Water is the most critical resource for development. The effects of this resource can be felt not only in agriculture, but in areas such as industrial and economic development and, most critically, on the environment. India’s burgeoning population is facing a water crisis, fueled by unregulated and unplanned exploitation and a “use and discard” policy.
Water as a resource in agriculture is also reaching a tipping point with the constant challenge to feed and hydrate the ever-increasing population. Climate change consequences related to water resources include increases in temperature, shifts in precipitation patterns and snow cover, and a likely increase in the frequency of flooding and droughts, thus affecting agriculture. One estimate is that agricultural production needs to be scaled up to double by 2050. With as much as 80% of freshwater being consumed for agriculture, we must ensure that water resources are efficiently used to achieve social, environmental, and economic benefits.
Importance of efficient water management and efficiency in farming
While the area under cultivation in the world has grown by around 12–15% over the last fifty years, India has shown stagnation, or even a decline, due to changes in land use, weather patterns, and dwindling farm incomes. Changing weather patterns and erratic rainfall have also accounted for the area under irrigation to go up substantially, with most coming from groundwater extraction. The next contributor is freshwater from aquifers, streams, and lakes. It is estimated that about 2–3 liters of water per capita is sufficient for human consumption, and a whopping 3,000 liters is required to produce the daily food requirements of one person. In India, more than 60% of water consumed for irrigation is taken up by sugarcane and paddy, and this inequity places a lot of pressure on the water cycle. For all these reasons, there is an urgent need to look at sustainable water management in irrigation.
Issues affecting the water cycle
Climate and land management are responsible to a great extent in the cyclical circulation of water through evaporation, transpiration, and precipitation. The water cycle is a net effect zero, and thus finite.
- Scarcity of freshwater. With 97% of the earth’s water in oceans, freshwater accounts for only about 3% of the water available for agriculture and other needs. Freshwater is the lifeline for forests and croplands. With about 60% of the precipitation returning back to the oceans, freshwater availability is under pressure with increasing population and food habits.
- Erratic rainfall, India has traditionally depended on rainfall for its agricultural needs. It is estimated that more than half of the cultivable area is dependent on rainfall. With erratic weather and rainfall, the dependence on groundwater and other sources for irrigation is on the rise.
- Nutrient deficiency and indiscriminate fertilizer application. Degradation of soil affects the ability of crops to effectively utilize water in agriculture. Arid areas are deficient in primary nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and also in micronutrients like sulphur, zinc, and iron. Primary nutrient application by unaware farmers leads to imbalance, and therefore to increased degradation. This imbalance leads to inefficiency in water utilization and affects crop yields.
- Water Conservation. These practices have been neglected in India, and we are now facing the consequences of this folly. Groundwater is depleting rapidly. Rivers, once the lifeline of agriculture and surrounding civilization, have dried up. “At present, we are only being able to save 8% of the rainwater; this percentage needs to go up,” says Gajendra Shekhawat, union minister for Jal Shakti. Little emphasis has been placed on shifting to less water-intensive crops, recharging aquifers, forestation, watershed development, or rainwater harvesting.
Sustainable water management in agriculture: Some perspectives
India remains highly vulnerable to this water crisis in the coming years. Affordable and efficient methods in water management will be key to production of food and economic security for sustained livelihoods in both irrigated and rain-fed scenarios.
So what are the solutions in an Indian setting? Can we look at achieving food security without compromising on sustainable development goals?
The answer to the conundrum is to research, innovate, and disseminate knowledge to our farmers to optimize the interaction between variables like nutrients, water, and other agricultural inputs. Sustaining agricultural production with increasing population and with existing or reduced water resources is the mantra.
Some methods and initiatives that can help in water sustainability for agriculture:
1. Adoption of Best Irrigation Practices. With a dwindling supply for irrigation, proper technological and resource and application management are needed for the efficient use of water. Sustainable water management in agriculture can be achieved by:
- Reduction in water loss
- Use of efficient irrigation systems
- Better efficiency in increased water use
- Adoption of innovative irrigation methods and efficiency in fertilizer application
- Reuse of marginal waters (saline water, wastewater, and runoff water) for agricultural benefits
2. Improve Agricultural Practices. Improper soil management, indiscriminate fertilizer application, and overuse of agrochemicals are connected with sustainable water management and contribute to deteriorating groundwater. Some efforts in these areas will go a long way in achieving sustainable water management for agriculture:
- Tilling Practices. Soil surface tillage, contour tillage, conservation tillage result in reduced erosion, improved hydration of soil and maintenance of organic components in the soil.
- Mulching and increase of organic matter in soil. Advantages include conservation of soil moisture, improved soil fertility, and reduction in weed growth.
- Maintenance of soil acidity. Soil pH is referred to as the “master variable” for soil, and it has effects in decreasing availability of plant nutrients, increasing certain elements to toxicity, and degrading the ecosystem for good bacteria, earthworms, and other organisms. Proper maintenance of pH could improve crop development through intensive and deep rooting and lead to higher soil water availability. Hence soil acidity remediation needs to be looked at a local level in detail through outreach and education.
3. Water conservation practices: In-situ and Off-site. With a majority of Indian farming still dependent on the “rain gods,” it becomes important to conserve and harness this important (though erratic) resource. Agricultural use of water can be conserved on farms through landform management, direct seeding of water intensive crops, encouragement for fallow management, etc. Off Site conservation of water for agriculture can be through water harvesting, recharge of aquifers, and storage. Water harvesting and small water storage interventions have a major role to play in the improvement of water availability, especially in areas that depend on rainfed crops.
4. Policy Intervention and Integration. The complex and diverse nature of water resource management in Indian agriculture means that there should be flexibility in water policy according to situations and regions. More flexibility is required with water property rights and a robust framework is needed for sharing of water amongst states with supporting infrastructure. Similarly, a clear policy framework is needed for levying charges on the use of water resources and electricity, particularly groundwater. When water stress is an issue, it becomes all the more important for the farming community to understand why water cannot necessarily be a free resource in the long run. However, this is a contentious and politicized issue.
Stories from the ground: a beginning of a new dawn
NUH. Making groundwater potable and fit for agriculture
In some parts of rural India, due to paucity of canal and municipal water, groundwater is one of the major sources of supply. This is expensive, sometimes contaminated and, above all, has led to a rapid depletion of the water table, thereby exacerbating the water shortage problem. Collecting, storing, and accessing clean drinking water has become a priority and continues to be a challenge. With a limited water supply, irrigation and human consumption often compete, and the sustainability factor in water management takes center stage.
Due to the lack of perennial surface water, 78% of the Nuh district has saline groundwater. Even the fresh groundwater is saline, which increases with the depth. A few ponds that exist are used for domestic purposes and cattle; however, being seasonal, they dry up as the demand peaks. This has adverse effects on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the inhabitants. People have to purchase water or walk miles to fetch water to meet their daily needs. Lack of potable water leads to a lack of hygiene and sanitation, which lead to fatal diseases, especially in females. Due to water scarcity, informal water markets thrive and, in spite of the high cost they pay, the water quality is not guaranteed.
Due to the lack of irrigation resources, the region is highly dependent on rainfed agriculture. Given the harsh climatic conditions, a majority of the families depend solely on agriculture to earn a living. Because of salinity, trees in this district are not very dense. Accompanied by the rocky terrain, this increases the temperature in the summers.
To tackle the problem of groundwater salinity, S M Sehgal Foundation has developed and constructed innovative rainwater harvesting models for the creation of freshwater pockets within a saline aquifer. In this model, the structure (a recharge well) stores and recharges rainwater below the groundwater table, as a freshwater pocket within a saline aquifer (groundwater zone). The technology is environment-friendly, as the system requires no use of chemicals or energy.
High-pressure recharge wells were installed by S M Sehgal Foundation and the Millennium Alliance together in four schools in the water-scarce villages of the Nagina block. Besides the installation, the villagers were made aware of the project and the usage of the well so that they could adapt to it. Roof rainwater harvesting with a modified design for recharge wells was used to tackle the salinity problem.
The burden on children, who used to carry water bottles every day, was thus reduced, and they gained free access to safe clean drinking water that helped them be hydrated during school hours. Students and the local residents accepted the fact that the water was safe for consumption and it also tasted as sweet as the packaged mineral water available in the market. The direct outcome has been seen with better sanitation and hygiene, regular cooking of midday meals, and reduced dropout rates in girls. There has also been an improvement in availability of clean water for irrigation purposes.
What are high-pressure recharge wells?
High-pressure recharge wells and rainwater harvesting systems provide freshwater in a saline aquifer. These are above-ground open cylindrical tanks made of cement. Through the PVC pipes, rainwater on the rooftop is channeled into the recharge wells. Since the tank is built above the ground, pressure is created, enabling the harvested water to push aside the saline water, thereby creating freshwater pockets within the saline aquifer.
NARNAUL Recharge Ponds
Another example of how rainwater harvesting is having a positive effect on lives in rural India is the case of Narnaul in Mahendragarh district of Haryana. The state of Haryana is well known for its farming and developed agriculture. The inhabitants of this region are highly dependent on its farm produce. The groundwater level in Narnaul, Mahendragarh, was rapidly-depleting, threatening the livelihood of the residents. The region’s distance and disconnect from the town also played a major role in its adverse condition. That is when S M Sehgal Foundation joined hands with HDFC Bank to construct johads (redundant ponds) in the Sarelli and Panchnota villages. This project aimed at bringing about a positive change by increasing the water table in the region with Parivartan Pariyojana.
The locals said they had to wait long hours for the tankers. The cattle went thirsty, thereby causing a reduction in milk output. After the johad was constructed, two to three hours of heavy rainfall was sufficient to have the pond overflowing, and lasted the villagers an entire year. More water in the pond resulted in the ground seepage, recharging the water table and leading to the increased level of groundwater. The depth and the diameter were increased to collect as much water as possible to last for a longer duration after the evaporation process. Even the wells in the adjacent villages appeared fuller and fed more people than earlier. The spinoff effect was undeniable.
However, after the construction of the pond Johad, locals feel more aware and confident regarding water management and its advantages.
With the agricultural community facing the challenge to increase food production substantially, a sustained availability of crucial resources such as water is important. With irrigation needs increasing in the times to come, freshwater as a resource will be under pressure and may be diverted to industrial and domestic use. With almost 30–40% of water used in irrigation going unused, a concerted effort is required in policy, water allocation, and management. The government must gear up on this critical and crucial matter, and a synergistic effort is required on all fronts. After all, we do not want any policy or ground-level inaction to be the genesis of water wars in the future.