Water in agriculture: Navigating the nexus of efficiency, innovation, and collaboration

Tackling India's water crisis: A blueprint for agricultural water efficiency
Women working in the field in India (Image: IWMI Flickr/Hamish John Appleby; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
Women working in the field in India (Image: IWMI Flickr/Hamish John Appleby; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

India is widely acknowledged as one of the most water-stressed countries globally, exacerbated by the stark reality that it hosts 17% of the world's population but possesses only 4% of the world's freshwater resources. This crisis is further compounded by the intrinsic link between water and agriculture in the country, where 90% of water withdrawals are attributed to excessive agricultural usage. Given this scenario, evolving agricultural practices to avert the impending water crisis is of paramount importance, particularly concerning the cultivation of water-intensive crops.

A recent collaborative effort between the Sattva Knowledge Institute and the DCM Shriram Foundation has culminated in the development of a report titled ‘Transforming crop cultivation: Advancing water efficiency in Indian agriculture’. Drawing insights from more than 50 public reports and engaging over 40 sectoral experts, this report presents three targeted, actionable recommendations aimed at scaling up water efficiency in agriculture.

In Punjab and Haryana, more than 25% of the designated districts cultivating rice have very low groundwater levels, exacerbating water depletion in these regions. Additionally, sugarcane cultivation, contributing 1.1% to India’s agricultural GDP, further aggravates water depletion, particularly in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh.

While various water-saving techniques exist, challenges hinder their widespread adoption. Root causes of the water crisis include invisible water pricing, a lack of market support for water-efficient crops, on- and off-farm water losses, and inadequate scaling of water-efficient conservation techniques. There are also certain barriers to adoption, including a lack of customisation, awareness, financial constraints, misplaced incentives, and resistance to change. Critical levers to scale existing techniques include prioritising farmers’ economic benefits, ensuring sustained access to resources, and addressing capacity and information gaps. Collaboration among stakeholders is essential for addressing the water crisis comprehensively.

Today, efforts to improve water-use efficiency in rice and sugarcane cultivation involve multiple programmes and initiatives driven by industry, government, and philanthropy. Government policies are aiming to promote water conservation, industry leaders are implementing programmes to enhance farming practices, and multilateral organisations are supporting projects to improve water management.

In spite of significant efforts, there are notable gaps hindering greater impact, including over-reliance on philanthropic funding, limited scalability of initiatives beyond pilot projects, and inadequate collaboration among stakeholders. Moreover, challenges persist due to insufficient data for informed decision-making and low adoption rates of proven technologies.

To overcome these barriers, it is necessary to integrate science and data into decision-making processes of stakeholders, cater to the regional localised needs of ecosystems, and convene industry stakeholders effectively to make commitments that drive intent and action. As a way forward, this report shares three key ideas focusing on how to enable and scale existing innovations by:

Building a public recommendation engine that can recommend techniques and practices contextualised to local agricultural ecosystems

The recommendations provided should be connected to the unique characteristics of local agriculture ecosystems (and tailored to address specific challenges and opportunities within these ecosystems. These ecosystems are influenced by two important parameters: the external environment and farmer-specific parameters.

Combining scientific knowledge with existing on-ground implementation and effectively establishing a water-positive framework or index for decision-making

Although, many significant water-based indices exist today, notably, the NITI Aayog Water Index, WRI’s Aqueduct Water Atlas, and CDP’s Water Impact Index, among others, there is a need for the development of a non-partisan, science and data led, publicly accessible water index. Such a resource could help guide decision making of industry and government stakeholders based on their specific objectives and need for data.

This report suggests establishing such an index delving into multiple layers of data, encompassing spatial, water, and crop-related metrics, among others. This comprehensive index would consolidate diverse data parameters, serving as a reliable resource for various stakeholders in the ecosystem. Initiatives such as Agristack would further enhance data availability at a granular level throughout India for feeding into the index.

Developing a model for collaborative action among industry stakeholders towards water-use efficiency in agriculture and enabling collective learning and advocacy

At its core, this model centres on companies and other relevant stakeholders working in agriculture, committing to increasing water efficiency in areas where they have a water footprint, alongside stakeholders voluntarily pledging support for improvements in areas where farm-level involvement is vital. Through this collective effort, three primary objectives can be achieved:

  • Building a network: By bringing together a diverse array of industry players, this model fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing. The idea is to ensure all companies make a public and voluntary commitment to reduce water stress in their value chains, and eventually garner commitment from industry stakeholders towards driving industry action at scale. Companies are provided with science-based tools to aid decision making, empowering them to make informed choices about water management strategies within this network.
  • Sharing best practices: The network will further encourage participants to exchange best practices and lessons learned. The idea is to ensure transparency of progress against the proposed targets along with learnings from the ground. By consolidating successful initiatives, companies can accelerate progress towards water efficiency goals and drive innovation in sustainable water management practices.
  • Advocacy and influence: By convening stakeholders and sharing impactful work, this initiative aims to amplify advocacy efforts. Through collective influence, participants can advocate for policy changes, communicate their progress openly, drive industry standards, and mobilise support for water conservation initiatives on a broader scale.

To effectively guide decision-making at all levels towards the adoption of a particular water efficient solution in a specific local agriculture ecosystem, it is imperative to integrate scientific insights and data analysis into the decision-making process. For industry and policymakers, particularly since there are broad incentives at an ecosystem level (government subsidies, traditional biases, industry interests, etc.) which often shape these decisions.

Multiple existing initiatives focusing on enabling on-farm water use efficiency driven by government, philanthropy as well as industry have demonstrated impact. However, these initiatives are still not able to cater to the specific nuances and localised contexts of regions, crops as well as varying farmer profiles. In agriculture, a tailored approach is paramount because one-size-fits-all strategies fall short in driving scale.

Decisively moving away from the limited, pilot implementation models, to geographically tailored programmes, that empower farmers with awareness, knowledge, and skills, could catalyse water efficiency in cultivating rice and sugarcane. Strong stewardship of these efforts by private industry and philanthropy will also be key. By enabling this kind of innovation in agriculture, the mounting water scarcity problem in India, with projections estimating a further decrease in per capita water availability by 2050, could be slowed down significantly.

The full report can be accessed here

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