The semi-arid regions of the Moyar-Bhavani basin

State sponsored policies and programmes must be sensitive to promote sustainable developmental activities in this already fragile social ecological system in Tamil Nadu.
17 Jan 2016
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Large population of scheduled caste, and other communities reside in or around protected areas of the basin.
Large population of scheduled caste, and other communities reside in or around protected areas of the basin.

Today's rural poor operate in highly risky and uncertain environments. Grappling with multiple stresses like eroding natural resources, poor assets and increasing climate variability, they are constantly adjusting their lives and livelihoods--changing a crop grown, digging another well, or migrating to a nearby town. To understand how livelihoods are changing in semi-arid India and what this implies for people's vulnerability to current and future impacts of climate change, we visited the semi-arid regions of the Moyar Bhavani river basin in Tamil Nadu.


Nestled in the lush greenery of Southern India, Bhavani, the second-largest river in Tamil Nadu originates in the Nilgiri hills. Moyar, a major tributary of the Bhavani, originates in the  Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu and joins the Bhavani about 19 miles downstream of the main river. Together, the Moyar- Bhavani river basin comprises a diverse landscape of dense forests, agricultural fields and human settlements. A large number of tribal and non-tribal communities live in more than 100 villages and hamlets alongside urban centers such as Coimbatore, Erode and Mettupalayam. The basin is bound by two southern states--Karnataka and Kerala--in the north and west respectively, Bhavani Sagar reservoir in the east and the Coimbatore plateau in the south.


Within this river basin, the Moyar- Bhavani sub-region is delineated as predominantly semi-arid, which are hotspots of climate change whose effects along with regional developmental dynamics will impact the lives, livelihoods and wellbeing of the populations living in those regions. The semi-arid sub-regions of this basin lie within three districts in Tamil Nadu – Nilgiris, Erode and Coimbatore. Characteristically, the region receives low rainfall and comprises fragile livelihoods dependent on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and livestock.


Broadly, the area covered by the sub-region can be divided into two predominant systems – those that are interdependent and those in which humans and nature interact and co-evolve. These are called Social Ecological Systems or SES. The first SES--agriculture-dependant--is present both in the northern and southern regions of the basin. However, in the south, agriculture is irrigated by canals whereas in the north it is mainly rain-fed. This makes the farmers especially vulnerable to climate change due to the unpredictable nature of rainfall in the area. The second SES is forest-dependant, and is found mostly in the north and western parts of the sub-region. This includes areas within the Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve and Bandipur National Park. Here, tribals, scheduled castes and other communities live within and on the peripheries of protected areas (PAs) as designated by the Forest Department.


Multiple livelihood activities such as agriculture, fisheries, pastoralism and collection of non timber forest products (NTFPs) are present in the sub-region with agriculture being the predominant livelihood system. However, agricultural livelihoods are being stressed by factors such as increased groundwater dependency and depletion, decreasing labor, low productivity and low levels of mechanisation.


In these regions, it is estimated that the frequency and intensity of droughts will increase, thereby increasing the frequency of crop failures. The dependence on rain for agriculture, and the rising irregularity of rainfall and frequency of extreme events has increased the vulnerability of farmers resulting in them moving away from agriculture and looking for alternate forms of livelihood by moving to near-by urban centres such as Coimbatore and Mettupalyam.


Pastoralism is a popular alternate livelihood option. But pastoralists in remote rural settings who are solely dependent on the sale of livestock and livestock products are challenged with isolation, access to low levels of technology and markets and facilities that promote livestock wellbeing. Due to the proximity of the forested areas, pastoralists in the Moyar-Bhavani sub-region suffer persistent losses due to attacks from wildlife.


Many tribal communities such as the Kurumbas, Sholigas and Irulas, a large population of scheduled castes and other communities reside in or around protected areas in the forest-dependent SES. They depend on forests for non timber forest products such as honey, broom grass, soap nut and  so on for their livelihoods. These forests and the communities that depend on them experience threats from deforestation, degradation, fragmentation, and local extinction. Climate change compounds existing risks to forest systems. Therefore, decreasing NTFP yields will adversely impact the livelihoods of forest communities.


There have been massive transformations in the sub-region. Existing development policies are encouraging accelerated industrial growth with limited focus on rural development and infrastructure. The conversion of agricultural land for industrial or residential purposes can be detrimental to rural livelihoods. Moreover, inequitable distribution of water favoring urban and industrial water usage has resulted in a considerable reduction in crop area, yield and agricultural income in many parts of the sub-region.


Additionally, the agricultural system is also witnessing a shift in cropping patterns--from food crops to cash and commercial crops such as marigold, sugarcane and banana. Institutional financing mechanisms and subsidies for free electricity makes it easy for unregulated extraction of groundwater as well as unauthorised pumping of water from rivers to grow these water-intensive crops. In complex landscapes such as this, livelihood choices are nuanced and dynamic. Policies must therefore understand that vulnerability of people and systems and their capacity to adapt to climate change impacts is socially differentiated. State sponsored policies and programmes must be sensitive to promote sustainable developmental activities in these already fragile social ecological systems.


Prathigna Poonacha and Tanvi Deshpande work on the CARIAA (Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia) project at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. This visit was part of an ongoing research under the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions (ASSAR) project. The authors would like to acknowledge Divya Solomon, J Revathy, Shrinivas Badigar and R Venkitachalam from ATREE for facilitating the visit and providing the background information about the field sites, and Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar and Chandni Singh from IIHS for their inputs to this piece.

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