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Good Practices And Risk Insurance: Why Not Wasteland Restoration

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About 15 minutes after we turn off the highway at Fatehpur, a roadside trading center 70 km from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, a mild haze is all but obvious. As we drive deeper into the increasingly bare and desolate landscape, the wind blows stronger, and the haze thickens into dust plumes. A little lowering of the car window reveals the source of the dust: patches of abandoned land, coated with very fine powdery material in various shades of white and grey. We are in a village with salt affected – sodic – soils, part of the millions of hectares of India’s wastelands. Characterized by dense, impermeable surface crusts and accumulation of certain elements at levels that are toxic to plants, these sodic wastelands no longer support crop growth and have thus been abandoned by farmers. Our journey continues for another 30 minutes, the wind still blows strong, but dust plumes have given way to clearer skies. We have reached Mpumudde, our destination on this particular leg of the project supervision mission.

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Mpumudde is no longer what it used to be barely three years ago. It is one of the villages, where, through World Bank support and in a kind of continual miracle, sodic wastelands have been brought back to life, even rolling back the unsavory spectacle of ecological destruction that once was the hallmark of the village. Initiated in 1993, and currently in the final year of a third phase, the Bank-financed Uttar Pradesh Sodic Lands Reclamation Project has supported the reclamation of over 400,000 ha of sodic and 25,000 ha of ravenous wasteland. “Before the project, nothing could grow on this plot; crops and grasses used not to germinate or would just burn away”, says Lalit a farmer, with an ear to ear grin. And she is right. About 54 percent of the wasteland reclaimed under the project is producing a crop for the first time. In these erstwhile barren lands, crop production has suddenly increased from zero to 3. 5 tons per hectare for rice and 3. 3 tons per hectare for wheat, a level which compares favorably with the yields obtained on undegraded land in the project area. Average total incremental crop production per year, directly attributable to reclamation of some 130,000 ha of sodic wasteland under the project stands at 383,600 tons of rice and 350,900 tons of wheat. There is also the considerable amounts of vegetables, oilseeds and pulses produced as part of the new management protocol for the reclaimed land which emphasizes a cereal to non-cereal rotation. All from what was hitherto abandoned wasteland, this incremental food production is the latest addition to India’s expanding food supply.

While India won its struggle to achieve national food self-sufficiency, climate change has now emerged as a serious threat to the country’s food and nutrition security. If business were to continue as usual, it is projected that by 2040, India might experience a more than 25 percent reduction in crop production because of climate change. Our strategy – and investments – in the agriculture sector in support of India’s efforts to address climate change mainly focus on promoting and scaling up “good practices” (e. g. water use efficiency, resilient seed varieties, soil health management etc. ) – all under the rubric of climate-smart agriculture, and on climate risk insurance. How about a more deliberate focus on reclaiming and bringing into production some of India’s wastelands to partially offset the crop production declines that would accrue because of climate change? By some estimates, India has about 68 million ha of land lying idle as wastelands – salt affected, gullied and ravinous, waterlogged, or snow-covered. We know that fairly simple technology options already exist to reclaim at least 50 percent of these wastelands to make them cultivable just as the case in Mpumudde. Besides augmenting production in response to climate change-induced crop production declines, investments in wasteland reclamation can also help restore ecosystem services such as climate regulation (through increased carbon sequestration), nutrient cycling, and aesthetics; increase biodiversity; combat desertification and can redress inequities in land ownership in favor of poor and marginalized communities through preferential allotment of reclaimed land as was witnessed under the Uttar Pradesh Sodic Land Reclamation Project. A first step would be to look for opportunities within the expanding portfolio of climate-smart agriculture projects to support the economically viable reclamation of wastelands encountered in project areas. However, a full throttle to scale will require progress on many complementary fronts, including but not limited to:

  • Understanding the interaction between lands up for reclamation and climate change. By default, reclamation creates a new habitat. On one hand, it is possible to spend resources to reclaim land, only to have that land become either technically, socially or economically unsuitable for production in the future due to a changed climate. On the other hand, the reclamation would alter the land surface which in turn influences the energy and material exchange between the land and atmosphere as well as the biogeochemical process and consequently exert an influence on climate. In this case, comprehensive climate modeling and landscape studies would be useful to inform decisions on which reclaimed wastelands would not only remain productive under a changed climate, but also not exert negative influences on climate;
  • Strengthening knowledge services: Farm models based on reclaimed wastelands are bound to be knowledge intensive as they require greater management of a wider range of factors. The most successful and sustainable interventions are therefore likely to be those that build capacity, strengthen and improve producers’ access to appropriate knowledge services and products. This will require further strengthening of the increasingly weak extension system in India;
  • Strengthening policies to promote improved and sustainable management of reclaimed land: Favorable policies, including those on land rights and tenure, input and output marketing/pricing, extension etc. , do not only foster proper management of reclaimed wastelands, but also generally guarantee continued improved management in the long term. In recent years, India has made commendable progress in strengthening the policy environment for improved land management. However, some gaps remain, for example, with respect to women’s rights to land and input and output pricing. Closing these gaps should go a long way in ensuring that reclaimed lands would be sustainably managed; and
  • Better understanding of the cost, economic feasibility and ‘competitiveness’ of reclamation. The cost and feasibility of wasteland reclamation can vary considerably depending on the type of wasteland, degree of degradation, location, climate and availability of relevant expertise. All other factors being equal, assessment of the feasibility of restoration can inform decisions on selection and prioritization from among the many wastelands. Such an understanding is also important to assess the ‘competitiveness’ of reclamation efforts against other alternatives of securing food security e. g. relying on imports from other countries. India is the most vulnerable to climate change according to the HSBC study. We need to think outside the box and this could start with wasteland restoration.

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