media network were commissioned to provide their personal thoughts on the tragedy from a water perspective. Lalitha Sridhar is a consulting editor and award-winning freelance development journalist based in New Delhi, India. She can be reached at lalitha.sridhar@gmail.com

*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in January 2005: http://www.adb.org/water/actions/IND/tamil-nadu.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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