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India Crumbles into Dust New Scientist 23 Aug 1997 Tara Patel

SOIL erosion and depletion will cost India between $2.5 billion and $6.5 billion this year, 1 to 2 per cent of the country's GDP, scientists at a research institute in New Delhi are warning. They claim that the government's attempts to reverse the problems have failed. Some 57 per cent of the country's land is affected by degradation, the independent Tata Energy Research Institute reports in a survey of environmental damage in India over the 50 years since independence. "The problem hasn't received the attention it deserves," says G. K. Girisha, TERI's expert on soil degradation. He says that government policy on land use that was supposed to reduce erosion and nutrient deficiency by improving farming methods and reducing tree loss has failed because of a lack of coordination between various departments. Estimates of the damage by TERI are considerably higher than those suggested by other organisations, including the World Bank. Girisha says that this is because TERI has included the costs of the knock-on effects of soil degradation, such as increased silting in reservoirs. Even so, he says, the estimates are probably still too low. TERI describes erosion as India's "quiet crisis" and predicts that the problem will reduce the potential yields of 1 1 major food crops by 11 to 26 per cent this year. It warns that the problem is growing worse. Th researchers estimate that the area of criti- cally eroded land has doubled over the past 18 years. Of the 1 per cent of the country's topsoil that is eroded annually, two-fifths is permanently lost. The problem is made far worse by deforestation, they say. Trees, which protect the soil, are regularly cleared for firewood or to create new farmland. India's soil is also being rapidly depleted of nutrients, through intensive farming. Since 1950, grain production has increased almost fourfold, as more and more land is farmed, irrigated and fertilised. But in most parts of the country, the rate of fertiliser use is still relatively low. Each year, crops remove an estimated 20.2 million tonnes of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the soil, while fertilisers only add about 5.7 million tonnes of these nutrients. As demand for food rises with population, the report says, maintaining a soil nutrient balance will be a major concern. "One of the implications of soil degradation is concern over food security," says R. K. Pachauri, director of TERI. The growth in farming has been made possible in part by extensive irrigation, which in turn has raised the water table in many areas and increased salinity. The area of canal-irrigated farmland doubled between 1950 and 1990, and up to half of this land is now affected by salinity or alkalinity. The problem mostly affects the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Pachauri says it is not too late to reverse the trend. "If we start now, maybe we could get something back in 20 years," he says. Tara Patel