Baker Hughes employees in India set the wheels in motion to combat desertification with an ambitious soil and water conservation project to help farmers and the local community.
They say it takes a village, but when the villages in question are suffering from the impacts of climate change to the extent that farmers’ crops are failing, people are forced to leave their homes to find income in cities.
According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 1.9 billion hectare of land is under desertification and drought globally and affecting more than 1.5 billion people. In India specifically, approximately 29% of the land area is under desertification (Indian Space Research Organization report). Desertification occurs when the carbon in the soil goes below 0.5%. One of the Indian villages facing such an issue was Chellagurki, in the Bellary district of the state of Karnataka in South India. According to a resident (Chaitra Meti) in the village, ‘’climate impacts accelerated soil erosion, desertification, water scarcity.”
Two Baker Hughes employees based in Karnataka’s capital city Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) wanted to find a way to tackle the problem. Chikkanna Gowda, lead technologist in thermal and mechanical design, plant and module engineering and Rangaraj Mageswaran, lead engineer for fleet management, also supporting Corporate Responsibility digital and sustainable projects, began discussing their ideas to address this concerning issue in 2019.
“Rangaraj and I started discussing the common problems faced in the village of Chellagurki, which is under very high-water stress,” says Gowda. “Agriculture has been the main occupation for people here for generations, but drought and soil erosion have led to a cycle of debt, poverty, hunger, and mass migration to cities.”
This resulted in a low human development index (HDI) across the whole village and its surroundings, which meant poor outcomes in education, income, and life expectancy.
“Being aware of the corporate responsibility work efforts at Baker Hughes, we saw an opportunity to align,” says Gowda. “We know how important it is to mitigate the effects of climate change, which is what this project aimed to do, through ensuring water availability and showing the local farming community how to improve soil quality to help create resilience for our people and improve that human development index.”
The benefits of a watershed system
People and the planet are two of the three focus areas in the Baker Hughes corporate responsibility (CR) framework, with the health, safety, and wellness of people as well as water conservation and management among the priorities. Throughout the year, all Baker Hughes employees are encouraged to take proactive actions to conserve and protect water – at home or work. The two employees proposed the idea to the CR and India leadership teams and the initial budget to support the project was quickly approved. There were numerous issues to tackle, including the fact that the wells which had been drilled to access bore water were neglected and abandoned, leading to critical water scarcity. Soil erosion and degradation had been made worse by conventional tilling.
“Rangaraj and I thought we could create the infrastructure for watershed technology in a systematic manner, and that it could be a solution to address this water scarcity and promote organic farming to produce healthy food for the community,” says Gowda. Which in turn helps in vulnerability reduction to climate risks and increases soil carbon sequestration. This increases the carbon content in the soil which is the direct measure of soil fertility and health and leads to improved plant nutrition and human health.
“At Baker Hughes, we consider volunteering as one of the priorities to support and be part of the community in distress, be it health, education, or the environment,” says Ashok Rodgi, Executive, Technology for the company’s Turbomachinery Process Solutions Engineering division in India. “We partner with them for solutions that matter the most. Our company is intensifying its attention to the environment and we, in India, are prioritizing activities that promote environmental sustainability and the watershed project had the potential to deliver that to the local village community.”
A plan to engage the local community
The proposed project was ambitious, and interventions considered in this project were the most promising methodologies that addressed global climate change mitigation and adaptation. “There were 1,000 hectares of barren land to be rejuvenated, so the first task was to reimagine the entire project post-watershed treatment and break it into multi-year achievable steps,” says Rodgi. “Another challenging task of course was rallying farmers to be part of the solution as a community in a partnership to reach a sustainable future.”
Baker Hughes partnered with Myrada, a respected NGO established in 1968 that has developed expertise in organizing rural communities and pioneered the self-help group (SHG) concept in India. “We did due diligence into multiple NGOs to find one with the right structure, technical talent, and reach, and Myrada had all so we agreed to work with them,” says Gowda.
Myrada had already completed many successful watershed management projects in southern India. The Baker Hughes volunteers were also bringing their technical expertise and access to equipment, as well as a sense of connection to the communities they wanted to help. Several innovative technologies were adopted in this project:
- remote sensing maps and CLART Software for hydro-geological studies
- borewell level sensors and data analytics for better groundwater management
- use of microbes and straw mulching for rapid rejuvenation of landscape
“We knew water availability would change everything for farmers,” says Rangaraj. “The lack of water meant they could not even complete one farming cycle, but this project would enable them to store water in ponds, and recharge bore water resources, so they could reap the benefit of a full crop cycle.”
From its experience, Myrada knew that community engagement was essential to change certain practices to use the new water restructure and help rehabilitate the soil, as well as explain how to retain the revitalized land long-term. “In the absence of people’s committed involvement, the results of such interventions cannot be sustained – community participation remains the crux of rural development initiatives undertaken by Myrada.”
A win-win: improving soil and increasing carbon sequestration
“Agriculture accounts for 70% of the population’s major livelihood options in India,” a Myrada spokesperson tells Baker Hughes Energy Forward. “Soil and water conservation interventions that make agriculture viable were a logical step in the NGO’s attempt to facilitate sustainable livelihood options for rural households.”
The work does more than restore water to communities, the introduction of regenerative agriculture practices helps to return the soil to dark, healthy soil, which in turn improves the yield for farmers, and boosts the nutrition of the crops. “The quality of soil and the quantity of water are of immediate consequence to the local communities,” says the Myrada spokesperson. “The qualities of the soil have degraded many folds due to excessive usage of chemical and harmful substances in agriculture. Micro-organism and soil carbon presence is below the average, causing low nutrition in the crops.”
Rejuvenating soil health also increases its ability to sequester more soil organic carbon (SOC) when farmers change from conventional tillage to ‘conservation tillage’, which improves both soil health and crop growth. To restore the quality of the soil, farmers are encouraged to do crop rotation, use less fertilizer and return residue crops as mulch, make use of the water from the watershed system, as well as improve their water management.
The soil and water conservation measures undertaken in this watershed project helped increase soil fertility of my field. Better ground water recharge resulted in increased agriculture yield. Organic farming, honeybee trainings and implementation support helped me diversify into long-term horticulture growing fruit and drumsticks (pods from the Moringa tree). Now, my field is drought proofed, climate resilient and providing better livelihood for me and my family.
Sri Doddabasavana Gowda, Organic Farmer and Watershed Committee member
“We came up with some innovative ideas, something called pre-monsoon dry sowing system,” says Rangaraj. When farmers grow these specific crops and mulch to rejuvenate the soil, it results in much higher micro-nutrient content. “When the soil quality improves, the yield for farmers improves along with it,” Rangaraj added.
This healthy soil leads to happy farmers, better crops and sequesters carbon as part of global climate action efforts.
The human impact of corporate social responsibility
A key part of the project was involving local women and setting up self-help groups (SHGs) that included education on women’s rights and skills development. Many of the women in farming families had no training or employment. With the watershed project helping to make farming viable in the region, it was equally important to ensure local women had the ability to earn income.
I attended tailoring skills upgrade training organized by Baker Hughes and Myrada. I learnt various designs of stitching, and received monetary support Rs.10000/- from the project to procure necessary tailoring materials. It helped me to increase my income.
Smt K Kavitha wife of J. Yerriswamy, Member of Self-help group (SHG)
The Baker Hughes volunteers and Myrada worked to strengthen SHGs and execute activities to empower local women. “We came up with some unique ideas for them to set up micro-entrepreneurship projects,” says Rangaraj. “Things like making sauces, incense sticks and disinfectants to sell.” Other initiatives included teaching women tailoring skills along with financial support to buy tailoring materials to help them set up a sustainable income stream.
Baker Hughes and Myrada’s dedication to the project led to it ultimately stretching across four villages and more than 1,000 hectares, with multi-faceted impact from skills development, water storage and availability infrastructure, carbon sequestration and soil-health improvement and the empowerment of women in the community.
I received Rs. 5000/- capital assistance from the project to procure raw material for phenyl preparation, which helped me to earn income to lead my family.
Smt. Parvathamma wife of late Eranna, Member of Self-help group (SHG)
There is more work to be done and this project will continue until December 2024 but, on top of the establishment of the women’s SHGs and training, the team has so far completed::
- 100-hectare watershed treatment, requiring with 7700 cubic meters of trench bunding, rehabilitated commons tank at the Kalyani well, by channeling excess stream water with 150m HDPE DWC pipe laying, thus enabling 26-million-liter harvest annually
- Desilting and strengthening of twelve farm ponds to enable 150 million liters to be harvested annually
- Built two check dams and hillock trenches, enabling 65 million liters of recharge annually to ground water aquifers
- Bund plantation (1300); restoring degraded commons hillock (20 Acres) with saplings planting (3000)
- Constructions of weir/micro barrages (40 to date)
- Capacity building workshop on Climate Resilient Agriculture and community Ground water Management
- Setting up of custom hiring center for agro-machineries and procured rotavator for crop residue management.
“Transforming this concept into reality was a tough journey, but seeing is believing,” says Ashok Rodgi. “I witnessed the humongous change this project brought to this village, thanks to teamwork, collaboration and a blend of technology with ancient methods of irrigating to bring even more possibilities.”
Some 2800 families live in the four villages and when the project began in 2020, they were able to convince 20 farmers to join the initiative. “Without them at the beginning, it would have been difficult,” says Rangaraj. By 2021, around 200 farmers had joined, having seen the potential of the project. “This gives us confidence that we can continue to grow.”
Neeraj Sethi, Country Director for India and Bangladesh at Baker Hughes added ‘’ As an energy technology company, we constantly strive to drive social development, sustainability and energy security for the communities where we work. It gives me immense pleasure to see the great initiative taken by the Bengaluru team to transform the lives of Chellagurki village, by utilizing sustainable practices and making digital technologies available to farmers. Our employees and volunteers are guided by this corporate purpose, committing their time and energy into such impactful initiative to enrich the communities we operate in.’’
As India’s symbol of peace Mahatma Gandhi said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
Livelihoods, respect and a stronger community have all been restored by this ambitious watershed and soil carbon sequestration project. This is a pilot project, and others could follow.
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