When rains got delayed last year, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) came to the rescue of thousands of villagers in Andhra Pradesh’s Mahabubnagar district.

Rains in 21 villages of Adakkal block were 90 per cent less than normal in June-July 2009 — the driest in 80 years. Yet many villagers did not migrate.

This was because they had a contingency plan ready, thanks to ICRISAT’s advance warning about a drought-like condition that led farmers to grow crops needing less water.

ICRISAT’s farming systems meant for adverse weather prevented several villagers from migrating and helped cut down on potential losses, according to report of the institute. Contrast this to 2002, when severe drought forced villagers to abandon their land and cattle and flee to cities.

ICRISAT’s forecasts of the June-October season in 2009 indicated that more than half of the villages in Adakkal would find themselves in the grip of a severe drought, it said.

The predictions were made available to at least 15 per cent of the population in each village. These villagers spread the information among other farmers.

Besides making the forecasts available to farmers, ICRISAT scientists through video-conferencing suggested short duration varieties of paddy since rice was the most sown crop in the region, the report said.

ICRISAT advised farmers to plant crops and vegetables like castor, pigeon pea, amaranth and tomatoes, among others, as they require less water, the report said.

As part of ICRISAT’s drought-combat programme, surface water found in tanks, ponds, lakes and streams was measured using data and images available with the U.S. Geological Survey that utilises the Landsat remote sensing imagery.

With the help of on-site surveys, accumulation of silt and weeds in water bodies were examined along with the encroachment on reservoir beds.

Field surveys were then combined with animal and human population data to calculate the water needs of humans, livestock and fields in each of the 21 villages. The gap between water requirement and availability was carefully estimated and relevant information was passed on to the farmers, the report said.

Members of Adarsha Mahila Samakhya, a self-help group, were trained in a novel mechanism of predicting drought severity which in turn benefited farming families.

“Sharing the right information with poor dryland farmers at the right time can help them overcome the effects of drought,” ICRISAT Director General William Dar said.