In 150 years, Orissa will be a desert

In 150 years, Orissa will be a desert
In just 13 years, severely degraded land in Orissa increased by 136%, barren land by 69% and land converted to non-agricultural use by 34%
Water Initiatives Orissa (WIO), a civil society campaign, offers a stern warning in the latest issue of its bi-monthly newsletter Panira Dagara (Water Messenger). It says that India’s poorest state Orissa will turn into a barren desert in just 150 years.
Desertification is a process of loss of land productivity. In most severe cases it can cause permanent damage to the land. Many parts of Orissa, specifically the western and southern uplands, are already displaying symptoms of desertification. They have degraded from drought-prone regions to desert-prone areas, states the report. "We have arrived at this conclusion by analysing various sets of government data, and we have substantiated it through a public perception survey conducted by the Sambalpur-based NGO Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (MASS)," says Bimal Pandia of WIO.
The report claims that in just 13 years, from 1991-92 to 2004-05, severely degraded land in the state increased by 136%, barren land by 69% and land converted to non-agricultural use by 34%. This constitutes around 7% of Orissa’s total geographical area. By 2004-05, as much as 17.5% of Orissa has turned barren, or been deemed unsuitable for agriculture. The report warns that the rate at which mineral and water-guzzling heavy industries are being pushed in the state, forest cover is thinning, climate is changing and soil degradation increasing, Orissa could soon turn into a desert.
In mining and industrial districts like Raygada and Jharsuguda, agricultural land is shrinking. In Raygada district, the percentage of unproductive land is nearly 174 points higher than cultivable land. Such land amounts to as much as two-thirds of Jharsuguda’s total cultivable area. "The way land is rapidly becoming barren and degraded, desertification is a (definite) reality now," says WIO.
Desertification will impact the livelihoods of millions of people, as dependence on agriculture in the state is extremely high, the report continues. It is estimated that 29 lakh hectares of land have already become barren. According to state agriculture department statistics, around 4.33 million hectares of Orissa’s 6.56 million hectares of agricultural land suffer severe erosion and declining fertility. That’s as high as 66% of the state’s total agricultural land.
Also extremely worrying is the rate at which Orissa’s climate is changing. A study by meteorologist Professor U C Mohanty shows that the number of rainfall days in the state has been dropping by one day, every five years. Rainfall patterns too have altered. Information gathered from government records show that rainfall in the coastal districts of Baleshwar, Puri and Ganjam has increased, while in western and southern parts of Orissa it has decreased drastically. Recent rainfall averages in Balangir and Nuapada districts hover around threatening levels of 1,000 mm.
Weather department statistics indicate that while global mean temperatures rose by 0.5 degree Celsius over the past 50 years, in Orissa it rose by 1 degree Celsius. The weather here is becoming alarmingly extreme. In 10 years, the highest recorded temperature average has increased by 4.4-6.6 degrees Celsius, and the average of lowest recorded temperatures has decreased by 3-5.1 degrees Celsius in various parts of the state.
"The development emphasis of the state government has been narrowed down to industrialisation only, without any attention given to land and agriculture that sustains close to 90% of the rural population," the WIO report concludes. The concentration of polluting and water- and mineral-consuming industries will further aggravate land degradation in the state.
Conservative estimates show that if all the proposed steel plants were to begin functioning they would emit 392 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2010. Further, these industrial units would require at least 527 million litres of clean water, which will later be released as pollutants. The Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies has warned that by 2010 Orissa alone will emit 7-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Two major rivers in the state, the Mahanadi and the Brahmani, are already water-stressed as far as irrigation and riparian use is concerned. Although the government claims to have created irrigation potential for 41% of cultivable land, the fact that agricultural production still fluctuates wildly, in line with rainfall, and that agriculture sector growth in the state has plummeted, are cause for serious concern. Water-guzzling industries will only make the situation worse, the report warns.
According to ‘State of Forests Reports’, published by the forest and environment department, between 1986 and 2003 actual forest cover shrank by 4,797 sq km, although areas classified as forestland by the state government increased by 2,351 sq km in the same period. Soil erosion due to forest degradation is a serious issue in 52% of the state’s total geographical area.
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