Sustainable Farming for the Future

Innovative Australian research is being applied overseas to help the world’s poorest farmers increase their yield.

As India’s population grows ever higher — a baby is born roughly every two seconds — its natural resources are under increasing pressure. Its groundwater has been severely depleted, and the water table has fallen significantly over the past three decades.

Western Sydney University’s Smart Agriculture Research Cluster comprises an interdisciplinary research team that developed solutions to two major problems affecting farmers and agricultural sectors in South Asia: uncoordinated agricultural markets and unsustainable irrigation practices.

Research by Professor Basant Maheshwari and his team, through a project funded by the federal government’s Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, has enabled Indian villagers and farmers in the adjoining states of Gujarat and Rajasthan to use groundwater more effectively and efficiently. The project, Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention (MARVI), delivered impactful outcomes at the village level and notably is being adopted by the Government of India. 

To be sustainable, groundwater usage and replenishment must be in balance but removing more groundwater than was replenished by rainfall was all too common. Even though drilling new bores and deepening existing wells is illegal in several states, perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. “It’s an emotional political issue. People need water for their livelihood,” Maheshwari says.

Working with Western Sydney University, the CSIRO, and Indian agricultural research institutions, he recruited 35 volunteers across 11 villages to begin monitoring the water in the wells. Measurements were taken every Sunday morning. Each volunteer was paid Rs 1,000 a month (AUD$20). Maheshwari says the farmers were initially sceptical but, after six months or so, opinions started to change. “People started to become more objective about their groundwater situation and to concede that it was not unlimited.”

World Bank on board

Midway through MARVI, the World Bank began its own push, stressing that the shift towards groundwater sustainability in communities must start at the village level. It developed a proposal for a US$1billion project with the Indian Government to help improve sustainability of groundwater use in seven states and incorporated the MARVI project’s village-level model of groundwater monitoring into its proposal.

The initial result has been the creation of five Village Ground­water Cooperatives — groups of up to 20 farmers working together on parcels of land about 30 hectares in size. Together, they recharge the groundwater during monsoon season (between July and September) by diverting rainfall run-off or damming creeks. They then share and use just the amount of water captured during the monsoon season. They have also introduced crops that need less water, with the ultimate goal of increasing both production and income without reducing groundwater levels.

One of the Bhujal Jankaars (a Hindi word for ‘groundwater informed’), a local farmer trained in groundwater monitoring through MARVI said the project has made a meaningful difference to his life.

“Farmers in our vill­ages are now for the first time measuring rainfall amounts and groundwater levels and many of them are changing to crops that will use less groundwater. I think through MARVI project, villagers came up with a new vision of their own and this project is leading to a sort of ‘movement to save the village groundwater’,” he says.

About 10,000 farmers are working under the MARVI model. Maheshwari believes it will be just the start. “If these go well, it will be thousands of villages and millions of people.”

Need to know

Thanks to WSU research:

  • Indian villagers are more sustainably managing their groundwater use and changing water intensive farming practices
  • Sri Lankan farmers are better planning their crops
  • Cambodian farmers are increasing crop production

Farming app

Meanwhile, Professor Athula Ginige, a mechanical engineer by training, had become aware of a vicious circle affecting many farmers in Sri Lanka. An oversupply of some produce meant farmers could not sell what they grew, leading to wasted crops and no income for the farmers. A mismatch in crop production and demand led to increasing poverty among Sri Lankan farmers that has been linked to an appalling suicide rate of 4,000 farmers a year. Professor Ginige developed a tool that has been adopted by more than 5,000 farmers, improving their livelihoods.

Ginige identified that part of the problem stemmed from a lack of access to information to help farmers choose what crops to grow. “They were just deciding what to grow based on average selling price of crops from the previous season. For example, if onions were sold at the best price the previous season, then everyone grew onions the next season. “It’s a fundamental coordination failure,” he says.

To make a better assessment they needed to know the unfilled demand for various crops at the time they were planting. Aware there had been rapid growth in mobile phone use, Professor Ginige and a group of colleagues and students developed an app that gave farmers real-time information about the demand for suitable crops.

The system they developed works on a traffic light model: green means supply of a crop is less than 35 per cent of demand and signals planting is a good idea; yellow suggests the crop is already being grown at between 35 and 80 per cent of demand; a code red indicates supply is at more than 80 per cent and tells the grower to plant something else.

“It is not just an app. It is a digital knowledge ecosystem that connects everyone so they can share and coordinate,” Professor Ginige says. “The app is just one way for the farmers to connect to the digital knowledge ecosystem.”

Venture capitalists on-board

Just as the World Bank expanded Professor Maheshwari’s idea, Indian venture capitalists heard about Professor Ginige’s system and asked him to expand it into their country. A major trial is under way with 5,000 farmers in the state of Telangana. 

Across Sri Lanka and India, the results have been positive. After six months, the farmers were found to feel markedly more empowered based on measurements of their motivation, self-efficacy and sense of control. Ginige hopes to have 50,000 farmers using the system by the end of 2018.

Farming out decision making

Research by Western Sydney University’s experts in agricultural sciences led by Dr Samsul Huda, has helped improve livelihoods in a range of countries by working with farmers to improve understanding of crop suitability, soil characteristics and changes in the local climate. Combined with farmers’ local knowledge and leadership, the work of the WSU research team has yielded extraordinary results overseas.

In Cambodia, a collaborative approach focused on farming intensity and practice helped double rice production in the six years to 2013. In India, it helped breeders develop heat tolerant wheat and chickpea varieties more suited to the climate. In Qatar, where the government is so concerned about food security it has spent $500 million buying Australian farms, the project has helped reduce food waste and increase production. There have been similarly positive results in Bangladesh and China.

Perhaps the most striking results in terms of livelihoods was in Cambodia.  At Ta Keo in the country’s south, between 23 and 35 per cent of farmers are now regarded as “better off”. Nearly a third of farming households now have electricity, half own motorbikes and 60 per cent have hand tillers.

“We learnt fairly early on that we can’t make decisions for others,” Dr Huda says. “But by working collaboratively and empowering farmers we can improve sustainable crop production.” 

Meet the Academic | Dr Samsul Huda

As Agroclimatologist and Associate Professor at Western Sydney University (WSU), I have developed and applied a framework to address climate variability towards maximising opportunities and minimising crop production risk in more than six countries. I engage directly with stakeholders including key researchers, policy makers, government agencies, farmers and agribusinesses for increasing food production, creating sustainable natural resource management practices, developing and implementing policy, ensuring food security and livelihood improvement.

My climate-smart agriculture initiative has enhanced capacity building for institutions and individuals alike offering me opportunity to work with and utilise expertise of scholars from different countries and many disciplines. 

I have a continuing record of 286 research publications and initiated and contributed to attract research funding of over $5 million through over two dozen projects from highly competitive Australian and international sources.

The American Society of Agronomy bestowed on me its highest Honour as Fellow of the Society in 2005.

Meet the Academic | Professor Basant Maheshwari

I have over 30 years professional experience in the higher education sector, with a particular focus on teaching, learning and researching related to surface and groundwater management, irrigation, environmental management, regional water resources planning and sustainability.   In addition to my professional experience of over 25 years in Australia, I have worked in India for several years and spent sabbatical in the USA, Japan and the Philippines.

During the last ten years, my work has involved trans-disciplinary approach to water research and focussed on understanding how water, landscape and people interact and influence the environment and sustainability. My work involved modelling and analysing the water cycle for long-term water resource planning at regional level and examining the implications of social, economic, cultural, policy and institutional aspects of water cycle management. I have been involved in research into peri-urban water issues and balancing urban growth around cities and regional centres so that future urban areas are liveable, sustainable, affordable and resilient. 

Another important area of my research is sustainable groundwater use and management.  The overexploitation of groundwater resource in many parts of the world has led to rapid lowering of watertable and pumping of water (often high in salts and other pollutant) from deeper aquifers.  I currently lead a transdiciplinary research and development project in India, called MARVI: Managing Groundwater Use and Aquifer Recharge through Village-level Intervention.  The project is funded by Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and is examining how the engagement of village communities and other stakeholders and the understanding of groundwater science can be integrated to improve the availability of water for crop production in the longer-term and increase livelihood opportunities for farmers.  The project has involved socio-economic and cultural understanding of groundwater issues and challenges and monitoring of watertable, rainfall, waterlevels in checkdams as well as field trials to identify water saving practices in selected watersheds in Rajasthan and Gujarat states.  The project has used citizen science approach to engage local villagers collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate information to village communities.  PhotoVoice technique and MyWell app (iOS and Android) are also implemented to engage locals in groundwater management and collect data cost effectively.An important learning out of my research during the last 15 years my work is that engaging with community, government agencies and other stakeholders is critical to address significant, local water and sustainability challenges. I have over 210 publications, including more than 80 articles in peer reviewed, international journals.

Meet the Academic | Professor Athula Ginige

Athula Ginige is Professor of Information Technology at Western Sydney University (WSU), Australia and he leads the Social Computing and Knowledge Ecosystems Research Program at the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics. This program focuses on developing knowledge driven Social Computing solutions delivered via mobile based systems to a range of applied problems including “Grand Challenges” in diverse areas such as agriculture, healthcare, business and education. His current research areas include both autonomous and participatory sensor networks, knowledge aggregation and event detection, large scale knowledge organisation based on ontologies and semantic web technologies, context modelling, designing mobile based systems for user empowerment and Social Computing. Digital Knowledge Ecosystems integrate all these technologies and methodologies to provide innovative and sometimes disruptive solutions to real world challenges.

Professor Ginige has previously done some pioneering work to establish the discipline area of Web Engineering which he is now extending to mobile based applications. He has also done extensive research in the areas of e-Business and e-Transformation. In 2016 he won the Australian Computer Society Digital Disrupter Gold award for developing the Digital Knowledge Ecosystem for Agribusiness. He has over 250 Journal and Conference publications and given many keynotes at conferences.  He has successfully supervised 15 PhD students. He graduated with B.Sc. Engineering first class honours from University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, England in 1987.


This research was made possible by a NPRP award [NPRP 6-064-4-001] from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of The Qatar Foundation). The statements in the Report are solely the responsibility of the authors.

© Sion Ang/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images © Ms Sally Tsoutas, Western Sydney University

Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.