Hyderabad: Rathod Ghanubha Ravubha of Zanzmer village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district remembers a time when the land was fertile and he used to produce sorghum, millet and groundnut. "Those days were good," says the frail-looking Ravubha as he along with a few workers removes the weeds on his farm. "Since the salinity has increased in the soil, the production has reduced by 40%."

Gujarat has a coastline extending to 1,600 km--the longest of any Indian state, more than the distance between New Delhi and Kolkata. The climate is arid and humid, and rainfall is scarce in certain parts of the state, and in such areas depend on groundwater for irrigation and domestic uses. That vital lifeline is now being affected by increased salinity.

Seawater intrusion was first detected in the 1970s. Extensive exploitation of groundwater due to rapid industrialisation and the indiscriminate digging of tube wells are the main causes for salinity.

“Three acres of my land was in a low-lying area, and I could not utilise it for agriculture due to salinity, because of which we could farm only in one season each year,” says Popat Vasram Parmar, a farmer of Dwaraka, who adds that it was only after installing sprinklers that he was able to cultivate the whole land.

According to a 2020 study by Pardeep Kumar, Professor at Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar Himachal Pradesh Krishi Vishvavidyalay, Palampur and Pradeep K. Sharma, Professor at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, nearly 75% of salt-affected soils in the country exist in the states of Gujarat (2.23 million ha), Uttar Pradesh (1.37 million ha), Maharashtra (0.61 million ha), West Bengal (0.44 million ha) and Rajasthan (0.38 million ha).

Salinity drastically limits agricultural productivity as most cash crops are sensitive to high salt content in soil. In the Middle Ages, armies spread salt on the lands of conquered kingdoms to prevent them from rehabilitating themselves. Almost all major crops show yields that are only between 20% to 50% of record yields in areas where the soil shows high salinity levels.

Agriculture in the state has been severely affected by coastal salinity, which, in turn, has led to farmers facing mounting losses. "Due to salinity, the cotton crop production has reduced, and the development of onion is not up to the mark--the top of the onion gets burnt, and the ball does not develop below it," says Bhaliya Shantibhai Bachubha, a farmer from Vejodari village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district.

According to estimates based on data from the 2012-14 moving average, India loses 16.84 million tonnes of agricultural production yearly as a result of soil salinisation, which has a significant impact on the country's economy.

Gujarat topped the list with a loss of Rs 10,063 crore during this period, while Uttar Pradesh is second with a loss of Rs 8,129 crore. The largest areas of the nation which are affected by salinity (>50% of the agricultural land) are in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. These two states account for about 79% of the nation's monetary losses.

Besides its impact on agricultural productivity, groundwater contamination has led to various health issues. "Twenty years ago there were no diseases like stones in kidneys and skin diseases. Now, due to salinity in the water, the ratio of cases of kidney stones, skin disease and joint pains has increased a lot," says Kanubhai Lagarbhai, a farmer of Pratappara village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district. He himself suffers from ringworm (a fungal infection) and joint pains.

Other common diseases in the area are fluorosis, which manifests as brown or white specks on the teeth, and intestinal diseases. "Farmers spend a lot of time working in their fields which are irrigated with saline water, which can lead to urinary system stones, hypertension and heart diseases," says Ramesh Bajania, a paediatrician from Dhrangadhra in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district.

In 2018, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had pulled up the Gujarat government for its lack of progress in salinity ingress prevention and the sharp escalation in the cost of schemes due to delays in carrying out the work.

"Twenty years ago there were no diseases like stones in kidneys and skin diseases. Now, due to salinity in the water, the ratio of cases of kidney stones, skin disease and joint pains has increased a lot," says Kanubhai Lagarbhai, a farmer of Pratappara village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district.

Depletion of mangroves exacerbating salinity

Gujarat, with 1,107 sq km of mangroves, is second only to West Bengal. Mangrove ecosystems support local economies by being a reliable source of honey and other forest produce; they serve as vast carbon sinks; they moderate salinity and prevent the ingress of seawater into the land.

This habitat is now under intense stress. Developmental activities such as the Sagarmala Project, for port modernisation and development on new ports, is affecting fragile ecosystems, which in turn causes loss of livelihood to local populations.

“We will pay a heavy price with the loss or degradation of mangrove ecosystems, as the ability to mitigate climate change gets weakened, affecting people's lives and property,” says T.V. Ramachandra, a coordinator of Energy & Wetlands Research Group at the Center for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

In addition to being directly responsible for the loss of mangroves in the area, industrial expansion also has an indirect effect. The degradation of mangroves was mainly caused by the saltpans industry, which flourished in intertidal areas.

According to Ramachandra, salinity intrusion into the land is a serious issue as it affects the livelihood of farmers in the coastal areas. Such intrusion happens due to deforestation, removal of mangroves, and constructing dams upstream of rivers which alters the water and sediment transport downstream. “Our studies in the Sharavathi river basin highlights how saltwater intrusion downstream is affecting people, depleting drinking water as well as water for agriculture, etc.,” says Ramachandra.

“Mangroves are saviours for the coastal communities as they reduce storm surges, thereby reducing seawater flooding and salinisation," says R Ramasubramanian, a senior fellow, Coastal Systems Research at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. As this demonstration shows, mangroves break up surging seas during periods of storm, and prevent the surge from impacting on the land. "Mangroves offer many benefits by protecting coastlines from erosion and seawater salination, reducing the impact of climate change disasters, and absorbing and storing more carbon than any other ecosystem.”

Credit: SN Applied Sciences
Map showing coastal districts of Gujarat affected by saltwater intrusion.

Migration due to land degradation

According to a 2005 study by South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, in Gujarat, environmental concerns have a big influence on human migration. Short-term migrants seem to be motivated, in particular, by environmental degradation occurring at the village level. Village commons serve as pastures and are a valuable resource for middle-class households that raise cattle--the deterioration of the land, therefore, forces them to relocate to greener pastures.

Irrigation is another important aspect that influences people's decisions to migrate. Roughly 40% of households with land have access to irrigation. It was discovered that the likelihood of migration is lower for households with access to irrigation, which can boost land productivity. In general, it was found that the ability to utilise irrigation is more likely to discourage migration than land ownership.

“Climate change has forced marginalised communities to make a heart-wrenching choice: stay and endure the relentless encroachment of saline waters, or leave their ancestral homes in search of safer shores," says Anjal Prakash, Research Director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. "The silent migration of these communities, driven by ecological necessity, is a stark reminder of the social impacts of coastal salinity.”

Mitigation measures

Policymakers face significant challenges in balancing the goals of sustainable land management, food security, and poverty alleviation. Land degradation is one huge challenge. Large areas of land have become unproductive due to soil salinisation alone. Globally, soil salinisation is expected to worsen in the future due to climate change scenarios, which include rising sea levels and their effects on coastal areas, rising temperatures and increased evaporation, etc. Restoring degraded areas, particularly soils impacted by salt, is one way to protect food security. With this in mind, the Indian government has set a goal to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.

Salinity is a longstanding issue. According to a 2020 study by Swayam Siddha, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and Paulami Sahu, Central University of Gujarat, published in SN Applied Sciences, salinity ingress affected 779 settlements with an area of 1.65 million hectares and a population of 1.33 million in Gujarat, according to data from 1976.

In 1976 and 1978, the Gujarat government created High Level Committees (HLCs) to recommend preventive measures against saline infiltration and to establish corrective procedures. There was an increase of 92% and 85%, respectively, in the areas affected by SWI in Madhavpur-Malia and Lakhpat-Malia between 1977 and 2008. Seawater inundation at Una-Madhavpur Reach resulted in a loss of 1,237 hectares.

To investigate the distribution of salinity throughout the pre- and post-monsoon periods, 2D maps were created utilising the locations of the wells and associated data. During the last 15 years, these maps were used to identify the interchange of the freshwater and saltwater interface and the ensuing sea water intrusion. According to the study's findings, groundwater has been saltier over the years.

“To mitigate the devastating effects of coastal salinity-induced migration, we must act decisively," says Anjal Prakash. "Investing in resilient infrastructure, equitable policies, and sustainable livelihoods is not just a moral imperative; it's a survival strategy for our shared future.”

A slew of recent initiatives by the Gujarat government may also help farmers like Ravubha. To address the issue of salinity ingress in the coastal villages, the Gujarat government has approved canal projects worth Rs 102 crore. The project seeks to control the problem of salinity in the coastal villages of the Gir Somnath district.

The project will be developed by the Water Resources Department, and aims to increase the fertility of 87,797 hectares of land. This will help in providing water for irrigation in the Saurashtra region, improving the quality of underground water, and thus benefiting agricultural labourers. The project will be taken up by the state water resources department and will involve the locals, NGOs, experts and the Gujarat government.

The Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), in collaboration with organisations like The Tata Trusts, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), and Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) based in Ahmedabad, has also been working in coastal regions to develop sustainable solutions for addressing the many challenges of salinity ingress.

Many NGOs, in coordination with the state government, have taken up initiatives to provide sustainable solutions in order to address saltwater ingress. Seen here is a check-dam built by the Ambuja Cement Foundation in Kodinar in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district.

The CSPC, started in 2008, aims to mitigate salinity and adaptation issues through research and implementation to provide a better quality of life to the communities in the coastal regions of Gujarat. "Salinity is a major problem, and our main focus is on improving the drinking water and sanitation services of the coastal villages of Gujarat," says Arvind Parmar, the head of the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme at CSPC. The programme was initiated after 2010, and as a part of the initiative it has created and screened films at schools and villages to create awareness on sanitation and hygiene.

CSPC also promoted the usage of drip irrigation and sprinklers to stop water logging and reduce salinity ingress. Farmers were encouraged to diversify their livelihood by focusing on animal husbandry and other traditional farming like floriculture, horticulture and other options to withstand climate instabilities and to augment their income.

To increase water availability for irrigation and to reduce salinity, farm ponds and check dams were built to store rainwater. CSPC has helped create awareness on various sustainable solutions and the effective mitigation and prevention of salinity ingress.

"Earlier, we had one crop of groundnut, the crop was always poor because of salinity in the water, we struggled to source drinking water too, and the water supplied was of low quality," says Haribhai, a farmer of Pipli village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district, adding that things have improved thanks to the recent initiatives.

A woman filling clean drinking water supplied by the Coastal Salinity Protection Cell in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government is in talks with the Gujarat government to set up a Centre of Excellence on Saline Farming in Gujarat to help farmers take up agriculture on salt-affected farms. The Netherlands had problems similar to Gujarat, but with cutting edge technologies, it turned itself around to the point where it is now the world's second largest exporter of agricultural produce.

The governments of the Netherlands and Gujarat are now working to create a knowledge-sharing platform that will educate locals on ways to cultivate in salt-affected lands, which could help farmers from the coastal villages of Gujarat to a better livelihood.

IndiaSpend reached out to the Principal Secretary of the Gujarat Coastal Zone Management Authority asking about the initiatives taken up by the state government to address the issues of salinity on November 20. We will update this story when we receive a response.

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