WRS Faculty and Students Study Water Resources in Mizoram India

By Karlyn Eckman

WRS Faculty Joe Magner and Karlyn Eckman are working with faculty from Mizoram University (MZU) on water resources, agroforestry and shifting cultivation in the remote northeastern Indian hill state of Mizoram. It is extremely isolated geographically, and is landlocked between Bangladesh to the west and Myanmar to the east. Between 1958 and 2011 foreigners were restricted from travel in Mizoram due to the Indian Protected Area Law of 1958. Mizoram was opened to tourism in 2011 but is still rarely visited by foreigners. The challenges of sustainable development in Mizoram are compelling. 95% of the population is listed as scheduled tribes (minority), and has increased ten-fold in forty years. 90% of the rural population practices subsistence-based shifting cultivation (jhum) on hillsides using only manual labor. Crop yields, soil fertility, forest regeneration and biological diversity are thought to be declining, although there is no reliable data. Water sources dry up in the midst of the growing season, causing significant hardship for people.

The UM-MZU connection began five years ago with a visit to the Saint Paul campus of Fulbright scholar Chongthu Chawnghnuna, a Mizoram state government civil engineer. On his return the government invited a UM team to visit Mizoram to assess water resources, shifting cultivation and food security needs. The first visit included Magner, Eckman, Dean Current and Michele Schermann. A connection with MZU was established in 2012, and UM and MZU now have an MOU in place. Along with the Food and Agriculture Organization (UM also has an MOU with FAO), the three institutions have collaborated to better understand food production systems in this isolated corner of India. There are significant research needs, priorities and opportunities: there is no water budget or hydrologic data; very little soils data; almost no meteorological or climatological data; no weather forecasting capacity; and no reliable crop or production data. There is very little reliable social or economic data. The MZU-UM team has begun to fill these gaps by identifying research priorities, collecting primary data, building capacity, and teaching.

The team has been interviewing shifting cultivators about their practices, and also farmers using horticultural and agroforestry techniques. Shifting cultivators at the research sites are abandoning jhum cultivation and adopting methods that provide more income and are less labor-intensive.  Water availability will be a major limiting factor, and the introduction of water conserving practices and technologies will be critical to their success or failure.

A number of student and faculty exchange visits have been organized in both Mizoram and Minnesota, and two research symposia have been held. WRS students Sophia Vaughan and Elizabeth Henley have visited Mizoram, and other WRS students and alumni have been engaged in the project, including Masha Guzman, Valerie Were and Udai Singh. Professor Bob Blanchette is working with an MZU mycologist to identify mushroom species and to discover which are poisonous to humans.  The team is now working on their second book about water and land use in the region.

Currently, the work is funded by a Global Spotlight grant from GPS/Alliance. Mizoram presents an unprecedented opportunity to UM students, faculty and staff to carry out applied research in a corner of the world where little prior research has been done. The UM team is seeking additional funds to continue this collaboration, and to develop a student exchange/study abroad program.