As I embarked on my agtech and water tour in India, I was surprised to experience such a diverse range of extreme climate in just one month. I traveled from drought-stricken landscapes in North India (early June 2023) to flood-ravaged regions while leaving the country (early July 2023) and encountered uneven weather patterns in between.
As I toured the country, I saw how climate change is disrupting traditional agricultural practices and putting immense pressure on the entire production and business ecosystem. Amidst these challenges, there is rapidly growing interest in mitigating climate change impacts and promoting sustainable agricultural practices. Managing water and reducing carbon emissions have become the mainstays of conversation and are at the core of targeted solutions.
There is particular interest in sustainable technology and practices for crops that consume large amounts of water, such as rice and sugarcane. Traditional flooded rice cultivation accounts for approximately 12% of the global crop acreage, leading to considerable water consumption and contributing over 10% of global methane emissions, in addition to nitrous oxide emissions. The challenge at hand is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while maintaining crop yields.
The spectrum of technologies and practices used currently is diverse, ranging from methods like alternate drying and wetting (AWD), furrow irrigation, and direct seeding of rice (DSR), as well as the implementation of high-efficiency drip irrigation, IoT, and sensor technologies. A barrier to widespread adoption, however, is that the implementation of these agronomic practices and technologies has faced pushback in several regions of the country. Some emerging management practices aim to generate carbon credits through the reduction of GHG emissions in rice. This effort presents another challenge as the methodology to quantify the emissions has been deactivated.
Why is technology adoption for water and climate change solutions slow?
From the policy and technology sides, there is an urgency to conserve water resources. However, water conservation remains a low priority for many Indian farmers. Conversations during on-farm interviews indicated that it does not make economic sense for farmers in the short term. Based on our experiences and observations, it is not very different in the US, where adoption of technology conserving water resources is less than 10%, despite farmers having more awareness about stewardship in general.
In the context of India, which is in the midst of a water crisis, we need to change this narrative and shed light on the solutions that can improve water management without sacrificing yields. It is also important to tell a compelling story that resonates with farmers and to incentivize them to adopt efficient and low-cost technologies, encouraging them towards a shift in stewardship mindset.
In several Indian states, farmers have access to free water and power. Agriculture is a state subject in India. And, due to socio-political resistance, the state governments have encountered obstacles in enforcing strict regulations on water withdrawal, which has also led to a lack of accountability. So, there isn’t a lot of economic incentive for farmers to conserve water. A challenge also lies in the multifaceted nature of water management in agriculture.
It's essential to acknowledge that many agricultural water management technologies often rely heavily on hardware-driven solutions, where farmers require sensors and automation devices to control and deliver water efficiently. However, costly hardware adds to the overall expenses - from acquiring and installing the equipment to its calibration and maintenance - further complicating matters for already burdened customers and impeding the adoption process.
The road ahead: what’s next, Indian ag water ecosystem?
The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute has authored a couple of reports on the Indian agricultural water ecosystem, highlighting different technology and business model innovations in agricultural water management in India. The research suggests there are still some areas where bolstering innovative efforts and investments could contribute to better management of dwindling water resources.
There is a lot of interest in artificial groundwater recharge to hedge against extreme climate change impacts. With depleting groundwater levels across the country, replenishing aquifers via artificial recharge becomes crucial, especially in regions stressed due to overexploitation. This parallels what we have seen elsewhere; for example, in California’s Pajaro Valley, the Resource Conservation District (Santa Cruz County) initiated a program to incentivize ~1,000 acre-ft/yr of infiltration benefit, through the development of multiple distributed managed aquifer recharge projects using stormwater. However, a significant challenge to expanding the program has been the lack of private investments.
To reach a scale of social benefit like this, there is a need for huge public and private investment and to create incentives for farmers, landowners, and other stakeholders.
While local and community-driven efforts to implement such projects exist in India, large-scale initiatives remain limited. Agtech startups like Bhungroo and Bore Charger are actively working towards artificial groundwater recharge, though scaling proves challenging due to diverse hydrogeological conditions and inadequate funding. Additionally, there are opportunities in floodwater and wastewater utilization using technologies like electrochemical stripping and riverbank filtration. These approaches offer diverse applications, from nutrient recovery to water quality enhancement for agricultural use. Surprisingly, India does not yet have innovations in this domain.
Amidst challenges, investment in water accounting and monitoring systems also becomes important. Lack of real-time data impedes efficient water allocation, exacerbating issues during crucial periods like droughts or floods and negatively impacting groundwater levels. On the bright side, we have several Indian agtech startups that are collecting on-field data with great resolution.
However, the potential value of this data remains untapped for farmers, industry, and investors. The water and energy footprint and some of the behavioral data can be used to incentivize farmers to adopt water conservation practices, transforming them into more responsible stewards of natural resources and driving the adoption of climate-smart technologies.
 Singha et al., 2019: High resolution paddy rice maps in cloud-prone Bangladesh and Northeast India using Sentinel-1 data: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6472375/
 Berkley Law, April 2021: Recharge Net Metering to Enhance Groundwater Sustainability https://www.law.berkeley.edu/research/clee/research/wheeler/renem/
Funding statement: This work is supported by Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska.
About Ankit Chandra: Ankit Chandra is a Research Program Manager at the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Ankit conducts research related to water, energy, and carbon in irrigated agriculture in the US and smallholder setups. He oversees the institute’s agricultural technology entrepreneurship program, which includes a blend of policy research, facilitation, and mentorship.
About Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute: The University of Nebraska founded the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) in 2010 to address the global challenge of achieving food security with less stress on water resources through improved water management in agricultural and food systems. The institute is committed to ensuring a water and food secure world while maintaining the use of water for other vital human and environmental needs. The institute’s approach is to extend the University of Nebraska’s expertise through strong partnerships with other universities and public and private sector organizations. DWFI develops research, education, and engagement programs in a focused effort to increase food security while ensuring the sustainability of water resources and agricultural systems. The institute works locally and internationally, bridging the water and agriculture communities and worlds of small- and large-holder farmers to deliver innovative solutions to this complex global challenge.