You can call K.S. Gopal the soil whisperer, and you wouldn’t be exaggerating the influence of this career agricultural specialist, educator, and innovator in India.
Gopal talks of the soil in near poetic terms. Over nearly three decades dedicated to efficient water resources, his work at the Centre for Environment Concerns has enveloped his life.
The result is in the product: Lush plants and trees of fruits and vegetables developed using an innovative procedure of, what Gopal calls, “Listening to the needs of the soil.”
“It tells us when the plants need moisture, and so we save at least a third to half in water usage,” said Gopal. “This way, we feed the plants when they need it and preserve water.”
Nowhere in the world is water more critical than in India. Up to 80 percent of the country’s population relies on groundwater for drinking and irrigation, leading to an almost country-wide shortage and crisis.
In fact, a quarter of the world’s groundwater is extracted annually in India. This is greater than that pumped up by China and the United States combined, with China and India having roughly the same population of 1.3 billion people.
For Gopal, the director of the CEC, the efficient use of water is a near religion to him.
For Gopal, the director of the CEC, the efficient use of water is a near religion to him. Gopal’s organization has continuously improved the process of bringing measured amounts of water to the roots of plants and trees, as opposed to simply a drip system that soaks the soil, wasting a valuable resource.
At first, the CEC used clay pots beneath the soil’s surface to release moisture. However, the current method regulates water being dispensed to roots by a device that senses the current level of need, only releasing water as required to feed the plant.
“Compared to the drip irrigation, we deliver measured moisture,” said Gopal. “This leads to considerable water saving, better plant growth and yield, and a rich ecosystem to foster soil microbes and soil health.”
How did they arrive at the idea?
“It was a situation of working together, listening to farmers and, as the saying goes, try, try again,” Gopal said. “We’ve had failures along the way, but great successes as well.”
Gopal is encouraged not just with the water savings and the growing popularity of the system—called SWAR for System of Water for Agriculture Rejuvenation—but also the commercial viability of the innovation.
The new version of measured moisture at the plant root zone was launched in May 2018 and sold 18,300 units at 50 to 60 cents. Gopal believes as farmers see the results the sales volume will increase in the summer when water is scarce.
Gopal, from Hyderabad, India, sees the project as having both a business and an evangelical component. The business should be self-sustaining and even growing while the evangelical part involves preserving water resources.
“We look at the soil as a living system. It needs microbes to survive. We believe in fostering natural nutrients in the soil to grow healthy crops,” said Gopal.
Gopal is 68-years-old but shows no signs of slowing down, though he did indicate he could turn over some responsibilities to other members of his team in the future.
“I have a lot of experience, and a lot of people look to me for guidance,” said Gopal, plus, he added with a smile, “They think I am a decent bloke.”
He also has a sense of humor.
While the acronym SWAR is a mouthful, he devised the name from the first initials of his children who work with business startups and his wife, a doctorate in chemistry.
“I attempt to add a ‘G’ for Gopal, but it just wouldn’t work,” he laughed.
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.