India must add storage capacity, focus on crop-suitability
More than 40% of India faces drought this year—with half of this area set to experience severe to exceptional drought—as per a Business Standard analysis of the IIT Gandhinagar’s Drought Early Warning System. The pre-monsoon rains have fallen short of usual by 23%—the worst deficit in six years. As of May 25, nearly 6% of India’s land area was in the exceptionally dry category, seven times the area that was classified as such the same time last year. A little over 16% of the country’s area was in the extremely and exceptionally dry categories, nearly four times that last year. India’s future in the face of the unfolding climate crisis, as a 2013 World Bank study shows, is quite precarious. Since the 1950s, there has been a decline in monsoon rainfall, while the frequency of heavy rainfall events has also increased. Against such a backdrop, it is alarming that 60% of India’s districts are not drought-ready, as per a 2018 paper by researchers at two IITs, Indore and Gandhinagar—only 241 of India’s 634 districts are drought-resilient. Inter- and intra-state water disparity is a powder keg waiting to be lit as access to water dwindles in the coming years.
The factors that affect India’s water-security are numerous, thus, there are multiple prescriptions for developing drought readiness. To start with, the country needs to urgently add reservoir capacity—while it receives an annual precipitation of about 4,000 billion cubic metre (bcm), the country makes a heavy discount for evaporation, of 2,131 bcm. Of the remaining 1,869 bcm, the water eventually available for utilisation is 1,123 bcm—the government says “various constraints” don’t allow full usage. Now, against the evaporation and “constraints” losses of close to 2,900 bcm, the reservoir storage capacity in the country is a mere 257 bcm. Some of the constraints might be topographical or otherwise insurmountable, but surely India could do a lot better here? Just 34% of India’s cultivated area has access to irrigation; this means the rain-fed majority is highly dependent on groundwater. But, there too, vulnerability is increasing because of the rapid depletion of groundwater—even without climate change, 15% of India’s groundwater resources are over-exploited. Part of the problem is the large subsidies given by states to the farm sector for power—which enables indiscriminate groundwater pumping—and fertiliser, the excessive application of which changes the soil’s water requirement. Thankfully, states like Punjab are beginning to wean farmers away from this. But, at the crux of this is farmers sowing crops ill-suited to a region’s soil type and water availability—a water-deficient Maharashtra dedicating two-thirds of its irrigation water to sugarcane, grown on just 4% of the state’s cultivated area, or a Punjab growing most of India’s rice for exports when West Bengal has an economic water productivity for the crop that is 2.5 times higher. India’s water-stressed future looks much worse if it does nothing resolve these issues.