Thirsty crops drain India dry

As the country runs out of water fast, India needs to change its game for sustenance. Replacing water-intensive crops with sustainable ones in dry areas is a step in the right direction.
Paddy is one of the thirsty crops. (Photo: IWP Flickr photos)
Paddy is one of the thirsty crops. (Photo: IWP Flickr photos)

Water is a crucial part of all societies as it has myriad uses. In India, however, it is of much more importance as over 600 million people make a living off the land. They rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable. Even today, the country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the south-west monsoon is delayed.

India is home to nearly one sixth of the world’s population but gets only four percent of the Earth’s fresh water. More than half of the country faces high water scarcity. Out of the 1.2 billion people living in the country, about 742 million live and farm in agricultural heartlands. According to data from the World Bank, Indian farmers use nearly 70 percent of the total groundwater drawn in the country each year. The water extracted from India’s wells constitutes more than one-quarter of the world’s total. According to 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 most vulnerable to climate change in the world and the 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 possesses only four percent of the world’s water resources. World Bank data shows that only 35 percent of India’s agricultural land is irrigated, which is defined as the artificial application of water to land or soil. This means that 65 percent of farming depends on rainfall. Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Despite constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic metres, a relatively small achievement when compared to Russia’s 6,103 cubic metres, Australia’s 4,733, and China’s 1,111.

A staggering US$52.7 billion has been allocated to the so-called major and medium Irrigation projects from the first five-year plan (1951-56) to the 11th (2007-12), but irrigation has reached only 45 percent of India’s net sown area. India is heavily dependent on water from two sources--glaciers and snow in the Himalayas and the annual monsoon rains. Both sources are highly vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, India’s high dependence on groundwater—it accounts for about one-third of total water use compared to less than one-fifth in China—means that it has few alternatives to make up the difference. India’s water crisis stems from a complex mix of economic, geographic and political factors. While climate change has caused rains to become more erratic, most parts of the country receive more than adequate amount of rainfall.

Water-intensive farming practices

Water harvesting and management, though required, remains little more than a fad. Many areas that are prone to flooding are the same ones that face droughts months later. Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for more than 90 percent of total water drawn but contribute only around 14 percent to the GDP. 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 epicentre of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is 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. 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 litres of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just four million litres 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 1,67,000 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 four 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. 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.

Managing water locally as a better option

Given the enormity of India's water issues, encouraging single villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can seem a feeble response to a national crisis. But compared with controversial top-down, government-led efforts to build big dams and regulate the wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroots effort to manage water locally can look both sensible and sustainable. Rainwater harvesting, an age-old technique for capturing monsoon run-off, can provide the country with reliable water supplies throughout the year. Building check dams on riverbeds will improve groundwater levels. The idea behind watershed development is simple: If people cut fewer trees, increase plant cover on the land, and build a well-planned series of dams and earthen terraces to divert and slow the downhill flow of rainwater, the soil has more time to absorb moisture. The terracing and new vegetation also control erosion, which keeps nutrient-rich topsoil from washing or blowing away, and this in turn boosts the productivity of agricultural land. India will need to rein in the systemic corruption that has dogged irrigation projects across the country. In some states these projects have sparked social unrest and political turmoil as seen in Maharashtra and Karnataka, where tenders were awarded at grossly inflated prices.

The proliferation of power plants is another area that requires serious re-examination. Government policies that make water and land cheap in the area seem to be the reason for the location of thermal plants. 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. During the last three decades, there has been an explosive growth of private tube-wells in farms because of a lack of reliable surface irrigation. Increasing groundwater use from 58 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2011. There are no indications that this rate is levelling off. At present India uses 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year. This accounts for about one-quarter of the global groundwater use.

More than 60 percent 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 three percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2011.

A recent European Commission report counted more than 20m boreholes in India, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s. The water table is falling on an average by 0.3 metres and by as much as four metres in some places. Some farmers in parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 metres) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 metres) in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist. They’ve 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 metres (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,” says 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,” he says. Realising its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent from 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 Qazi is the author of 'Village Diary of a Heretic Banker'.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.




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