By Moin Qazi
Water plays a crucial role in 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 monsoons to replenish their water sources, but 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.
A threatening water crisis
Indias water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. Â Â Indias agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn but contributes only around 15 percent to the countrys GDP. To use another metric, 89 percent of Indias extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 percent, with industrial use accounting for 2 percent of groundwater use).Â World BankÂ data shows that only 35 percent of Indias agricultural land is irrigateddefined as the artificial application of water to land or soil. This means that 65Â percentÂ of farming depends on rainfall.
Indian farmers use nearly 70 percent of the total groundwater drawn in the country each year. India uses more groundwater every year than China and the United States combined. It is groundwater that boosted theÂ Green RevolutionÂ and brought us food security, but today we are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. We have drilled deep for groundwater without taking this basic hydrogeological fact into account.
Studying the causes
The lack of sustainable agriculture sucks rivers, lakes, and underground water sources dry. The main causes are wasteful field application methods,Â leaky irrigation systems, cultivation of thirsty crops not suited to the environment, low public and political awareness of the crisis, and weak environmental legislation. India also uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States. It has also been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat, and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of these water-intensive crops.
As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. In addition, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds. A WWF report,Â Thirsty Crops: Agricultural Water Use and River Basin Conservation, identifies cotton, rice, sugarcane, and wheat as the âthirstiestâ crops.
Examples in perspective
Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset Indias 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 Indias farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is in a miserable state. It has been among the worst affected by water shortages, having faced three bad monsoons in a row, although this years rains have given some reprieve to the farmers. Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-Ã -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 Marathwadas 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. Nonetheless, the land area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 167,000 hectares in 1970-71 to 1,022,000 hectares in 2011-12. Maharashtra is Indias second-biggest producer of this water-intensive crop, despite being one of the countrys drier states. Sugarcane now uses about 70 percent of Marathwadas 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. However, politicians opened mills everywhere later, 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. Sugarcanes sturdiness also attracts farmersmature 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 replacing sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjabs area under cultivation, which was 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighbouring 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 on account of the supply of free or subsidised power which boosts politicians popularity. The government buys sugar, wheat, and rice at remunerative prices, assuring economic justice to these farmers. Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favour 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 switch from rice to oilseeds and pulses and protect dangerously low water levels. However, it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.
Scientists and activists have long warned that relentless groundwater extraction is leading to a steep drop in water tables across Indiathe worlds fastest rate of groundwater decline. During the last three decades, there has been an explosive growth of private tube-wells because of a lack of reliable surface irrigation. India uses 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year accounting for about one-quarter of the global groundwater use. Farmers using groundwater obtain twice the crop yields compared to surface water. This is because groundwater irrigation gives farmers more flexibility as to when to irrigate and the amount of water they can use.
A recent European Commission report counted more than 20 million 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) of water, compared to five feet (1.5 metres) in the 1960s. They have been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet downthough many farmers drill wells and find nothing at all lately. In some severely affected areas, bore wells as deep as 500 metres (1,640 feet) have all gone dry.
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 wont need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. However, we must summon the political will to act before the water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.
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