Environmental engineer visits home to help rice farmers overcome drought

Thushara Gunda, second from left, performing water tests in Sri Lanka. (Submitted photo)

Thushara Gunda’s palm and fingertips remain bronzed with the stain of henna – applied the traditional Indian way and made to last for weeks.

It’s a whimsical souvenir from a trip home. But her visit included a serious mission: to uncover how South Asian rice farmers can adapt to drought and grow the highest yields possible.

Gunda is a Vanderbilt University Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering, and both her education and her overseas work in water sustainability are funded by the National Science Foundation. The latter is through a project called ADAPT-SL – Agricultural Decision-Making and Adaptation to Precipitation Trends in Sri Lanka. Gunda’s team studies Sri Lankan rice farmers and includes physical scientists, social psychologists, ethnographers and behavioral economists.

As an island nation with both strong economic and cultural attachments to growing rice and self-contained water resources, Sri Lanka was the perfect microcosm to study issues that affect farmers worldwide, Gunda said. The country faced its worst drought on record in 2014.

“There’s an interesting juxtaposition in Sri Lanka of traditional farmers with family knowledge passed down vs. new farmers given land by the government and told to grow rice,” Gunda said. “Traditional farmers, if you ask about weather changes, they’ll say these plants are flowering at different times, these animals are no longer present, and so on. New farmers just say there’s water in the fields. There’s no awareness of patterns.”

Gunda working with Sri Lankan rice farmers. (Submitted photo)

Eager to see whether the Sri Lankan findings would repeat themselves in other Asian countries, Gunda offered to fund her own research in a more familiar place: South India, specifically, the village of Kodurapadu in the state of Andhra Pradesh. She only asked for a single plane ticket and, in return, she filled the roles of an entire research team for two weeks in January in her hometown.

Her family arrived from India in Alexandria, Va., when she was 9. Gunda spoke no English but learned it quickly, excelled in her studies and eventually earned dual bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and interdisciplinary environmental policy from the University of Virginia.

After two years as an Austin, Texas, environmental consultant, she caught up with her former hydrology professor, now a University Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt. George Hornberger recruited Gunda for his ADAPT-SL team and said her interest in food security in the developing world made it an easy sell.

“Thushara brings not only a deep and abiding desire to make a difference in the world, but also a solid technical background and a terrific work ethic,” Hornberger said.

He pointed out that Gunda and two colleagues already wrote a comparative analysis of water sustainability indices and their utility for Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. She also wrote a paper currently under review for the International Journal of Climatology that looks at spatial and temporal patterns of historical drought in Sri Lanka.

Gunda uses her rock-climbing experience to descend into a well for a sample. (Submitted photo.)

She spent her recent homecoming to India walking from farm to farm, studying fields and interviewing farmers. Her initial findings included both similarities and differences to Sri Lankan rice farmers.

“They share cultural and religious connections to rice production,” Gunda said. “But in India, groundwater use for rice production is haphazard, and the groundwater table is dropping over time. They’re having to dig deeper and deeper wells. I asked, ‘Are you talking about this?’ There was not too much awareness.

“On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government mandates the creation of farmer organizations, and with farmers there to represent different localities, it opens up the avenue for collective decision-making.”

The ADAPT-SL team will determine whether it’s useful to develop drought indices for Sri Lanka and let the government use those for more uniform disaster payments to farmers. Their results could have applications across South Asia.

Gunda will spend the summer at Sandia National Laboratories working with New Mexico State University researchers on models of how human and natural variables in agriculture interact with each other over time. They’re already using the findings to help New Mexico’s farmers, Gunda said, and some of the information could be useful in Sri Lanka.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering