As seas rise, saltwater plants offer hope farms will survive

2015-08-17 09:10
A sign board reading 'Halophytes' is displayed in a small garden created by Indian scientists with dozens of naturally salt tolerant plants in the town of Vedaranyam, India. (Aijaz Rahi, AP)

A sign board reading 'Halophytes' is displayed in a small garden created by Indian scientists with dozens of naturally salt tolerant plants in the town of Vedaranyam, India. (Aijaz Rahi, AP)

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Vedaranyam - On a sun-scorched wasteland near India's southern tip, an unlikely garden filled with spiky shrubs and spindly greens is growing, seemingly against all odds.

The plants are living on saltwater, coping with drought and possibly offering viable farming alternatives for a future in which rising seas have inundated countless coastal farmlands.

Sea rise, one of the consequences of climate change, now threatens millions of poor subsistence farmers across Asia. As ocean water swamps low-lying plots, experts say many could be forced to flee inland.

"It's hard to imagine how farmers will live," said Tapas Paul, who as a World Bank official helped channel about $100 000 to help build the small garden a decade ago in a swampy, seaside town dominated by salt flats in southern Tamil Nadu state. "In the places subject to inundation and sea level rise, there are few options."

A team of Indian scientists is searching for solutions to what they describe as a fast-approaching agricultural crisis. Their neatly plotted rows of naturally salt-tolerant plants, known as halophytes, could be a part of the answer. The scientists from the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation are also trying other approaches: tweaking genes and cross-breeding plants by conventional means to discover which might grow and even flourish.

"Sea level rise is inevitable, and we are not prepared," said Swaminathan, who pioneered high-yield wheat and rice varieties for India in the 1960s. "The biggest problem in India is just the very large population. We can say people can relocate, but where could we even accommodate all those who need to move inland?"

Shrimp farming

Saltwater for a farmer long meant certain crop failure. Wartime foes sowed enemy fields with salt to ensure social collapse. Natural disasters such as the 2004 Asian tsunami left countless plots unproductive for years.

Asia's coastal farmers, including millions impoverished in India, now face such problems. Climate change will bring stronger storms and warmer temperatures that expand ocean waters and melt ice caps and glaciers. As a result, seas are set to rise up to 1m in this century, according to the latest scientific forecasts.

Chellammal, a graceful, 65-year-old farming housewife in the Tamil Nadu village of Tetakudi, knows the nightmare of farming on salt-contaminated land too well.

"I struggled so long to get things to grow, but nothing worked," said Chellammal, who goes by one name. "Every year just got worse until there was nothing left," she said, crouched in a bright pink sari by her fields.

The land her family had saved for decades to buy went completely barren about five years ago, after a neighbouring village took up shrimp farming when flooding from a nearby ocean canal salted their lands. The shrimp ponds were never lined properly, so their saltwater seeped into surrounding soils.

The farmland lost by Tetakudi's 200 households now supports little more than a vast expanse of salt-tolerant shrubs called Suaeda maritime along with succulents called Salicornia brachiata, known to locals as "chicken feet".

To the villagers, the bright green bushes are no better than weeds. Already, 12 families have boarded up their homes and left.

But scientists say suaeda is good for firewood. And salicornia species, which can tolerate nearly twice the salinity of seawater, have enormous potential as a biofuel crop, with seeds containing high concentrations of oil.

Coastal research

The problem, however, lies in realising profits. For any crop to work on a large scale, inexpensive methods and machinery for harvesting will have to be developed. Then processing plants, production lines and markets would need to be built. As of now, none of that exists.

Chellammal is dubious, but interested.

"If we can make money from what we grow, we'll try it. Why not?" she said. "Maybe all is not lost."

The timing for an agricultural crisis due to sea rise couldn't be worse. India's poor farmers already struggle with frequent flooding, drought and soils degraded by agrochemical overuse. Those on the coast are also hit by storms, with at least 27 of the 35 deadliest cyclones in history barrelling through the Bay of Bengal before slamming into either India or Bangladesh.

India's freshwater sources are also in peril, with over-tapped groundwater reserves so low the country is expected to have only half the water it needs by 2030. Grain production, meanwhile, has stalled around 260 million tons in recent years, despite global pressure for India to boost yields, eliminate waste and eradicate widespread poverty and malnutrition.

To feed its growing 1.26 billion population, India must increase food production 45% by 2050, for which experts say it may need to cultivate more land. Instead, about 1.2 million hectares of its coastal farmland has been degraded by salt, according to India's Central Soil Salinity Research Institute.

Inland, India has lost another 5.5 million hectares of arable farmland, out of its nationwide total of 163 million hectares, though India's soil salinity troubles are exacerbated by industrial salt flats, a growing number of shrimp farms and the depletion of groundwater reserves. The trend will only continue as seawater creeps onto low-lying lands along the 7 500km coast that outlines the country along the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

"Saltwater agriculture is considered a futuristic area. But it really shouldn't be," said marine biologist V.Selvam, the M S Swaminathan foundation's mustachioed director of coastal research. "Very soon there won't be enough land and water to meet our needs."

Read more on:    india  |  water  |  plants

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