Water policy for rainfed areas

The new national water policy should take up a comprehensive and integrated view of water resources development with a focus on rainfed areas.
Public investments on water in rainfed areas have much higher social rate of returns (Image: Kannan, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Public investments on water in rainfed areas have much higher social rate of returns (Image: Kannan, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A committee has been constituted to draft a new National Water Policy (NWP) and make key changes in the water governance structure and regulatory framework. It is chaired by Mihir Shah, who is a former Planning Commission member and a water expert. The committee is expected to produce a report within six months. The Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture (RRA) Network, a pan India network working on evolving operational processes for planning and convergence to facilitate the revival of rainfed agriculture has made its submission to the committee drafting the NWP. The policy recommendations call for a differentiated water policy for rainfed areas within the NWP.

While the Ministry of Jal Shakti has the mandate to steer the policy, programs and public investments related to water resources, it lacks a significant program on addressing the needs of water resources management of rainfed areas. The water policy as regards agriculture equates "water" policies with "irrigation" – that only deals with stocking of water in reservoirs as well as underground, its channelization through canals or pumping through wells and subsequent supply.

The water resources investment as of now is mostly on irrigation (creation and use of potential created) – surface, subsidised electricity for groundwater use, micro irrigation and recharge of groundwater. The previous programmes on water resources that had some bearing on rainfed areas such as the watershed and tank rehabilitation projects turned out to be mostly dysfunctional.

Requirement of rainfed areas

In spite of the 110 million ha of irrigation potential created, the net area irrigated is only 68.5 million ha. Thus, much of the agriculture in the country will potentially remain rainfed.

The major challenge of water management in rainfed areas is risk and uncertainty arising out of rainfall failures affecting large areas and huge number of people. The situation is worsening, more so with climate change. Private investments in rainfed agriculture cannot be achieved unless the risk and uncertainty is dealt with. Only the residual risk can be met by insurance. The primary risk can only be met by managing rainfall 'water' locally to meet moisture deficits and dry spells. 

Rainfall use efficiency - the new paradigm for rainfed areas

There is enormous potential in increasing and improving both the production and productivity of rainfed crops all over India, through strategic combination of direct precipitation and strategic water application. The amount of water applied per unit of land under such circumstance is small, making such application quite efficient.

Rainfed areas need to have 'rainfall use efficiency' as a metric for public investment. In rainfed areas, the first claim on water should be for securing crops and livelihoods extensively.

It pays to invest on water in rainfed areas

Most of the districts considered as aspirational, backward or poor and those with high nutritional deficiencies are rainfed areas. Several studies suggest high rate of return on investments on protective and supportive irrigation leading to a win-win scenario for the national government, farmers and for sustainable natural resources management. Public investments on water in rainfed areas have much higher social rate of returns.

The benefits could be still higher if initiatives like improved cultivars, system of rice intensification, crop and land use diversification, use of improved irrigation technologies like drip and micro-sprinkler are taken up.

The NWP must have a differentiated focus on rainfed areas and half of the attention and budget should be allocated for rainfed areas that constitute about half of the country.

Water used for such supplemental irrigation will not reduce the river flows. Central and eastern India have been identified for their potential for harvesting runoff for critical or supplemental irrigation without affecting the water balance. The cropping intensity can be substantially improved in these areas with comprehensive rainfall water management. Water harvesting and supplemental irrigation at farm level does not jeopardize the available flows in rivers even during drought years nor does it cause any significant downstream effects. 

Specific recommendations

The uniform NWP is exclusionary and must recognise the specific needs of ‘rainfed areas’ that constitutes over half of the country’s agriculture. Water policy for rainfed areas need to be instituted within the National Water Policy using a framework relevant for rainfed areas.

  • Considering the diversity in rainfed areas, the policy needs to enable decentralised and location specific action while laying overarching framework principles at the national level.

'Rainfall use efficiency’ should be taken up as the metric for investments and assessment on an area basis in place of a narrow ‘water use efficiency’.

  • Reducing risk and uncertainty, support irrigation at critical stages for improving productivity, increasing cropping intensity, soil cover, ensuring livestock and livelihoods needs are to be the core principles of the water policy for rainfed areas.

Investment parity on water resources must be maintained duly allocating resources for rainfed areas. Water management in rainfed areas needs investments dedicated for the purpose and should not be subsumed under any other broader program.  

  • Local participatory governance and establishing norms of water access, use and first claims, and related institutional mechanisms need to be integral to the policy.
  • Technology integration across multiple forms of water – evaporation/ evapotranspiration, soil moisture, dew, rainfall, surface and groundwater harvested must be considered integral to securing crops and livelihoods in rainfed areas.
  • Mechanisms must be defined for maintenance of water bodies, soil and water conservation assets, desiltation and silt application.
  • Traditional water bodies are numerous in number and are in much dilapidated conditions. A structured revival of these tanks, other larger local water bodies with institutional mechanisms and participation is much needed. 
  • Data needs for managing water resources in rainfed areas are intensive and much needed for local decision making. A dedicated data generation and sharing process that includes rainfall, soil moisture, crops, water bodies, groundwater etc., needs to be set up.
  • Jal Shakti Ministry must establish a Department within the Ministry with multi-disciplinary focus on water management in rainfed areas.

Jal Shakti Ministry must maintain parity of investment between ‘irrigated’ and ‘rainfed areas’. A comprehensive program with Block as a planning unit is much needed for the purpose; initially targeting about 100 Blocks with 1000 ha in each Block that can be expanded later on. The investment needs are around Rs. 40,000 per ha over a period of 3 years. 

Please see the full document attached below. The RRA Network seeks more inputs, information and policy inputs to sharpen the policy note. Please send in your comments to water@rainfedindia.in

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