Why India can’t fix water scarcity without fixing agriculture

By: |
March 22, 2019 2:53 AM

India must grow crops based on water-productivity and rethink exports if this means trading away water security

A water-scarce country like India needs to move away from looking at land productivity to decide what crops to grow, and look at water productivity. (Representational/PTI)

India’s water woes have been a familiar story for some years now. And yet, the fact that they continue to worsen speaks volumes about the policy apathy. The latest report on global water scarcity by WaterAid estimates that a billion Indians live with strained access to water during at least one part of the year, while 600 million live in areas of high- to extreme-water stress. The report terms this India’s worst water crisis ever. At 3,000 litres (including the water used in manufacturing of different products, or ‘virtual’ water) per person per day, India’s water footprint is less than 40% of the US, the worst per capita water guzzler. Also, India sources 97% of its water requirement (including virtual water) from its own resources while a water-stressed US imports nearly 20% of its water requirement. And yet, between 2000 and 2010, India was the third largest exporter of groundwater, accounting for 12% of the total groundwater exported across the globe; this is likely to have gone up since with water-heavy agricultural exports increasing their share in the overall pie. A 2017 study by Carole Dalin and others points out that nearly 11% of non-renewable groundwater across the globe that is used in irrigation is embedded in the international food trade, of which India, Pakistan and the US, all water-stressed nations, account for two-thirds.

All this, when, between 2000 and 2010, groundwater depletion in India increased by nearly a quarter. Per capita water availability in the country has already fallen to 1,400 cubic metres per annum, from 5,177 cubic meters in 1951, and is projected to fall further, to 1,140 cubic metres by 2050. Not surprisingly, India is already home to water conflicts between states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and now, if you please, these are taking place between regions of a state as in Maharashtra.

Fixing India’s water woes, as Ashok Gulati and Gayathri Mohan of Icrier point out, is not possible unless India fixes its agriculture policy, and that requires not subsidising water or electricity that is used to pump this up from deeper and deeper in the ground as the water table keeps falling. To the extent India is simply exporting water, the policy on exports, too, needs to be rethought. Around 78% of India’s total freshwater resources, Gulati and Mohan point out, are consumed by agriculture, and within this, rice and sugarcane—the two water-guzzlers—consume more than 60% of the country’s irrigation water while accounting for just 24% of its cultivated area. Indeed, India is the world’s largest exporter of rice—production has increased three-fold over the last 50 years, chiefly led by water-stressed states like Haryana and Punjab. It is the third-largest sugar exporter with sugarcane grown chiefly in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh and the third-largest cotton exporter as well.

A water-scarce country like India needs to move away from looking at land productivity to decide what crops to grow, and look at water productivity. In the case of rice, for instance, Punjab has a land productivity of 3,921 kg/ha versus West Bengal’s 2,802 but when you look at economic water productivity, that of West Bengal is Rs 9.34 per cubic metre versus a mere Rs 3.81 for Punjab. Similarly, in the case of sugar, the current method of flood irrigation—as opposed to drip irrigation—results in an application efficiency of just 65%, or a water loss of 35%. In Maharashtra, to put this in better perspective, sugarcane is grown on 4% of the state’s land but uses two-thirds of the water.

During the height of the anti-IPL movement in Maharashtra a few years ago, when the state was in drought, as FE pointed out, the water used by all IPL matches equalled that used to produce just three tonnes of sugar while the state produced 8-9 million tonnes every year! Ideally, India should shift rice cultivation in water-scarce areas like Punjab to Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, etc, and sugarcane cultivation to the traditional sub-tropical regions like UP and Bihar instead of Maharashtra. Once water and electricity are priced correctly, and the government moves to per-acre income transfers instead of giving higher MSPs for certain crops and distorting the market, farmers will automatically start using water more efficiently.

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