500-year-old salt farming tradition undergoing major changes

·4 min read

The sting of climate change is often viewed as an issue for future generations and as unimportant as a few degrees of temperature change.

But for a region of farmers in the Indian state of Gujarat, climate change's punch is striking now. For farming families like the Thakors, the temperature change of a few degrees over the last decade has disrupted generations of reliable income, dating back 500 years.

The farmers harvest salt and are crucial to the world's salt supply. India is responsible for one-third of the world's salt production and nearly 75% of that annual production comes from Gujarat, which is situated in the northwest corner of the country along the Arabian Sea, around 270 miles north of Mumbai. The salt farmers toil in remote areas of the desert.

The farming season typically runs from October to March, but an onslaught of weather changes brought on by climate change has not only altered that timeline but also hampered the product.

Roshni Thakor, 20, left school to work alongside her family in their annual salt harvest. (AFP)

For Roshni Thakor and her family, that hampered product means smaller yields of salt due to changing rainfall patterns, rising temperatures and frequent dust storms.

Roshni, 20, told AFP that the scorching temperatures have made the normally grueling work nearly impossible. Like her ancestors before, her life is dedicated to the annual harvests, as she left school for the occupation.

"When we comb the salt pans, our eyes become watery," she told AFP. "It's very hot. We feel dizzy and sometimes we fall sick."

The importance of those salt pans cannot be understated. For the Thakor family, their four salt pans are the key tools needed to make the income to survive another year.

But when heavy monsoon rains leave the pans broken and in need of repair, which can take up to two months, that income takes yet another hit.

Raju Thakor, Roshni's father, lost two crucial salt pans early this harvest season due to intense monsoon rains. (AFP)

"We come in October to start the work. The monsoon rains destroy the pans, so it takes almost two months to fix and repair them," Raju Thakor, Roshni's father, told AFP.

Raju added that the increased storminess in the area has also hindered their gathering, as the farming process requires a tedious approach.

"Salt production needs dry weather -- if it rains suddenly, all our effort goes down the drain," he said, noting the Sisyphean nature of the work when the weather doesn't cooperate. "The salt dissolves and we have to start all over again."

Thakor described the process of the "Agariyas," or salt farmers, as slow and gradual, requiring the use of the pans to gather the evaporated salt crystals at first and then walking on the basins in bare feet to stop it from seeping back into the earth.

"After about a month, we then cut them up. Then, finally, salt crystals begin to appear. But before that, we slowly scrape them using wooden rakes. The whole process is gradual and the salt is made bit by bit," Thakor said. "The crystals that are formed after five months are perfect in size, a cut above the rest."

The slow and gradual process of salt farming produces crystals that are perfect in size, Thakor said. (AFP)

Dhvanit Pandya, a volunteer who runs a local salt farmer advocacy group, said the rising temperatures and increase in natural calamities have disrupted the quality of the farmer's product.

"And because of this -- the price for salt fixed by traders -- that is slashed by half," Pandya said.

Daytime temperatures have steadily climbed in the Thar Desert region for years now, Pandya said, directly affecting the salt produced by the tens of thousands of Agariyas that depend on consistent conditions.

"So if we talk about the last 10 years, the highest temperature here was 48 to 50 degrees Celsius (118 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit)," he said. "But now, in the summer at noon, the temperature hits 53 to 54 degrees Celsius (127 to 129 degrees Fahrenheit). So we're witnessing temperatures increasing here day by day. And this is all related to climate change in some way."

Dhvanit Pandya runs a volunteer salt farmer advocacy group and has seen firsthand how climate change has directly impacted the farming community. (AFP)

According to Raju, the optimal heat for salt crystal production is 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit).

Experts have spent years analyzing the effects of deforestation and air pollution on storm system strength. In India, climate change's effect on monsoon season intensity led to a recent government report warning that future rain patterns would be more intense and unpredictable, AFP reported.

Farmers in the area like the Thokars and Tejal Makwana told AFP that they don't want to give up their trade, but the work has become undeniably more difficult as the weather changes.

Makwana, who used to save nearly $700 from each farming season, would make enough from the one season of farming to provide for her family for the rest of the year.

"But now we can barely make ends meet," she said.

Keep checking back on AccuWeather.com and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier, Spectrum, FuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting