india irrigation

Farmers in India do a lot of talking about the weather — especially, it seems, when there is no weather in sight. During the month of May, when the land heats up like a furnace and most fields lie fallow, when wells have run dry and the sun taunts from its broiling perch in a cloudless sky, there is no topic more consuming — or less certain — than when and how the summer monsoon will arrive later, whether it will turn into a thundering elephant. Or it will start as an elephant and then turn into a deer. Or it will be erratic and annoying right through, like a chicken. In other words, nobody really knows. But still everybody talks.

Complex and capricious, the South Asian monsoon — widely considered the most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, affecting nearly half the world’s population — has never been easy to predict. And with global warming skewing weather patterns, it’s not just the scientists who are confounded. Farmers, whose families for generations have used the Panchangam, a thick almanac detailing the movement of the Hindu constellations to determine when the monsoon rains are due and thus when to plant their crops, lament that their system no longer works reliably.

According to the international water safety organization Water Aid, India has the most number of rural people living without access to clean water — 63.4 million. This is almost the population of the United Kingdom. India ranks in the top 38 percent of countries worldwide most vulnerable to climate change and least ready to adapt, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Rural communities dependent on farming to make a living will struggle to grow food and feed livestock amid soaring temperatures, and women — typically responsible for collecting water — may have to walk even greater distances during prolonged dry seasons.

India supports 15 percent of the world’s population but has only 4 percent of the world’s water resources. World Bank data show that only 35 percent of India’s agricultural land is irrigated. This means that a huge slab, 65 percent, of farming depends totally on rain.

Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Even after constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters — compared to 6,103 cubic m per capita in Russia, 4,733 in Australia, 1,964 in the United States, and 1,111 in China.

India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. For one thing, it is highly dependent on a few major river systems, especially the Ganges and its tributaries, for its water supply. But India also uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States. There are two main reasons for this. First, power subsidies for agriculture have played a major role in the decline of water levels in India. Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favor of these water intensive crops.

As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. In addition, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds.

Israel has been a role model for the world in matters of water management and India is now actively seeking Israel’s mentorship for addressing its water woes. Water conservation was backed by the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: drip irrigation. Israel has set a template for reusing wastewater for irrigation. It treats 80% of its domestic wastewater, which is recycled for agricultural use and constitutes nearly 50% of the total water used for agriculture. Israel gets just 300 mm average rainfall every year. In contrast, India has an annual average rainfall of 600 mm.

Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn, but contributes only around 15 percent to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89 percent of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 percent, with industrial use accounting for 2 percent of groundwater use).

Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset India’s water balance are the farming practices in some of its provincial states, particularly Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana.

The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum and other cereals have turned to sugarcane in Maharashtra, which fetches more money but is a very thirsty crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, two parched states where the groundwater has sunk even further.

Maharashtra is the epicenter of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is in a miserable state. It has been among the worst affected by water shortages, having faced three bad monsoons in a row, although this year’s rains have given some reprieve to the farmers.

Decades of poor agricultural and water management policies have pushed Marathwada to the brink. It constitutes 31 percent crop area of the state but it uses only 14 percent of the state’s surface water. Western Maharashtra, on the other hand, has 36 percent crop area of the state, but uses 47 percent of the water.

Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis irrigation potential in the state. Of the potential land that could be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 percent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is at 76 percent. The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 percent lower than the rest of Maharashtra.

Farmers drawn to the region by government incentives have begun cultivating sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that is ill-suited to Marathwada’s semi-arid climate. Sugarcane consumes about 22.5 million liters of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just 4 million liters over four months for chickpeas, commonly grown in India and called gram locally.

Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine. Yet the land area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 167,000 hectares in 1970-71 to 1,022,000 ha in 2011-12. Maharashtra is India’s second biggest producer of this water-intensive crop, despite being one of the country’s drier states. Sugarcane now uses about 70 percent of Marathwada’s irrigation water despite accounting for 4 percent of cultivated land.

The sugar mill buildup in Marathwada was initially pushed by politicians in the region trying to replicate the prosperity of mills in other areas of Maharashtra state and was focused on areas with plentiful water. But later politicians opened mills everywhere, even in areas where drinking water is not available. Sugarcane is a popular crop because farmers sell cane directly to sugar mills, avoiding the need for middlemen who take a cut of the profits. Sugarcane’s sturdiness also attracts farmers; mature cane withstands heavy rainfall or dry spells and is also less vulnerable to pests and diseases compared to other crops.

A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, but with rice taking the place of sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, up from 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighboring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all crops, India still produces more rice, wheat and sugar than it consumes.

It is quite natural for farmers to plant rice and cane when both power and water are almost free. In fact, government policies encourage them to do so. The government buys sugar, wheat and rice at remunerative prices, which assures economic justice to these farmers.

The water crisis in Maharashtra has been aggravated by the shift from growing crops of millet, sorghum and other cereals that need much less water to sugarcane, which is a water guzzler.

Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favor of less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government currently asks farmers to shift to less water consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.

Scientists and activists have long warned that relentless groundwater extraction is leading to a steep drop in water tables across India — the world’s fastest rate of groundwater decline. At present India uses 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year. This accounts for about one-quarter of global groundwater use. More than 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of domestic water use now depends on groundwater. India now uses more groundwater than China and the United States combined.

Farmers using groundwater obtain twice the crop yields compared to surface water. This is because groundwater irrigation gives the farmers more flexibility as to when to irrigate and the amount of water they can use because they have total control as to when to pump and for how long. In 2014, the central groundwater board noted that the number of over-exploited districts increased from 3% in 1995 to 15% in 2011.

A recent European Commission report counted more than 20 million boreholes in India, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s. The water table is falling on average by 0.3 meters and by as much as 4 meters in some places. Some farmers in these parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 meters) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 meters) in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist. They have been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock — 700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down. Lately, though, many farmers drill wells and find nothing at all. In some severely affected areas, bore wells as deep as 500 meters (1,640 feet) have all gone dry. The underground water level has dropped so much that there is no water at all.

“I think there’s really no way out. There’s no water, so there’s no harvest, so there’s no income. And I think that’s the fate of every farmer,” said Vithal Mhaski, a farmer whose family has gone into debt drilling wells that turned out to be dry. “It’s time we took a longer view and stop the wastage of water with sugarcane.”

The burgeoning of power plants is another point that requires a serious relook. Government policies that make water and land cheap in the area seem to be the reason for location of the thermal plants.

Realizing its dire predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent of Mother Nature. Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But New Delhi must summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money and installing technologies all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.

Moin Qaziis the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.

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