Farmers worldwide have had to face the challenges of drought, an increasingly pressing concern due to climate change.
Mitigating the impact of drought requires a multifaceted approach, combining traditional drought adaptation strategies with modern technological solutions.
Soil conservation is essential for sustainable farming and various techniques are employed to achieve this goal. One such technique is mulching, which involves the application of either organic or inorganic materials — such as straw or plastic — on the soil surface. This reduces evaporation, suppresses weed growth and enhances soil health. Planting cover crops curbs erosion, enriches the ground’s fertility, retains water and repels pests.
Another practice is reduced or no-till farming, which minimizes the dirt’s disturbance, thereby preserving its structure and moisture-holding capacity. Efficient watering methods such as drip irrigation are beneficial, as they deliver water directly to the plant roots, minimizing evaporation. Scheduled irrigation — driven by soil moisture sensors or evapotranspiration data — ensures watering is done only when necessary.
Harvesting and storing water are equally essential parts of drought adaptation strategies. During the wet periods, rainwater can be collected and stored to cater to needs during drier times. Similarly, ponds and reservoirs can store excess water, which proves invaluable during droughts. The selection of crops also plays a role — opting for drought-resistant varieties can be beneficial.
Good water management practices include techniques like rotational grazing. By shifting where livestock graze, it's possible to maintain grass cover and soil moisture. Other methods like terracing and contour farming can deter water runoff, enabling better soil water absorption. Modern technologies like weather forecasting and satellite imagery can guide decisions related to planting and irrigation.
Agroforestry integrates trees into cropping systems, and has proven beneficial in increasing water infiltration, curbing evaporation and enhancing soil organic matter. Crop rotation — especially with crops like Brassicas that retain water — can also economically benefit farmers. Occasionally, deep plowing up to the top 10 inches of soil can disrupt the hardpan in the dirt, allowing plant roots to delve deeper and access more water. Ground conditioners can elevate the earth’s capacity to retain moisture by aerating it.
To mitigate the risks associated with farming, drought insurance can safeguard against crop losses, while diversifying income sources can offer an economic safety net during droughts. Collaboration and support from the community and government can lead to shared resources and better water management policies.
Continuous education and training about the latest drought mitigation techniques can enable farmers to make sound decisions. Adopting water-efficient practices or technologies that reduce water usage can further amplify the benefits.
Another innovative approach is wastewater reuse by transforming treated wastewater into fertilizer using methods like the Haber-Bosch technique. Farmers can prime the soil and reduce pollution, as fertilizer production accounts for about 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Learning from successful management outcomes can help inspire your own. Here are a few examples of working drought adaptation strategies.
California faced one of the most severe droughts on record from 2012 to 2017. It hit farmers in the Central Valley — one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world — hard.
Farmers allowed thousands of acres to fallow to cope with reduced water allocations. Groundwater was heavily tapped, leading to ground subsidence in many areas. Investments in efficient irrigation technology such as drip irrigation increased. The state government implemented tighter water restrictions and encouraged farmers to adopt water-saving measures.
São Paulo — the most populous state in Brazil — experienced a multi-year drought affecting urban and rural areas. Farmers collected and stored rainwater for irrigation, and rotated crops to maintain soil quality and moisture. They increasingly adopted drought-resistant varieties, especially in the coffee sector.
Droughts have been plaguing the Murray-Darling Basin — Australia's most significant river system — for decades, directly affecting the agriculture sector. The government implemented the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to manage water resources better.
Farmers adopted drought adaptation strategies and technologies, such as regulated deficit irrigation. The local government invested heavily in water infrastructure, like efficient irrigation channels and dams. Farms transitioned to more drought-tolerant crops and livestock.
The Marathwada region in Maharashtra, India, has suffered recurrent droughts, impacting small and marginal farmers. Community-driven water conservation projects such as Jalyukt Shivar aimed to make villages drought proof. In addition, there were promotions of soil conservation techniques and rainwater harvesting. Emphasis was on crop diversification and the introduction of drought-resistant varieties.
Changing the variety of food sources and adding traditional grains into people’s diets can help farmers mitigate the effects of drought on the food supply, as traditional grains often require less water to produce. Consumers also benefit from a broader range of healthier food options than more common staple foods like corn, wheat and rice:
Sorghum: Often grown in semi-arid regions, sorghum is naturally heat and drought tolerant. Today, plenty of sorghum varieties are developed specifically for areas with scarce water.
Pearl and finger millet: Millet comes from a family of grasses with small seeds that are hardy and grow well in dry zones as rain-fed crops under suboptimal soil fertility and moisture.
Cassava: This root vegetable thrives in conditions with minimal rainfall. It can produce adequate yields where many other crops fail to deliver at all.
Cowpea: Cowpeas are drought-tolerant legumes often known as black-eyed peas. They’re well-adapted to sandy soil conditions.
Teff: This staple grain in Ethiopia is known for its ability to tolerate limited water conditions.
Barley: Farmers use drought-tolerant barley varieties in many arid regions as food and fodder crops.
Drought-tolerant maize: Through breeding programs, drought-tolerant maize varieties have been developed and disseminated in many African countries where it’s a staple.
Sweet potatoes: The varieties bred for drought-prone areas can survive and produce reasonable yields with limited water.
Quinoa: Native to South America, quinoa is a pseudo-grain that can grow under various conditions, including drought-stressed environments.
Amaranth: This traditional grain and leafy vegetable is drought-tolerant and can be grown in adverse conditions.
Chickpea: There are specific varieties of chickpeas developed for drought resistance, making them suitable for regions with limited water.
Pigeon pea: This legume is often grown in tropical regions and has drought-resistant properties.
Droughts are natural occurrences, yet human interventions can either magnify their effects or increase the susceptibility of specific areas. Although preventing droughts is impossible, several strategies can bolster resilience and diminish vulnerability.
The most important step is water conservation, which calls for water-efficient appliances, mending leaks and public education about water preservation. It's also vital to rely on something other than a single water source, and to combine sources like ground, surface and desalinated water to improve the overall supply.