We are running out of water. Day ‘zero’ is fast-approaching. India is witnessing its most devastating water crisis in decades, and in the future, it will continue to witness the same if we do not do something soon. Broadly, this crisis can be attributed to reasons ranging from lack of planning—governmental and commercial, an unprecedented rate of urbanisation, to increased privatising of resources.
I will talk about a sector that still engages 50% of India’s population—agriculture. One major problem is the inefficient and unsustainable use of water by the agriculture sector, something the whole community needs to take responsibility for, not just farmers. The nation, as a whole, needs to take not because water scarcity in India is expected to worsen in the coming times, as the country’s population is expected to grow to an all-time high of 1.6 billion by the year 2050.
For a nation to be considered water-deficient, it’s per capita availability of the resource has to fall below 1,700 cubic meters per person. According to ORF, “The per capita water availability that fell by 15% during the first decade of this century to 1,545 cubic meters per person, will be below 1,400 cubic meters per person this (2018) summer.” The question of equitable water distribution and availability of resources are questions that will have to be addressed separately.
As established above, despite India having seven major river systems that consist of more than 400 rivers, there is a debilitating water crisis owing to poorly managed water systems, archaic management techniques, over-exploitation of groundwater, lack of water-treatment mechanisms and rainwater-harvesting, along with inefficient irrigation techniques.
Irrigation consumes around 84% of the total available water, making it the most water-intensive sector. Focusing on this particular resource will in-turn stabilise India’s food security (and productivity), along with economic security (profitability), as it is estimated that more than half of the Indian total workforce is directly or indirectly employed in this sector. The way forward is a sustainable-water consumption.
According to a report by UNESCO-IHE Institute of Water Education, it is estimated that the “Indian water footprint (the ratio of the total volume of water consumed for production to the quantity of production), particularly in the case of production of rice, is 2,020 cubic meter a year in comparison to China’s 970 cubic meters a year, and a global average of 1,325 M3 a year.” This basically reiterates that the Indian farmer uses more water for crops than the global average. Moreover, certain water-guzzling crops are grown in water-starved regions of India. Combining the inefficient irrigation mechanisms with erratic rainfall there has led to a kind of threat to the environment and to livelihoods in recent times. Therefore, there is an exigent need to conceptualise and reshape how we use our limited resources.
From the environmentalist and academia fields, a proposed solution is seen in the form of a systematic shift from the macro to the micro-irrigation system or ‘precision irrigation’, using techniques like drip irrigation or sprinkler irrigation. The latter system of irrigation is more water and cost-efficient compared to farming techniques that are supported by flood or open-canal irrigation systems. People seem to be aware of this technique, but continue to remain unaware of its benefits, which has restricted a much wider reach of this technique.
Another aspect we need to consider is the remapping of crops. This involves moving highly water-intensive crops from the states that have low water-yielding potential (inability to replenish the sources of groundwater and freshwater) to states that do have that natural capability. Cultivation of crops like rice, paddy, wheat, cotton, sugarcane, and banana, that require more water, should be shifted from states like Punjab, Maharashtra and Haryana to states in the North-east, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh that have high irrigation water productivity.
The governments of low-water yielding states, however, have not shown much interest in re-educating farmers about other profitable low-water intensive crops, and reinforce, through incentives to continue to grow the water-thirsty crops. The government needs to invest in infrastructure and provide incentives to the naturally high water-yielding states to take the lead in the same. India must begin to spend money on conserving water consumed in agriculture.
In addition to the above-proposed solutions, we could learn from the ‘Isreali Model‘. Israel has effectively begun to recycle water for irrigation. It is claimed that 80% of wastewater in Israel is recycled and utilised for agriculture purposes. This resolves the two problems—firstly, this cost-effective water treatment utilises water that is not suitable for human consumption, and secondly, the water, and sludge does not contaminate any freshwater sources of water. Dr. Sharad Jain, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, reiterates the instrumentality of water recycling, “In frankfurt, for instance, one drop of water is recycled eight times before it reaches the sea. Here, we do not recycle even once,” he pointed out.
Shouldn’t we learn from our counterparts from across the world? In a country where contaminated water has killed 13,000 people in the last four years, where 68% of children die due to malnutrition, we must work on using water efficiently to increase agricultural productivity.
This nation has to reprioritise and tackle these issues. We have a crisis in hand that can still be managed. The state and civil society are required to systematically come up with solutions. There is an urgent need to educate people about our water footprint. A greater focus needs to be given to research and development, and invest in techniques that can assist us in finding sustainable long-term water-consumption patterns for our country.
This sentiment is shared by Dr. UK Sinha, a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, who said “This means structural and non-structural amendments. It requires political intervention, and it requires science to be brought in. It requires lessons from the past, it requires a state-center relationship of cooperation and consultation. It also requires examples to be from other parts of the world related to unreal flooding. The Water crisis needs an integrated approach to its management that takes into account various aspects, including demand and supply, and how to use water efficiently.”
The time is now for India to take the lead and fix the damage that lapsed agricultural practices have cost the country. The onus has to be on us all, not just one community or state actors.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.