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Farming Amid Sand Dunes and Stones: India Wrings New Life from its Drylands

The sand dunes of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.   ©MangoTraveler/Pixabay.
The sand dunes of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. ©MangoTraveler/Pixabay

India’s wind-swept, mostly waterless arid regions are among the toughest places in the world to farm.

However, the productivity outlook is looking up. India’s arid regions enjoy a unique and rich biodiversity of adapted plants and livestock species, a treasure trove of indigenous farming knowledge, and plenty of sunlight. Given these resources, India is giving high priority to research and development in its northwestern arid ecosystems.

Endless challenges to farmers

India’s northwest regions are famous for their high heat, strong winds and encroaching sand dunes.

Farmers face erratic and scant annual rainfall and scarce surface water resources such as ponds and marshes. Groundwater quality is poor and groundwater tables are receding. Moreover, the sandy native soils, faced with evaporation and erosion pressures, are low in fertility with poor water-holding capacity. Add land degradation and climate change into the mix and India’s arid region farmers are uniquely challenged.

Still, modern efforts to harness the land for growing crops appear to be paying off.

More crops, more resilience

So, how does India do it? It starts with her arid region farmers’ adoption of an integrated farming system (IFS). Well-suited to the physical characteristics of India’s drylands, IFS avoids single-season crops, or what is called mono-cropping, opting instead for diversified commodities—crops, livestock, and woody perennials that can absorb a farm’s economic risks and stabilize its ecosystems.

The IFS co-generates food products of grains and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and meat and dairy. It also generates green and dry animal feed (fodder) and fuel (wood and biogas). Together, these products increase the self-sufficiency of farmers and meet their basic demands for nutrition and employment security.

A two-decade long Indian study combined several drylands farming systems, such as farming with forestry or agriculture with pasture. The study’s results? The IFS fulfilled most of a family’s typical requirements for food and fuel wood.

The adoption of India’s IFS has been widespread. Almost all of the arid region’s farmers have at least three components of IFS going for them, namely crops, agro-forestry, and livestock. Half are involved in fruit cultivation.

Variety means income security

IFS is good for a farmer’s wallet. Income from farming mono crops is seasonal, with money coming in at a particular time of the year. Because IFS involves sales of a variety of farm products, it brings in money throughout the year.

IFS also keeps farmers working. Single-crop production has peak labor requirements during the planting and harvesting seasons. For the rest of the year, single-crop farmers are hard pressed for employment income. IFS utilizes labor steadily and efficiently with its many products and overlapping growing seasons. Results of a five-year study showed IFS generated roughly twice the employment of sole crop production in India’s arid northwest.

Impacts on climate change

IFS may have a big impact on climate change. Through something as simple as planting trees on agricultural land, IFS can achieve climate change mitigation, or reduction, and climate change adaptation. Studies suggest that introducing certain trees to arid farmland can impact climate change by capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere, not only above ground through photosynthesis but also in soil through tree roots. Meanwhile tree roots are hard at work, enriching soil with nutrients drawn from deep in the ground.

The Indian hot arid zone lies mostly in the country’s northwest.
The Indian hot arid zone lies mostly in the country’s northwest.

Indigenous ingenuity

India’s drylands farmers get a lot of help from the past. There are ancient, indigenous traditions to protect the trees and preserve these deeply revered, sacred lands, called the orans.

Indigenous people also have a wealth of information on what to plant and when and where to plant it. Mixing crops with woody perennials and livestock, for instance, is an indigenous farming tradition that eliminates the risk of single crop failure.

Indigenous people in arid India have long had a genius for water. In Western Rajasthan, where rainfall is insufficient to grow crops, khadin, a system of runoff-farming, has been in use since the fifteenth century.

The khadin system collects rainwater in highlands that have good water runoff potential. The water is sent down spillways to lower plains with deep soil that receives the runoff and stores it for crops. Once India’s annual monsoons end, the accumulated water begins to recede and crops are cultivated according to the depth of the impounded water.

R&D boosts productivity

India has spent decades on scientific research and development to enhance the productivity of arid farms.

A key strategy is identifying the right crops and cultivars for the challenges of the region.

Take the crop-growing period in Rajasthan, for instance. It is a mere six weeks to twelve weeks and sometimes even less! Identifying cultivars that mature quickly (before the water dries up) has been crucial for farm resilience. Happily, improving cultivars has resulted in yield increases of fifteen to fifty percent.

Flipping the fodder supply

Livestock, too, are an integral part of the arid regions’ agrarian economy, but good quality fodder is in short supply. Enhancing the feed supply is crucial.

Community grazing lands have been the primary source of fodder, but most areas are so degraded that they hardly produce 300 to 400 kilograms of annual fodder per hectare.

Hope is not lost, however. Farmers have several means to restore these grazing lands. Some best practices include:

  • Growing “live” fencing. Growing edible woody perennials as field boundaries can produce a lot of fodder.

  • Reseeding common lands with suitable grazing species.

  • Scientifically developing new fodder crops. One crop, known as Hybrid Napier, has the potential to yield 400 annual tons of fodder per hectare.

  • Planting with high-yield cropping sequences, such as cowpea/oat/pearl millet, capable of producing eighty-seven annual tons per hectare of green fodder.

  • Growing dual-purpose crops that yield both grain and straw, such as pearl millet.

Achieving ‘more crop per drop’

What could be more crucial to drylands farming than harvested water? The introduction of water harvesting systems for irrigation, such as inter-plot and inter-row systems, is already improving yields of rainfed crops in the arid northwest. Supplemental irrigation during dry spells is especially crucial during critical crop growth stages.

Some methods have proven better than others: Sprinkler and drip methods are far more efficient than surface methods of irrigation. That's important for regions that receive as little as 200 millimeters of rainfall annually.

Fortunately for these arid farmers, even less water is often used to get the best outputs. So-called deficit irrigation (DI) provides less water than is needed for normal transpiration (evaporation through pores in plant leaves), but surprisingly, studies show that DI had up to 20% greater water production than did full irrigation, achieving water savings of 20%.

Enemy at the gates

Desertification is a perennial challenge in the hot arid northwest. Today, 60% of western Rajasthan is stressed by desertification.

Land degradation fuels desertification. The main culprits, wind and water erosion, have been joined in recent decades by the impacts of mining and industrial contamination.

Excess irrigation, coupled with inadequate drainage, has caused water logging along India’s important irrigation canals. Some soils near the canals have become so salty as to be useless for farming. When you irrigate continuously with canal water, geogenic salts from lower layers of earth come to surface leading to soil degradation.

There are a host of other causes of desertification, including deep ploughing over large areas and unrestricted grazing. India has a huge cattle population, and herds will leave the land bare by grazing. When wind or water reach the topsoil, there’s nothing to hold it in place.

Also, many Indians in arid areas use vegetation for fuel. The loss of those plant roots and their water-holding capacity opens even more land to erosion.

And then there are the sand dunes.

In India’s northwest, sand dunes were constantly on the move. This threatens marginal lands, with about 58% of arid Rajasthan under sand dune cover.

The ICAR-Central Arid Zone Research Institute has developed methods for holding the dunes in check. One method is to erect small wind breaks. The wind breaks are fashioned into checkerboard patterns from local dried brush and installed across prevailing winds.

Another strategy is to seed or transplant suitable species or grasses to grow between trees.


Shelterbelts are used by farmers throughout the world to reduce wind speeds and the damage that winds cause. Shelterbelts are strips of multiple rows of trees and/or shrubs that blunt the assault of wind. They have been successfully raised on a large scale in arid India along roads, railway tracks, and canals.

Trees to the rescue—again

Water erosion can be a big problem in India’s hot arid regions. It can be caused by monsoons, sudden rainfall outbreaks, or, as mentioned before, by faulty irrigation. India has developed several techniques, such as terracing land or seeding along land contours, to slow down the process.

Once again, trees offer an excellent solution.

How is that? By planting select tree species with deeper roots that serve as “bio-pumps.” Deep tree roots stabilize groundwater levels by drawing excess water into the tree’s roots, up its trunk, and into its branches, releasing all that moisture through the tree’s leaf pores.

Seed research

It’s a win-win when science hands farmers technologies that sustain agriculture and halt desertification. Seed technologies offer a window into successful arid farming.

As planting time nears, farmers should consider their seed rate management or knowing the optimum number of seeds to plant for preferred yields. A farmer needs to know when to plant the seeds as well, but that changes from year to year. There are also seed density and seed planting patterns to consider, depending on a farm’s particulars. And before considering any of the above, some seeds require soaking and even incubating before they are planted.

Once the seeds have sprouted and begun to grow, integrated nutrition and weed and pest and insect control must then be considered.

Carefully considered technologies are being continuously developed to address these important issues with productivity and resilience in mind.

Combined impact

So how has India been doing? There are no economic indicators to quantify what all these technologies achieve together. We do know, however, that they have provided some impressive ecosystem services over the past few decades.

For instance, there was a substantial increase in areas sown in arid Rajasthan from 8.36 million ha in 1960-61 to 11.2 million ha in 2018-19, and the number of annual dust storms in the region declined from seventeen in 1966 to less than three in 2000. Areas affected by wind erosion were reduced from 75% in 1990 to 73% in 2013, and sand dune coverage was reduced from 54% in 1990 to 48% to 2013.

Cost-benefit ratio analyses have shown that these technologies are all cost-effective, as well.

The next target

It took a team of technological innovators from ages past, scientists, public participants, and policymakers, but desertification at the margins of India’s arid lands has been in retreat for the last few decades.

Building on this success should go a long way toward reaching the UN’s land degradation neutrality target, set out in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a presentation by Dr. Yadav given at the Twenty-Seventh International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences held in April 2021.


*Dr. Om Parkash Yadav is the Director of the ICAR-Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.


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