KUTTANAD, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farmer Moncy Joseph, who grows rice on land below sea level in India’s Kuttanad region, is determined not to be beaten by climate change.
Last year, the 44-year-old bought two Kasaragod Dwarf cows, an endangered native breed that grows just 3 feet (91 cm) tall and whose dung makes extra-rich fertiliser.
Last season’s bitter gourd vines, now withered grey, hang from plastic nets above the grazing animals. It’s been three years since Joseph diversified into two-storey vegetable farming, using overhead trellises.
“Plan B - in readiness,” he said at his home in Champakulam village, making light of the uncertainty faced by farmers in the southwest coastal state of Kerala as temperatures and the ocean rise.
Here in Kuttanad, scientists are working to adapt a 150-year-old Indian farming system used on land 2 metres (6.56 ft) below sea level that has withstood saltwater infiltration and monsoon floods, hoping it could help fight global warming, rising oceans and coastal storms.
As the only part of India where rice is farmed below sea level, it was designated in 2013 by the United Nations as a globally important agricultural heritage system.
But since India’s Green Revolution began in the 1960s, farmers came to rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost rice yields.
That damaged fish populations and distorted the system – an effect that has worsened in recent years as they use more chemicals to keep up production in the face of climate change.
Now efforts are underway to rejuvenate the traditional model as a wider “ecosystem approach” that treats rice, fish, ducks, cattle, humans, houses, coconut and cash crops as part of a single system, said Leena Kumari S., a scientist who leads Kerala Agricultural University’s Rice Research Station in Moncompu town.
The aim is to make farmers self-sufficient, cutting the use of chemical inputs and costs, and providing an alternative income if crops fail due to weather or climate extremes, she explained.
Half of the Kuttanad region, a trough of 110,000 hectares (271,816 acres) covering 79 villages in three districts, is under sea level, consisting of reclaimed delta swamps fenced by dykes, out of which water is pumped every few days, similar to the Dutch polder system. It supports 30,000 farming families.
The rest consists of higher dry land where coconut trees are grown, as well as wetlands and a maze of water networks including canals and sea-water inlets.
Four rivers, fed by monsoon rainfall, drain into Kuttanad, bringing fresh water, fertile silt and flooding that can last for weeks between June and October.
When the rivers’ flow slows from December to May, the water level drops below that of the sea, enabling salt water to leach into the low rice lands.
“So adapted were traditional rice varieties to local deep water situations that they grew taller with the rising flood water, keeping their panicles (grain-producing tips) above water at all times,” explained Leena Kumari.
Farmers traditionally cultivated saline-tolerant rice varieties like this and bred fish on the same plot, together or alternately in two seasons per year, alongside coconut on the dykes, comprising their staple foods.
Fish fed off the rotting rice-harvest residue while rice was fertilised by fish excrement, making added nutrients unnecessary.
“Cooked rice from these grains had a distinctive aroma and taste,” said 81-year-old Thommy Thomas, a wiry man in a white wrap watching over the emerald green fields he has farmed for 54 years.
But rice yields were low, at 2 tonnes per hectare, compared with 10 tonnes from today’s high-yielding varieties, Leena Kumari said.
As farmers were encouraged to adopt chemical inputs and new varieties during the Green Revolution, Kuttanad became Kerala’s rice bowl in the 1970s.
One-third of the state’s rice came from here, although it accounted for only 15 percent of Kerala’s 875,000 hectares of paddies.
That area has since reduced to 200,000 hectares, devoured by urban expansion. But Kuttanad has not let its rice fields shrink and is now seen as central to Kerala’s future food security.
The Thanneermukkom barrage, built in 1975 to block seawater, and a spillway constructed in 1955 to drain off floodwater extended the rice season, also pushing up annual yields.
But human intervention has harmed Kuttanad’s ecology - particularly its fish stocks, which have dwindled due to the high level of chemicals in the water, said KG Padma Kumar, director of the International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea-level Farming, set up in 2016 to rejuvenate the heritage farming system.
Calls are now growing among Kerala’s ecologists, scientists and fishing communities to change the way the dam is used and to cut the use of agricultural chemicals.
Scientists estimate that reverting to the traditional system where rice and fish are co-produced organically could boost farmers’ incomes by 40 percent, compared with today.
For now, some farmers, like Joseph, are experimenting with new sources of income. Hundreds of ducks nest on water-logged farms, fertilising them with their manure, which is supplemented by cattle and vermi-composted kitchen waste.
Others are planting vegetables on top of the thousands of kilometres of low earthen dykes, alongside the coconut trees whose roots have strengthened the banks against floods for decades.
At the research station, traditional flood-tolerant rice germplasm cross-bred with high-yielding varieties is already surviving 15 days of submergence. The next goal is to breed rice that can withstand 30 days of water stress, as floods become more frequent.
Meanwhile, as climate change brings higher temperatures, combined with up to 95 percent humidity due to the water all around, insects and disease vectors are rapidly multiplying.
“Kuttanad is turning into a hot spot for plant pests and diseases during the November-to-April cropping season,” Leena Kumari said.
Minor pests are turning into major ones, increasing damage, and hitherto unknown crop diseases are emerging, she added.
At Joseph’s farm, a plastic bottle containing a green cube hangs on a mango tree, with dozens of dead large-winged ants at the bottom.
“We are experimenting with native bio-control organisms that feed on attacking pests in soil, fruit and crop plants,” Leena Kumari said.
Other countries facing similar problems are interested in learning more about Kuttanad’s unique farming system, including Sri Lanka, China and Thailand, said Nadesa Panicker Anil Kumar, biodiversity director at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.
Once work to adapt the below sea-level system to a changing climate is further advanced, India could share the approach with Bangladesh and the Maldives too, helping bolster food security against sea level rise, said the scientist.
Reporting by Manipadma Jena; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate