The Salt Invasion

Salt is ubiquitous, a commodity we cannot live without. But you will be fascinated to know that ancient history has several stories of sowing salt on the lands of enemies as an act of revenge. Jewish, Roman, and Assyrian texts dating back to more than 1000 years contain references to leaders and armies who sowed the lands of their enemies with salt. Salting the land was seen as a symbolic act, a curse, intended to make the land infertile and that nobody would be able to return to the land ever again.

Fast forward to now, as sea-levels rise, we have a bigger threat – SALT INTRUSION.

Soaring temperatures cause greater evaporation, longer dry seasons, progressive loss of surface water and low-lying coastal areas are increasingly being inundated with salt water. Both ground water as well as surface water sources of drinking water have become ‘saltier’.

With population and economic growth higher than ever and atmospheric concentrations of carbon-dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases on the rise, our oceans keep absorbing around 30% of these gases causing warmer oceans that rise and intrude into river estuaries .

Heavily impacted deltas:

Salt-water intrusion threatens livelihood of the world’s largest deltas such as Ganges Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, Mississippi, Ayeyarwady, Nile, Red, and Pearl River Deltas.

Coastal zones contain more than 40% of the global population and these densely populated areas have an ever-increasing demand for fresh ground water. Over exploitation of ground water resources is accelerating sea water intrusion into freshwater systems mainly due to density. Saltwater is denser than freshwater and as more and more freshwater is pumped out, saltwater begins to take its place.

Our freshwater aquifers are becoming increasingly salinized due to large-scale groundwater usage for agriculture, land reclamation, unplanned shrimp culture and inadequate water management systems and the table below highlights how the coastal states in India are struggling with ground water becoming increasing saline.

Innovative ways of growing crops in saline water

Only 2% of water in the world is fresh water of which 70% is used for agriculture. Saline agriculture is a practical solution of growing salt tolerant crops in salt (or brackish) water. Brackish water is found when sea water meets fresh water and increasingly used for fish breeding, irrigation of crops like cotton and barley that have high tolerance for salt levels.

Kuttanad farming:

Coastal Kerala has been long experiencing floods every year and its Kuttanad region spanning three districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta has paddy cultivated below mean sea-levels. The Kuttanad farming method is a complex mosaic of fragmented agricultural landscapes divided in three structures: wetlands used for paddy activities and fish catching, garden lands used for coconut, tubers and food crops plantation and brackish water areas used for inland fishing and aquaculture. Kuttanad paddy fields have bio-bunds made of coir, banana waste, bamboo and clay to keep away the salty sea water making its way into the Vembanad lake, the longest and largest lake of Kerala and the lifeline of the paddy fields.

Jabal wheat farming:

Coming to wheat, a new drought and salt tolerant variety of durum wheat called ‘Jabal’ (means “mountain” in Arabic ) has been developed by farmers and crop scientists by crossing a commercial durum wheat with a wild relative from an arid region of Syria, to create a new durum variety that can withstand drought. Jabal can cope with erratic and extreme conditions caused by climate breakdown and has evolved in nature to survive extreme heat, flooding and poor soils. With wheat prices soaring due to heatwaves and widespread drought, Jabal variety has stood strong among other varieties destroyed by drought and its distinctive black spikes also produced high yields of plump grains that made tasty bread, scientists said.

In conclusion:

Our fresh-water aquifers, drainage river basins and water supplies are becoming increasingly saline, and this continues to be one of the most important global challenges for agriculture, industries and coastal water-resource managers as contamination and degradation of natural ecosystems is a climate change driven onslaught.

Reducing human-induced environmental degradation by keeping our natural ecosystems intact and empowering people to be active participants in ecological protection is key.

A few ways for common citizens to lessen this risk is to lower food consumption of water-intensive grains such as rice and wheat and include other grains like millets (sorghum, ragi, pearl millets etc.) into their diet. These ancient grains are making a comeback and are the most farmer friendly of crops considered as the lazy farmer’s crop! They are nutritious and high in protein and fiber as shown in table below and check out these interesting recipes that make millets a must-have in your kitchen. Foxtail millets in particular have less carbohydrates than rice (see chart below) with several health benefits and inspires us to be master chefs in our own kitchens.

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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