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Water shortage leading to rethink on irrigation strategy

4th Fab 2014,

Kunal Bose
Analyst’s View

STRETCHED TO THE HILT

  • Many parts of India are already water-stressed, with per capita availability significantly less than the national average
  • Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) says the country’s farm sector alone accounts for 83 per cent of all water use
  • State governments, instead of focusing on economic use of water in agriculture, have been subsidising electricity for pumping irrigation water
  • IARI says in surface irrigation, water losses can be largely avoided by promoting the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation
  • Highly water-intensive crops, dependent on rain water and flood irrigation, are also being brought under the scope of drip irrigation

Gunter Grass, author and Nobel laureate, is a keen environmentalist. The advancing age of Germany’s most celebrated living author hasn’t, in any way, dimmed his spirit to stay at the forefront of a global campaign for economic use of increasingly scarce water resources. Grass’s repeated warning that the world is "heading towards a situation when drinking water will cost more than gasoline" needs to sink into the consciousness of policymakers at the Centre and states.

Through the decades, profligacy in the use of water by industrial units and during irrigation has brought the country close to a "water famine". In fact, many parts of India are already water-stressed, with per capita availability significantly less than the national average. At about 1,000 cubic metres, the national average, too, falls way short of the ’comfort point’ set by the World Bank. No wonder many states remain at daggers drawn over sharing water from rivers that flow through them.

For long, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have locked horns over drawing water from the 475-mile-long Cauvery river. The stalemate could be broken only by a New Delhi-mandated water-sharing deal. States in other parts of the country also have major differences over sharing river water. Even after more than three decades, India and Bangladesh are yet to reach an agreement over sharing water from the Ganga. In the meantime, the fact that China is building dams on the Brahmaputra, a mighty Himalayan river flowing into India from Tibet, remains a major concern for New Delhi. Water threatens to become an increasingly contentious subject both nationally and also with our neighbours, as climate change has made monsoon patterns unpredictable. Geopoliticians have warned sharing of river water may lead to many wars.

Experts agree for India to manage its water resources efficiently, the focus has to be on agriculture. According to Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the country’s farm sector alone accounts for 83 per cent of all water use. Whether it is in the use of rain water or water from traditional irrigation system, the wastage is colossal; for this, the blame is to be shared by government agencies and farmers. The lack of awareness among most growers that going about their job with less water will not tell on land productivity is, to a large extent, due to the casual way government-sponsored farm ’visit and training’ programmes are conducted. Also, most state governments, instead of focusing on economy in water use in agriculture, have been content with subsidising electricity for pumping irrigation water. Long used to state largesse, farmers have come to believe subsidised electricity and water are their natural entitlement. But some reforms-minded states have started reining in farmers’ access to electricity for running irrigation pumps.

IARI keeps reminding farm stakeholders they will have to deal with growing claims to water by industry and energy sectors, limiting water availability for irrigation. It says in traditional surface irrigation, loss of water in conveyance and application is disturbingly "large", adding water losses in such an irrigation system can be largely avoided by promoting the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation in a few segments such as vegetables, plantation and orchard crops and flowers. Now, some highly water-intensive crops, dependent on rain water and flood irrigation, are also being brought under the scope of drip irrigation, which IARI says is the most effective among all farmland watering systems. For example, sugarcane growers in some districts of Tamil Nadu who have to deal with the capricious monsoon are switching to drip irrigation. The system is found to be working well, with proper spacing between cane rows where seed sticks are planted.

As part of the movement to migrate from the widespread practice of inundating fields to water sustainability, scientists are now engaged in adaptation of drip irrigation to growing rice, which alone accounts for 75 per cent of the water used in agriculture in India. Growing rice through the conventional watering system requires about a million gallons an acre. Scientists claim by drip-irrigating rice fields, the use of water can be reduced by half, at the least. Hybrid varieties of rice are responding particularly well to drip irrigation. But this system requires to be fine tuned for growing rice.

Hopefully, the award of a contract for developing one of the world’s largest micro irrigation projects (MIS) in canal command areas, covering 30,381 acres of about 7,000 farmers, by Karnataka will inspire other states to increasingly use MIS. Karnataka’s assignment for Jain Irrigation goes beyond installation and maintenance of the system to capacity building for farmers and forming cooperatives for water users. The project is aimed at reducing the use of water by at least half. As growers will be trained in the efficient of use of MIS as part of a package of ideal farm practices, crop productivity should rise. Earlier, a Harvard Business School study of centres in which Jain Irrigation had installed MIS showed drip and sprinkler irrigation offered various benefits to farmers.

 

 

 

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