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Fact Sheet 015–97
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Mind-Land Reclamation in the Thar Desert, India-INDO--U.S. Technology Exhange

The Challenge

The reclamation (rehabilitation) of wastelands is expensive, labor intensive, and slow to demonstrate results. If carefully planned, however, the coordination of scientific research, industry needs, and community land-use requirements will result in landscape reclamation that is productive and sustainable. The human population in India will reach 1 billion by the year 2000. Estimates suggest that in order to adequately feed this many people, the agricultural output of 0.86 tonne/ha will have to double. In the Thar Desert region of Rajasthan State, mining is second in economic importance only to agriculture. Throughout India, industrial and mining activities, coupled with poorly managed agricultural and irrigation practices, have caused the degradation of an estimated 80 million hectares. New Federal mined land reclamation regulations have increased industrial stewardship awareness and interest in landscape rehabilitation but the scientific basis for understanding how sustainable reclamation systems are achieved, especially in the desert regions, is just beginning to be developed.

In 1987 the U.S. Department of Argiculture asked the USGS to participate in developing several cooperative projects that focused on dryland agriculture. This Indo-U.S. funded activity recognized the importance of two-way information transfer between the countries; in particular, the USGS was interested in learning about Indian agrogeology, mined land reclamation in desert regions, and land-use management practices. Three years of planning resulted in 26 projects, one of which was a cooperative land reclamation study between scientists at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Jodhpur, and the USGS.

FIGURE: Gypsum mine, western Rajasthan. Hand of worker covers shallow (20 cm) overburden.

Mined Land Reclamation in Arid Lands: Links to Dryland Agriculture

The Thar Desert of western India is the most densely populated hot desert in the world. Irrigation water is now available following the completion of the Indira Gandhi Canal in western Rajasthan. However, dryland farming practices, where water for plant growth is supplied entirely by rainfall, still predominates. On average, irrigated lands are twice as productive as dryland agricultural lands (about 1.4 vs. 0.7 tonnes/ha). Nevertheless, India, and other countries with agriculture in arid lands, is beginning to recognize that, over the long term, well-managed dryland agriculture may be more sensible and cost-effective than irrigated agriculture for food production. New lands are not always available for irrigation development, the cost of development is often prohibitive, and soils that are available are often marginal (i.e., low fertility, sandy texture, and saline). Rain-fed agriculture has been 'rediscovered', as not only potentially highly productive but also as more sustainable and ecologically sound.

The reclamation of mined lands in arid regions has lagged behind efforts in more humid areas for several reasons.

FIGURE: Scientists examine the progress of desert shrub development in an area that harvests rain water using regraded land "micro-catchments"

Indo-U.S. Joint Study

The Indo-U.S. joint study of mined land reclamation in the Thar Desert began in 1992 and has extended through four growing seasons. Approximately 26 ha of degraded land has been revegetated. Efforts were focused at a gypsum mine and limestone quarry. However, because of recent interest by Rajasthan State Mineral Development Corporation, Ltd., the team will begin work at a newly developed lignite (coal) mine. Understanding how to attain sustainable reclamation plant community systems is a paramount goal of the studies. This requires investigations of soil-development processes, soil moisture variability, soil fertility assessments (including both major and trace element deficiencies and excesses), soil microbial populations (and how these relate to plant establishment success), plant species testing (both indigenous and introduced), and importance of developed systems to local farmers and mine operators.

Accomplishments to date:

Selected References

Gough, L.P., 1988, Modern agriculture and the geosciences: Geotimes, v. 33, p. 8-10.

Gough, L.P., Hornick, S.B., and Parr, J.F., 1992, Geosciences, agroecosystems and the reclamation of degraded lands, in Wali, M.K., ed., Ecosystem Rehabilitation: The Hague, The Netherlands, SPB Academic Publishing, p. 47-61.

Gough, L.P., and Herring, J.R., 1993, Geologic research in support of sustainable agriculture: Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, v. 46, p. 55-68.

Sharma, K.D., and Vangani, N.S., 1992, Surface water resources of the Thar Desert and adjoining arid areas of India, in, Kair, A., Abichandani, R.K., Anantharam, K., and Joshi, D.C., eds., Perspectives on the Thar and Karakum: New Delhi, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, p. 130-140.

Sharma, K.D., Sharma, B.K., Saxena, S.K., and Gough, L.P., 1996, Rehabilitation of mined wastelands in the Indian Desert, in, Proceedings of the International Conference on Desert Development, Lubbock, TX, Aug. 12-16 (in press).

For more information, please contact:

Larry P. Gough
U.S. Geological Survey
Mineral Resource Surveys Program
MS 973 Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225
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