India is likely to face stark water scarcity in the coming decades as a result of excessive use, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI)’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas - a tool to visualise and assess water stress and drought and flood risk covering 189 countries. The looming water crisis may result in conflict and migration, food insecurity, and financial instability. The explosion of groundwater extraction systems such as tubewells as well as surface systems such as large dams has led to a massive upsurge in water withdrawals in the last few decades.
Experts came up with solutions to reduce water allocations to agriculture to address the unsustainability of current water use. The restructuring of irrigation management involved both improvements in irrigation technologies as well as institutional reforms.
Microirrigation - a solution
Microirrigation involving pressurised systems for sprinkler, drip, or sub-surface drip was considered to lead to substantial water savings, as it improved the timing and reliability of water deliveries to the crop. This was expected to release the saved water to other uses; it also led to more production per unit of water. It became a policy priority of both central and state governments as a way to tackle the huge water consumption by the agriculture sector amounting to over 80 percent.
A study ‘Accelerating growth of Indian agriculture: Microirrigation an efficient solution’ by Grant Thornton India L.L.P., in collaboration with the Irrigation Association of India (IAI) and FICCI in 2016 suggested the roadmap for efficient, effective and successful implementation to the government.
The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), a central government scheme intends to encourage the shift towards microirrigation and ‘more crop per drop’ by providing an end-to-end solution to the irrigation supply chain. The attempt is to increase irrigation efficiency through the adoption of modern technologies, like drip irrigation.
The Economic Survey 2019-20 says that “farmers have been able to save irrigation water from 20 to 48 percent; energy saving from 10 to 17 percent; saving of labour from 30 to 40 percent; saving of fertilisers from 11 to 19 percent and increase in crop production from 20 to 38 percent” through microirrigation. Further, an important point in favour of microirrigation is that creating infrastructure can be done in months, unlike other systems where developing infrastructure takes years.
India has the potential to increase the coverage of net cultivated area (140 mha) under microirrigation to 69.5 mha, while the actual coverage stands at 10.12 mha in 2018-19. Further, the budget for the year 2020-21 saw a 41 percent jump in microirrigation allocation but a stronger push and appropriate fund allocation is the need of the hour to realize the target of 1 crore hectares coverage in 5 years.
Push for scaling up microirrigation, but few takers
A recent paper in Current Science ‘Microirrigation development in India: challenges and strategies’ discusses the potential of microirrigation to address problems like water scarcity and emission of greenhouse gases from agriculture in the context of climate change. The central and state governments promote microirrigation through heavy subsidies, and yet in spite of the massive investments, the coverage under microirrigation is less than 15 percent of the potential. The schemes are marred by uncertainties and sporadic changes in guidelines creating confusion on the ground.
In India, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Haryana are the six states that cover over 81 percent of the total area under microirrigation. The Grant Thornton India study analysed the reasons for the low penetration of microirrigation despite its “higher efficiency, the overall saving of irrigation water, fertiliser, energy, and ease of implementation within months, while the other irrigation infrastructure takes years to implement.”
In spite of the positive impact of microirrigation, farmers consider it capital intensive and suited for large farmers, as per an IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Highlight. Analysis of the rate of return on microirrigation investment indicates no significant difference in incremental net income attributed to microirrigation across farm categories. However, there were significant differences in incremental net income of microirrigation adopters across states, as per this study which was done in nine states.
Studies indicate a number of challenges in the adoption of both drip and sprinkler systems in terms of water saving, yield, and income enhancement at the farm level. Shifting to microirrigation does not often bring about a change in cropping patterns, with farmers continuing with water-intensive crops.
Scaling up microirrigation has been a concern considering that farm output and income have seen a decline and over 85 percent of the country’s farmers are small and marginal farmers. A study by Pune based Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) suggests ‘group microirrigation’ through the pooling of land and water resources greatly benefitted through an increase in productivity and profit margins. The study found that sprinkler irrigation uses 30-40 percent less water, drip irrigation uses 40-60 percent less water compared to flood irrigation while the productivity gain was estimated to be in the rage of 40 to 50 percent for different crops.
To deal with the issue of scaling up, the NITI Aayog had in 2017 tried to facilitate the participation of the private sector and to integrate various government subsidies at the farm level for microirrigation, since microirrigation systems are quite expensive.
The market ecosystem in terms of raw material suppliers, microirrigation systems manufacturers, distributors, custom-hiring centers, etc., for year-round maintenance and operation support against clogging of pores, rodent attack on pipes is poorly developed with the systems becoming obsolete in no time.
PMSKY provides a 60:40 sharing arrangement between the government and farmers. Most states report delays and inefficiencies in subsidy payment and uncertainty for the suppliers of microirrigation products as well as lack of widespread suitable private financing options with fewer collateral demands in microirrigation projects.
Challenges in microirrigation
Many experts have raised concerns about the huge water-energy savings and the substantial economic gains on input due to microirrigation. J Harsha of the Central Water Commission pointed that the scheme was “ill-conceived, not holistic, and disintegrated from the basin/watershed perspective” especially in the regime of power outages and voltage fluctuations, which most of India faces.
As per an FAO report ‘Does improved irrigation technology save water? A review of the evidence’ says “evidence from research and field measurements shows that the benefit at the local “on-farm” scale may appear dramatic, but when properly accounted at the basin scale, total water consumption by irrigation tends to increase instead of decreasing.” Water savings through microirrigation and precision agriculture technology represent a narrow local perspective oblivious of the overall watershed or basin perspective and it does not account for return flows that recharge aquifers or contribute to downstream river flows.
So, questions remain on whether these water savings were real and in the absence of complete water accounting and basin-wide water budgeting there are no clear answers. As per this study “the potential to increase water productivity— more “crop per drop”—is also quite modest for the most important crops.”
Further, the review of over 150 experts on the evidence of the impact of hi-tech irrigation on water consumption and water productivity by FAO indicates that there are rather few examples of carefully documented impacts of hi-tech irrigation such as microirrigation, while there are many examples of projects and programmes that assume that water will be saved and productivity increased.
However, in the case of tree crops under drip irrigation, there were real water savings of about 6 percent and increased water productivity when compared to flood irrigated fields. The study by FAO concludes that “introducing hi-tech irrigation in the absence of controls on water allocations will usually make the situation worse: consumption per unit area increases, the area irrigated increases, and farmers will tend to pump more water from ever-deeper sources.”
While the demand side of microirrigation has received considerable policy focus, a paper in Current Science by A Suresh and Manoj P Samuel points to how supply-side factors like water harvesting, socio-economic factors, including affordability of upfront capital cost and agronomic factors like extant farming system have been completely ignored.
A study by K Palanisami and S Raman in the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Highlight recommends a reduction in capital cost of the system, provision of technical support for regular microirrigation operation and maintenance, relaxation of farm size limitation in providing microirrigation subsidies and creation of a single state-level agency or a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for speedy implementation of the microirrigation program.
The government needs to promote cost-effective alternatives to reduce agriculture’s water footprint and to sustain farming needs in the long-term by implementing decentralized water reuse.