Sharing water, reaping benefits

This study finds that smallholder farmers who undertake group micro irrigation through pooling of land and water resources greatly benefit through increase in productivity and profit margins.
Sprinkler irrigation in Narayanganj block, Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh (Image Source: WOTR)
Sprinkler irrigation in Narayanganj block, Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh (Image Source: WOTR)

Agriculture is of central importance to India’s economy with more than half of the workforce in the country depending on it for their livelihoods. However, it is increasingly being threatened due to climate-change-induced changing rainfall patterns and water scarcity having a negative impact on production.

Even with severe water scarcity looming large, the available water continues to be used inefficiently in India. All major crops such as wheat, sugarcane, cotton, etc consume large quantities of water, a third of which comes from groundwater which is depleting at a very fast rate so much so that recharge mechanisms continue to fall short. 

Micro irrigation, a possible solution to the crisis

This paper 'Micro-irrigation for small and marginal farmers' by Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) argues that these conditions and the looming water scarcity, highlight the need for a prudent and efficient use of the land and water resources. Thus, agriculture needs more efficient irrigation methods. Given their higher efficiency, micro-irrigation systems can go a long way in addressing these water challenges faced by India’s agricultural sector.

The paper highlights the key learnings from an action research project on group micro irrigation implemented by WOTR in three diverse regions of India.

Current status of micro irrigation in the country

India has more than 140 million hectares (ha) of the net cultivated area of which only 45 percent is irrigated. Just about nine million ha of this area is under micro irrigation of which drip irrigated area is about four million ha, while the actual potential for micro irrigation in the country is about 70 million hectares.

Micro irrigation vastly reduces the amount of water needed for irrigating crops. For example, research shows that sprinkler irrigation can use 30-40 percent less water, while drip can use about 40-60 percent less water as compared to flood irrigation methods. Productivity gain due to the use of micro irrigation is estimated to be in the range of 40 to 50 percent for different crops.

It also reduces weed problems, soil erosion and the cost of cultivation in labour-intensive operations. The reduction in water consumption in micro irrigation also reduces the energy use (electricity) that is required to lift water from irrigation wells. Realising its potential, the thrust of government programmes too, has been on promoting micro irrigation through its schemes.

Poor access to irrigation among small and marginal farmers

However, it has been found that it is easier for large (generally, resource-rich) farmers to access public and private sources of irrigation like canals and tubewells as compared to small and marginal farmers, who mostly depend on groundwater and unpredictable rainfall. 

A guarantee of a water resource is compulsory to avail the benefits of the government micro-irrigation schemes which small farmers do not have. Furthermore, limited access to funds to invest in seeds, fertilisers and other inputs also makes small and marginal farmers vulnerable to production risks.

Group micro irrigation as a way out of this dilemma

The paper highlights the efforts made by WOTR through its action research projects implemented in Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra to help small farmers enhance agriculture productivity through pooling of their water resources and sharing them through the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation.

The project included:

  • Tribal farmers in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh where groups of three farmer households shared sprinkler irrigation sets and dug wells as the water source.
  • Farmers from scheduled castes in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana who formed groups of 18 and shared three bore wells.
  • Farmers from Jalna district of Maharashtra who formed groups of 14 and came together to set up a drip irrigation system with a single dug well as the source of water. 

These experiences showed that farmers were greatly benefited through these initiatives as it led to:

  • A decrease in water use
  • Increase in yield
  • Brought more area under irrigation
  • Helped in crop diversification
  • Led to decrease in the use of other inputs like fertilisers and pesticides
  • Helped to increase profit margins

Some of the key learnings that emerged from these three action research projects were:

  • Access to a common source of water was a prerequisite for implementing the initiative successfully
  • Common resource sharing meant that it would make practical sense to cover lands that were close-by or adjacent
  • Local initiative and contribution to maintenance and sustainability were important
  • It was important to ensure that all small and marginal farmers made some financial contributions to the initiative as this would encourage a sense of group ownership
  • Sharing of land and water resources meant that people and communities with strong ties and a common feeling of ownership could participate in the initiative such as those from one caste, religion, area, locality, community, family, those owning lands adjacent to each other etc
  • Government schemes and subsidies for micro irrigation did not reach the poorest of farmers as the scheme required the guarantee of water availability and it was mainly the better off and rich farmers with a dedicated source of water in their farms who were able to access these funds
  • Besides drip irrigation, a range of other supportive interventions such as the introduction of crop intensification (SCI) through a focus on soil management, crop spacing, use of locally prepared organic inputs like Amruth Khad and Amruth Paani; and the application of micronutrients to manage loss helped to improve crop productivity among farmers
  • Low rainfall presented challenges and needed better planning for irrigation.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below:

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