With rainfall this monsoon being 14% lower than the long period average (LPA)—17 sub-divisons, accounting for 40% of the landmass, have had deficient rainfall—India is heading into the second successive year of a below normal monsoon. The country is by far a water-stressed nation: While it has 4% of the world’s fresh water, it accounts for 16% of the world’s population. Considering that 89% of India’s water is used for agricultural needs, reduced rainfall could impact foodgrain output this year. That should not be a reason for worry since the country is sitting on a buffer-stock of 18.6 million tonnes of rice and 36.7 million tonnes of wheat. After two successive years of bad rains, it is time to reconsider continuing with water-intensive crops like rice, sugarcane and wheat in water-deficient regions. As Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis told The Indian Express, we have to treat water as an economic commodity.
Producing 1 kg of rice needs 3,000-5,000 litres of water. It takes 1,500 litres of water to produce 1 kg of sugar and 1,300 litres of water for a kg of wheat. Exporting 10 million tonnes of rice is equivalent to exporting 30-50 billion cubic metres of water. During the two-year period 2012-14, India exported over 40 million tonnes of cereals. That’s a huge amount of water exported. Both farmers and the government must take a fresh look at what crops can be produced in the country and what cannot, based on water usage. While it is not possible to regulate that, a good way out for the government is to ensure farmers start paying market-rate tariffs for both water and electricity which are currently heavily subsidised for them. That would lead to a gradual re-orientation of cropping based on water availability in the region. While that would lead to newer crops being sown in the region, it would also help raise water levels in Punjab and Haryana where these have dropped dramatically due to planting of water-intensive crops apart from sustained usage of borewell water. The other way out is to invest in high-yield crops that consume less water. To ensure that we do not head towards a water war, it is time the government pushed through some bits of the river-linking plan. That could be the first step to turn the tide.