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Hydrological response to agricultural land degradation in the Lesser Himalayas

Project Description

India, as many areas of the world, is experiencing widespread rural to urban migration, coupled with rapid population growth. Taken together, these two factors are resulting in significant land use and land cover changes, causing land degradation in particular in the mountainous Lesser Himalayan regions of Northern India (Tiwari and Joshi, 2012; Khanal and Watanabe, 2006).

The interactions between agriculture and the water cycle present a number of key scientific questions, the answers to which are central to future sustainable food production (Pretty et al. 2010). In India, rain-fed agriculture account of an estimated 44% of food production (Sharma, 2011). For centuries, agricultural land management practices have utilised localised irrigation methods of terracing and small-scale onfarm water harvesting to maximise crop yields. Now, with the increasing trend in migration towards urban centres (particularly by younger generations) many of these previously highly managed upland catchments are being partially or completely abandoned (e.g. Khanal and Watanabe, 2006). The impacts of the resulting land degradation on river basin hydrological processes (and hence on downstream water resources, flood risk and sediment transport) are largely unknown.

Changes to the hydrological regime may play an important role in driving such abandonment, with changing hydroclimatology and runoff generation mechanism meaning traditional small scale farms may not be sustainable in areas of rapid agricultural intensification and rising demand for food from a growing population.

Understanding the changing hydrology of agricultural catchments is critically important to issues of water security in the Himalayas. This project will build knowledge through innovative field experiments in the Aglar catchment in northern India (Figure 1).
The cost and practical challenges in maintaining remote high spatial and temporal resolution field monitoring in upland environments often limit research studies. This project will pioneer the use of low-cost environmental sensors to address such challenges.
Therefore, the project aims to:

1. Assess the impacts of agricultural land degradation on hydrological functioning in the Aglar river basin, Uttarakhand, India
2. Quantify the implications of changing hydroclimatology and runoff generation on sustainable agricultural water management in this Himalayan river basin
3. Test capabilities of low cost sensors to monitor hydrological variables in remote mountain river basin
4. Reconceptualise interactions and feedbacks in the water-food nexus and their implications for water security and migration in rural India

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.
• Annual stipend, set at £15,009 for 2019/20
• Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


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Khanal… (2006), Abandonment of agricultural land and its consequences: A case study in the Sikles area, Gandaki Basin, Nepal Himalaya, Mnt Res Dev, 26(1),32-40.
Mao F. (2018), Water sensor network applications: time to move beyond the technical?, Hydrological Processes - HPToday Invited Commentary, 32, 2612-2615 DOI: 10.1002/hyp.13179
Mao F… (in press), Low-cost environmental sensor networks: recent advances and future directions, Frontiers in Earth Science- Hydrosphere
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Paul J.D. … (2018), Citizen science for hydrological risk reduction and resilience building, WIREs Water, 5, Art.No. e1262 DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1262
Pretty, J… (2010), The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture, Int J Agr Sust, 8, 219-236.
Sharma (2011), Rain-fed agriculture could meet the challenges of food security in India, Curr Sci, 100, 1615-16
Tiwari.... (2012), Environmental changes and sustainable development of water resources in the Himalayan headwaters of India, Water Res. Mgmt, 26,883-907.
Zulkafli Z. … (2017), User-driven design of decision support systems for polycentric environmental resources management, Environmental Modelling and Software, 88, 58-73. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsoft.2016.10.012

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