Looking beyond water-intensive crops to address India’s water crisis – Part 2

India Water Crisis

In the monsoon season, talking about water scarcity may look out of place. However, the truth is that we are facing a stark reality in the form of an acute water crisis in India and this situation is only going to intensify in the coming years. As per NITI Aayog’s 2018 report, more than 600 million people are facing acute water shortages nationwide and 21 major Indian cities are poised to run out of groundwater by 2020 unless remedial measures are implemented on an urgent basis.

To cohesively tackle India’s water crisis, merely discouraging farmers from growing water-thirsty crops like Paddy, Cotton, and Sugarcane is not the solution. The Central Government must be lauded for creating Jal Shakti – a dedicated ministry for water resource management. The ministry should immediately come up with action points that are rooted in the actions that would improve the water situation in the country. These actions must be rooted in the community, both urban and rural; and not in the Government because communities are better equipped to act effectively since they are the main affected party. Adopting a decentralized approach to water conservation, reuse and smart allocation is the need of the hour.

1. Water Conservation

As we write this post, many parts of India are inundated with heavy rains and more than 100 unfortunate deaths have been recorded in the last 2 months alone due to rain-related floods.

This is a recurring phenomenon wherein rains flood many parts of the country during monsoons and India faces acute water shortage in the latter part of the year. One of the primary reasons for this water shortage is that most of the rainwater runs off and we are able to save only 8% of the rainwater every year. With rapid urbanization, this percentage is likely to fall unless we reduce the run-off rainwater.

With the disappearance of many natural lakes that recharge aquifers (and thereby the groundwater table), we need to urgently work on arresting the flow of rainwater and conserving it – not only with the intention of future use but also for allowing its percolation that would eventually boost the groundwater tables.

Here is an interesting list of 7 traditional ways of conserving water that still works today – https://bit.ly/311r6dU.

2. Water Reuse

When it comes to reusing water, no other country stands out today than Israel. Located on a dry strip of land in a low rainfall part of the world, Israel faced freshwater scarcity for many years since its formation. However, by formulating concrete water management policies and adopting innovative tech solutions, Israel is no longer heavily dependent on freshwater.

This month, Israel presented its National Review Report on the ‘Implementation Of The Sustainable Development Goals, 2019’ at the United Nations Forum on Sustainable Development, and its national data on water management wowed everyone.

Today, around 70% of Israel’s municipal & domestic water supply comes from its desalination plants and it centrally treats around 93% of its wastewater (sewage) of which approximately 86% is reused for agriculture. To learn in detail about Israel’s commendable efforts at water reuse, please read their National Review Report here.

If a country like Israel with a small coastline of 273 kms can harness seawater for domestic consumption, imagine the potential for a country like India that has a massive coastline of over 7,500 kms!

3. Smart Water Allocation

As per NABARD-ICRIER’s 2018 Report, agriculture contributes to 78% of water consumption in the country but only 37% of India’s agricultural land is irrigated as per the World Bank data.

A quick analysis of the cropping patterns across India reveals increasing inefficiencies in water usage leading to rapid groundwater table erosion. According to an ICRIER study, water-thirsty crops like Sugarcane and Paddy are predominantly grown in states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, using up lakhs of litres of irrigation water per hectare. Despite its water-intensive nature, Maharashtra (which has relatively low water resources) grows around 22% of the total Sugarcane output in the country, whereas Bihar (which has relatively higher water resources) grows only 4% of the total Sugarcane output. What this study indicates from an irrigation-water productivity perspective is that, relatively water-abundant states like Bihar and Eastern UP should be growing more Sugarcane than water-deficient states like Maharashtra.

A similar story emerges for another water-thirsty crop – Paddy. Punjab, which is the 3rd largest producer of Rice in India, grows Paddy using nearly 100% irrigated water. And while Punjab tops in land productivity, it uses three times more water than Bihar and twice more than West Bengal to produce 1 kg of rice!

To balance this skewed crop-wise water allocation, the need of the hour is to formulate concrete water management policies that incentivize water-abundant states to grow water-intensive crops and discourages water-deficient states to grow them.

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