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 Desertification and its control in India

Land degradation (including desertification in drylands) is estimated to affect at least one-third of the 328 mha geographical area in India.

Dr. Prakash Narayan
Director, Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur, India and Dr. Amal Kar, CAZRI, Jodhpur, India

Land degradation (including desertification in drylands) is estimated to affect at least one-third of the 328 mha geographical area in India. Drylands, constituting about 223 mha in arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid regions, are more prone to degradation on account of climatic constraints, fragility of natural resources, and high pressures of humans and animals, as well as industrialization. Arid areas (49.5 mha) are the worst affected, especially in the western part of Rajasthan state that includes the Thar Desert (20.87 m ha), as well as in arid Gujarat (6.22 m ha). Recurrent drought, high wind, poor sandy soils and very high human and livestock demand for food, fodder and fuel wood are causing over-exploitation of fragile resources, resulting in wind and water erosion, water logging, salinity-alkalinity and vegetation degradation. Dumping of mine and industrial wastes is also now contributing to desertification.

Traditional practices of water storage and conservation and mixed farming that integrates perennial trees and grasses with crop cultivation and livestock rearing, which proved as best practices for sustainability and resource conservation, are now disappearing. As a consequence, about 92% area in arid Rajasthan is now affected by desertification (30% slightly, 41% moderately and 21% severely). About 76% area is affected by wind erosion of different intensities, and 13% by water erosion. Another 4% area is affected by water logging and salinity/alkalinity. In the neighbouring arid Gujarat about 93% area is affected by desertification. Water erosion is the major problem (39%), affecting agriculture, especially in the dominantly hilly and undulating terrain of Kachchh and Saurashtra with shallow soils that are highly fragile due to slope and periodic earth movements. The other major problem is salinity (47%), which is inherent in the large barren salt marshes like the Great Rann of Kachchh but is also present in the narrow coastal plains.

About 174 m ha area in rainfed semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions are mostly affected by water erosion that is getting accelerated due to declining tree cover, land use changes with expansion of cropland and intensive mono-cropping, while the irrigated areas of these regions are being affected by water logging and salinity. Besides, the Indo-Gangetic plains of Punjab and Haryana states, with dominance of rice-wheat cultivation, are showing signs of depletion of groundwater, organic carbon, and deficiencies in essential plant nutrients.

To combat the adverse impact of these processes on finite land and water resources, India embarked upon a national policy to bring 33% of the country’s land area under forest, as well as to implement desert and drought-prone area development programmes, which include sand dune stabilization, wind erosion control, soil and water conservation in peninsular India and river valley projects, watershed development, agro-forestry, social forestry and joint forest management, salinity control, etc., through state land development departments, forest departments, R&D institutions, NGOs, and people’s participation.

The Central Arid Zone Research Institute is contributing to these efforts through research interventions. Its technology on sand dune stabilization through vegetative means has been used by the State to stabilize about 300,000 ha area of menacing sand dunes, especially on government-controlled land. Promising technologies for shelterbelts, border row plantation, plantation of tree belts across the wind and alternating with crop/grass rows that utilize remunerative native/exotic trees, shrubs and grasses for food, fuel, fodder, fruits, minor forest products like gum and resins, have also been developed for the farmers who are the major users of sand dunes in the region. Shelterbelts of a three-row wind break of Acacia tortilis, Cassia siamea and Prosopis juliflora as the side rows and Albizzia lebbek as the central row has proved promising. A number of diversified farming systems have been evolved for low-rainfall areas, which include agro-forestry, agri-horticulture and agri-silvi-pasture, to sustain livelihood during crop failure and to maintain livestock during drought. Improved practices for pasture and rangeland management, especially through silvi-horti-pastoral systems and rotational grazing, and rehabilitation of mine spoils through vegetative means have been developed and are being propagated by R&D institutions as well as state departments.

For water erosion control on arable lands, contour cultivation, bunding, graded bunding and bench terracing are adopted in conjunction with minimum tillage, cover crops, inter-cropping, strip cropping, contour vegetative barriers, etc. For non-arable lands check dams, gully plugging, stabilization of gully heads and vegetative measures are advocated. These measures and appropriate land uses are integrated on catchment basis with due regard to capability of the land. Rain water conservation, its harvesting and efficient utilization are in-built in watershed management programmes. Combating desertification through land care while enhancing agricultural productivity is the underlying principle for sustainable land management in the drylands of India.

For more details please contact ICARDA at the contact link above. (Link will be active for registered users only)

© International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), 2006

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Meeting information

Eighth International Conference on Dryland Development

Keywords associated to this article: Land degradation
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