Repurposing public policies for sustainable water management in Indian agriculture

The Times of India – March 3, 2020, 10:24 PM IST A K Padhee in Voices  –

Water being a crucial raw material for improved productivity in agriculture, its sustainable management in a changing climate can’t be over-emphasized. Depleting water resources, besides land degradation/desertification; loss of biodiversity; and negative impacts of weather variabilities on crop production are direct manifestations of climate change in the agriculture production system. In such a critical scenario, conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, including water, demands priority action in the policy agenda.

While going through various facts and trends on water for agricultural use in india, few startling facts come to attention.

The first example is drawn from numerous papers on irrigation water productivity by many Experts/Agricultural Economists. In Maharashtra, as per these observations, a water intensive crop like sugarcane occupies only 4 percent of the cropped area, but uses almost two-thirds (60 %) of water used for irrigation.

The second example is of India’s export of ‘virtual water” while exporting food and livestock products. We must take note that production of a kilogram of rice requires about 3,500 litres of water. As all us know, India exports a substantial quantity of rice (both basmati and non-basmati) and thus, we must account for all these ‘embedded water’ that also gets out of the national boundary. A study has revealed that India exported on an average 26,000 million liters of virtual water annually (2006-16 data).
The third example that I wish to quote is from a recently released World Economic Forum (WEF) report (January 2020). The report titled “Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation” talks about the over-exploitation of ground water due to power subsidies to farmers in Indian State of Punjab and cites that “the state’s rice production alone requires more than three times the amount of water that Punjab receives in rainfall”.

We can very well imagine the unsustainable usage of ground water in all these cited instances, which calls for attention of all stakeholders: policy makers; businesses; civil society; researchers; and above all, the farming communities.

Based on available evidence and existing policy preferences by Governments (both at Center and State levels), I suggest the following actionable strategies to ensure sustainable water use management in agriculture sector.

Promoting water-use-efficiency:

‘More crop-per drop’ has been the mantra of current public policies around irrigation water. Water used for Indian agriculture accounts for 78% of total fresh water resources (Central water Commission data) and therefore, efficiency savings are always advocated for additional food production for an increasing population. Promotion of micro-irrigation practices (sprinkler and drip) through number of schemes and programs by the Government has been localized in few States as of now (7.7 million hectares of micro-irrigation, 95 % of which is in 10 states), which should proliferate to larger crop areas (potential of micro-irrigation in India is 69.5 million hectares). We need to move from a supply-based to demand-based system to reach the huge micro-irrigation potential. A number of new production methods and techniques along with specific agronomic practices have been suggested by agricultural scientists and experts. For example, system of rice intensification (SRI) or alternate wetting and drying (AWD), direct seeded rice, conservation agriculture, furrow irrigation, etc. are often advocated for efficient use of irrigation water in a traditionally perceived water-guzzling crop like paddy with no yield disadvantages. Farm scientists have solutions suiting to a particular agro-ecology or a cropping system to ensure use-efficiency from the irrigation water. Suitable policies with incentives mechanism could lead more farmers to adopt such technologies that aim to “irrigate the crop and not the land”.

Re-orienting Policy incentives:

Subsidy-based approach to irrigate farm lands has led to negative environmental consequences in many parts of India. Punjab is a case in point, where over-exploitation of ground water due to subsidies on power (in fact, it’s free) has already led to an alarming situation. Studies indicate that ground water is depleting at a rate of 0.3 to 1.00 meter annually. As per a NASA study, the annual withdrawal of ground water from North-West India is 13 to 17 Km3 which is moving out of aquifers and not replenishing. Could it not be fixed? Definitively yes! But, it needs political will and a suitable offer of an alternative portfolio to tillers that maintain or raises the present levels of farm income. Diversification to crops likes nutri-cereals (sorghum and millets); maize; soybean; fruits and vegetables, etc. have been suggested to obviate the problem. Adoption, however will depend on suitable policy framework with market linkage; creation of supportive infrastructure and public investments. The World Bank supported ongoing project titled ‘Paani Bacho, Paise Kamao’ (save water, earn money) could throw practical insights into future public policies to address a very alarmist situation. Farmer wants irrigation water and not free power. Designing a framework in which payment is made for efficient water use through participatory irrigation management (PIM) of the resources by farmers’ groups themselves may prove to be a better governance model, as demonstrated in few parts of India and outside. Pricing of irrigation water on volumetric basis has also been successfully pilot tested. However, scaling- up would depend on a defined policy framework and associated structural issues. Use of treated water from sewerage systems for urban and peri-urban agriculture is also growing in few states. Policy incentives thus have to be redesigned to yield positive environmental externalities.

Adoption of sustainable water management technologies:

Crop specific irrigation management practices should be aimed at improving or restoring natural ecosystems. In many high value crops, precision irrigation models and controls like variable-rate drip irrigation and other micro-irrigation systems are gaining wide acceptance including in India. Smart irrigation systems with increased usage of information and communication technology (ICT) and remote sensing have been in use in advanced economies like USA, Japan and Israel. Such precision irrigation management systems bring water-use-efficiency to the maximum. Uses of PVC water-conveyor pipes and underground pipeline systems in canal irrigation commands have also been proved to enhance water use efficiency. Growing adoption of laser land levelers in parts of North India, in spite of its high cost and sophistication, is indeed good news. In specific instances, improvement of effectiveness of traditional irrigation systems has also been suggested to maintain local ecological balance/equilibrium. Farmers need to be sensitized on sustainable and efficient irrigation water management practices and the ultimate economic and environmental benefits.

Watershed management approach:

In-situ soil and moisture conservation with involvement of the community can best be addressed through the watershed management approach. Integrating both on-farm and non-farm activities in watershed areas lead to sustainable livelihood options for the community, mainly the disadvantaged. The impacts of the interventions demonstrated successfully by institutes like the international crops research institute for the semi-arid tropics (ICRISAT) have shown recharging of groundwater that has enabled farmers to grow more crops per year and enhancement of productivity of a diverse portfolio of crops. As a young District Collector in tribal pockets of Odisha, I’ve personally seen how a holistic approach of watershed management can transform lives of rural poor, besides meeting the core objective of sustainable natural resources management. I’ve also observed social, economic and even political empowerment, mostly of rural women, through effective implementation of watershed schemes in backward pockets of the state. Convergence of schematic interventions through national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGS), Neeranchal, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), etc. for ground water recharging, revival of traditional water bodies and creation of water harvesting structures would go a long way in conservation and usage of water for agricultural use.

Use of solar pumps:

Increased usage of solar pumps has been recommended by policy makers while addressing the challenges arising from ‘water-energy-food’ nexus. Government of India’s KUSUM (Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahaabhiyan) scheme is in fact catching up in many parts of India through installation of stand-alone off-grid solar pumps for drawing water from surface or ground water. The Union Budget that was presented early this month before the Indian Parliament (for the fiscal 2020-21) has proposed for installation of solar pumps (2 million) and also, solarized grid connects (1.5 million) to enhance farmers’ income. Popularizing solar power usage would not only reduce carbon footprints from existing use of diesel/kerosene/electric pump sets for irrigation purpose, but also lead to higher productivity and income. However, while promoting solar based irrigation systems in agriculture sector, we must ensure that the groundwater extraction is sustainable. Regular monitoring of the water table, thus, must feed the policy space.

Investments in research and innovation:

Prescriptions for better and sustainable irrigation water management have to be evidence-based. Research on irrigation practices and technologies; drainage water management; tools for sustainable agroecosystem management; breeding drought-tolerant crop varieties (with adequate productivity), etc. should therefore be focus of the agricultural research system. Unfortunately, the water management aspects of crops are still under-invested and deserve enhanced research outlay.

The water productivity of major crops in India has recently been mapped by NABARD that calls for urgent attention to shift areas covered by water-guzzling crops like rice, sugarcane, etc. to other remunerative options. With increasing weather variabilities, climate change would continue to pose risks to water availability for agriculture. The political economy has to take cognizance of this inevitable fact and repurpose both irrigation and power policies that should incentivize farmers to save water. Focus on sustainable water usage under climate change could in fact be a long-term solution to the challenges of inadequate food and water supplies.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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