As India's Climate Changes, Farmers In The North Experiment With New Crops : Parallels Farmers are starting to grow new crops in winter, when their fields usually lie fallow. Meanwhile, air pollution, which contributes to climate change, is weakening India's solar energy production.
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As India's Climate Changes, Farmers In The North Experiment With New Crops

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As India's Climate Changes, Farmers In The North Experiment With New Crops

As India's Climate Changes, Farmers In The North Experiment With New Crops

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In our final installment on how communities around the world are adjusting to climate change, we go to India. Pollution there from the burning of fossil fuels is encouraging the spread of solar energy. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi, there is a catch.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: India basks in sunshine 300 days a year. And it represents a bonanza for this energy-strapped country.

I'm here on the rooftop of the Indian Institute of Technology with professor Vamsi Komarala. And arrayed in front of us are rows and rows of solar panels.

I swipe an index finger across a panel to see if the monsoons have washed them clean, and it comes back filthy.

And these have been bombarded (laughter) by rains for weeks.

VAMSI KOMARALA: (Laughter) Yes.

MCCARTHY: Well, how often are these cleaned?

KOMARALA: Yes, twice in a week. So that is because Delhi - we have a lot of dust.

MCCARTHY: Not just dust - Delhi and much of northern India are regularly shrouded in man-made pollutants. Most of India's energy comes from dirty coal-burning power plants. Millions of new cars choke the roads. Add to the mix burning of garbage and crops. It's a cocktail that makes India the third-biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Delhi vies with Beijing for the dirtiest air in the world. And tiny 2.5-micron particles that lodge in human lungs also layer these solar panels.

But there's a new study out that shows that air pollution cuts the capacity of these panels to generate power. And the smaller the particle, the more it blocks out the sun. Professor Michael Bergin of Duke University says tiny particulate pollution can either absorb the sun's radiation or scatter the sunlight, diffusing what hits solar panels. He's created a model to measure that loss.

MICHAEL BERGIN: We came up with between about 17 to 25 percent reductions in solar energy production in India and China. And we believe that the effects might even be a little bit higher since the model we use tends to underpredict the effects.

MCCARTHY: As for depositing on panels, Bergin and his Indian team monitored accumulations with eye-popping results.

BERGIN: After we spread the particles off, we would watch the solar energy production typically double. So in three to four weeks in northern India, often the solar energy production, if you weren't to clean these panels, decreases by about a factor of 2. So that's really huge.

MCCARTHY: Improving air quality would vastly improve the production of solar energy. And, says Bergin...

BERGIN: Also have huge health benefits. So I think this is just another reason to try to clean the air.

MCCARTHY: Hundreds of miles north of Delhi, the air is clean. And here, changing climate conditions can seem more like an opportunity than a looming threat.

We journey eight hours into the upper reaches of the state Uttarakhand. As we climb up hairpin mountain turns of the Himalayas, brightly colored houses appear as though they're painted on the sheer cliffs. And they tumble down the side of these mountain ranges...


MCCARTHY: ...Right into the steps of the Ganges River. And these roads are very, very narrow.

The rivers roaring alongside the roads are swollen by the summer monsoons.


MCCARTHY: But the rivers don't feed mountain agriculture. It's too difficult to pipe water up. The villages are rain and snow fed. The problem now is that the snowfall is decreasing. But it's not necessarily bad news.

Traveling with us is Saruchi Bhadwal. She's leading an experiment designed to help farmers in high altitudes capitalize on the milder conditions brought about by less snowfall. Her group, The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI, studies the impact of climate change on agriculture. We head to a village where farmers were persuaded to make the most of their less snow-filled winters by cultivating land that used to live fallow during those months.

SURUCHI BHADWAL: So now they benefit because, you know, because they're taking a crop out of it. And it kind of gives them more in their homes and more to sell. It was a total win-win.

MCCARTHY: As we arrive at the village of Huddu, its ancient terraces are indeed sprouting a new crop alongside traditional ones.

On a rocky terrace, I ask women planting grasses used for fodder about snowfall. Perched on a boulder, Basanti Devi recalls 35 years ago getting five feet of snow. She speaks through a local interpreter.

BASANTI DEVI: (Speaking Gadhwali).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Unidentified Gadhwali).

MCCARTHY: Calculating how much snow they get today, Basanti cuts an imaginary line just above her ankle. A matter of inches, she says.

ANAND KUMAR SHARMA: Perception is something different, and reality is something else.

MCCARTHY: Anand Kumar Sharma oversees the western and central Himalayas for India's Meteorological Department. He says people confuse climate variation with change.

SHARMA: All events - whatever events are happening or not happening is not climate change.

MCCARTHY: Sharma used to be the chief meteorologist in the state of Uttarakhand and notes that there are just two stations collecting data over that vast region. He says it's not possible to know whether the reduced snowfall in one particular village is the result of climate change. But an authoritative Indian study last year found glaciers in Uttarakhand significantly retreating and extreme damaging rainfall in northern India rising.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Adapting to their changing conditions, women pick their new maiden harvest, organic potatoes. They were planted in January when villagers took advantage of their lengthened growing season for the first time. Surji Devi's digging releases the scent of fresh earth into the air. At 60, she's nimble, rapidly separating the potatoes into piles. She pulls out several that are spoiled and makes a frown. Kailash Bhatt is a community organizer who helped mobilize 48 out of the 100 families here to try their hand cultivating year-round.

Were you happy with this yield this year?

KAILASH BHATT: Actually, not so happy. But this is the first time. And I think this is the first one in all of Uttarakhand.

MCCARTHY: Visiting agricultural experts explain to the farmers that they grew the wrong varieties.


MCCARTHY: The team then demonstrates best practices for planting and says the village could one day add fruit trees, excellent cash crops. But 39-year-old Prem Singh Rana says he was satisfied with his experiment.

PREM SINGH RANA: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: He got his 200 pounds of potatoes to market and was 2,000 rupees, or $30, richer.

RANA: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: Rana is hopeful about the future. "Earlier that land wouldn't give me much," says this father of three. "But once I harvest the rest of the potatoes, I'll have another $30 to $60 dollars."

For Rana, that's significant. This backbreaking work has added 15 percent to his annual income. His earnings may seem small, but they are the result of something big, seeing advantage in climate change. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.


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