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Growing Crops in a Water-stressed Land

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Agriculture is our only recourse to get food – if farmers chose to do anything but farming, hunger will strike mankind. However, agriculture is also accused of being the source of misery in India – it is said to be one of the largest consumers of freshwater and the reason of fast-depleting groundwater levels. The overall water availability in a country or a region is indicated through water stress and scarcity levels. International norms dictate that a country is designated as water stressed and water scarce if per capita availability of water is below 1700 cubic meter and 1000 cubic meter, respectively. In India, per capita water availability is 1544 cubic meter, pushing it into the zone of water-stressed country. Unless drastic measures are adopted, it will be a matter of time that India becomes a water-scarce country as well.   

Wrong-zoning water guzzling crops  

About 600 million Indians are facing high-to-extreme water stress and nearly 75 per cent of the households do not have drinking water, NITI Aayog said in 2018. The situation is likely to deteriorate as water requirements increase with time, it noted. According to the Economic Survey presented last year, 89 per cent of groundwater in India is extracted for farming. Given that flood irrigation is the most popular method among the Indian farmers, the amount of wasted water is tremendous. Besides, Indian farming patterns do not take note of the geological conditions of the area. As a result, water guzzling crops like sugarcane and paddy are grown in states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, using lakhs of litres of water per hectare, a study by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) finds.  

Interestingly, despite being a semi-arid region, Maharashtra grows 22 per cent of the total sugarcane output in India and is completely dependent on irrigation, whereas rain-and river-rich Bihar grows only 4 per cent of it. Paddy, as yielded by its largest producer, Punjab, is again completely dependent on irrigation water, powered by subsidized electricity. Hence, for every kilogram of rice produced, Punjab uses more than three times the water than Bihar and more than twice the amount of water than West Bengal. 

Water management is the need of the hour 

Unlike industrial and utility sectors, the idea of water conservation is surprisingly not valid in agriculture. Instead of more irrigation canals and abundant water that is unaccounted for, Indian farmers should be motivated to adopt efficient water management means to monetize their crops and help maintain the groundwater levels. India can learn from Israel here – the country imposed a year of water rationing that badly affected the farmers for one year. However, during that year, Israel started recycling slightly brackish water and used it for irrigation. Now, 80 per cent of the country’s water used in agriculture is sourced in similar fashion.   

Apart from using recycled water for farming, India should also adopt piped supply of irrigation water and drip irrigation methods. In both the methods, almost three fourths of the water used for irrigation will be saved, as compared to the open canals where vaporization cannot be contained. Drip irrigation will also reduce consumption of both water and fertilizer. If India effectively uses recycled domestic waste water alone for irrigation, it can source a whopping 40,000 million liters daily from 300 odd cities, filled with nutrients that the crops will benefit from. Waste water may also cost less due to lower purification levels. It will also help to reduce Indian farmers dependence on monsoon rains, thereby making farming more climate-resilient.   

As Mahatma Gandhi had said, we have not inherited the earth, but loaned it from our future generations. The onus is on us to leave it liveable for them.  

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