India and the urgency of water crisis

Water scarcity and floods coexist in India and have adversely impacted our habitation. Therefore, taking a holistic view of water across agriculture, industrial, and energy production activities is imperative to tackle India's complex water challenge

Updated: Jan 10, 2024 12:00:17 PM UTC
In spite of possessing surface water resources, India is highly dependent on groundwater for day to day survival. Image: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

That India is in the midst of a significant water crisis is well known, with economic growth, livelihoods, human well-being, and ecological sustainability at stake. It is not unusual to see long lines of people waiting to get water from tankers or crops shrivelled due to a lack of rainfall. India is home to about 17 percent of the world's population but has only 4 percent of the world's freshwater resources. Managing the huge gap between resources and requirements is a challenging task that must be addressed.

Despite possessing surface water resources, India is highly dependent on groundwater for day-to-day survival. A large part of the Green Revolution's need for water was met by groundwater. With over 20 million wells, often operating with subsidised power, they have contributed to depleting this invaluable resource. Of all the sectors, agriculture and food security are most intimately tied to water. With increasing population and purchasing power, the annual food requirement in the country will only increase.

A closer look at crops grown in various states indicates that sub-optimal planting patterns are adding to the water stress. Water-consuming crops like sugarcane and paddy are grown in states like Maharashtra and Punjab. Despite the intensive water requirement, Maharashtra grows 22 percent of the total sugarcane output in the country, whereas Bihar grows only 4 percent. Similarly, in Punjab, 80 percent of the water used for irrigating the paddy fields is drawn from groundwater sources. Further, our international trade in agricultural commodities contributes to large quantities of virtual water loss by exporting water-intensive crops. Water shortages in the country can also hamper industrial operations and urbanisation, hindering India's aspirations to become an economic power.

Also Read- India's water crisis: Communities need to become custodians of ponds

Water scarcity and floods coexist and have adversely impacted our habitation. On the one hand, the low-lying areas are getting submerged, and on the other hand, severe shortages are common, with climate change accentuating the problem. Government research bodies have done an impact assessment of climate change by undertaking crop simulation models based on projected climates of 2050 and 2080. With current farm practices and existing planting material, rain-fed rice yields in India are projected to reduce by 20 percent in 2050 and 47 percent in 2080 and irrigated rice yields are projected to decline by 3.5 percent in 2050 and 5 percent in 2080 scenarios. Similar trends are seen for other crops. The occurrence of extreme events will affect food and nutrient consumption and have an adverse impact on farmers' income.

Taking a holistic view of water across agriculture, industrial, and energy production activities is imperative to tackle India's complex water challenge. So far, there has been greater emphasis on augmenting supplies rather than managing demand. Demand management is critical, with access to water availability reaching a tipping point.

Where do we go from here? With a focus on agriculture, there is a need to look at interventions at the Central and State government and village levels. Today, we benefit from the government's massive effort in mapping and aggregating a wealth of data. The water census has recorded every water body, every small irrigation project and every aquafer in the country. Further, NITI Ayog has prepared a composite Water Index for each State, covering the success stories and their challenges. At this stage, it may be worth mentioning that under Article 246 of the constitution, water appears in List 1 and List 2, giving both the Centre and the States responsibility for managing this resource.

For national-level solutions, it would be most appropriate to form a National Water Council, something along the lines of the GST. This body should have representation either at the Chief Minister or at least the Irrigation Minister level of each State and coordinated by the Central Ministry of Water Resources. Its three main objectives should be to

a) Arrive at a political consensus to prevent unrestricted groundwater extraction. This would include the need to address the practice of providing free electricity for irrigation pumps, as any service provided entirely free is bound to be misused.

b) Ensure that all institutions responsible for water management assess from a watershed and river basin perspective. Currently, there is a tendency for each State to view the river flows within their geographic boundaries, plus they have separate responsibilities for surface water and groundwater.

c) To make our agriculture more sustainable, the council should make efforts to realign cropping patterns in the country. It can be achieved by incentivising water-intensive crops in areas with surplus water and less water-intensive crops in water-stressed regions.

Also Read- Water crisis: The 'It's not my problem' syndrome

At the micro level, each State needs to address the following in addition to what was mentioned earlier.

a) In the case of small irrigation schemes, the ability to deliver water efficiently to the last mile is missing. This can only be improved by the support and involvement of the end users. A framework that decentralises micro irrigation management to either FPOs or Water User Associations would be far more effective as the end-user has skin in the game. There are several success stories to prove that this model works.

b) Promote Climate-resilient agriculture by undertaking research in this direction and using indigenous seed varieties that are more robust in handling the vagaries of climate change.

c) Incentivise micro irrigation, not just in terms of initial subsidy but also in procurement from farmers adopting such practices. Gradually, states can mandate the use of micro-irrigation for specific crops.

d) Create an institutional framework for the management of water bodies. This water source is probably the most misused and under-utilised today due to the lack of a management structure.

e) Support startups, as many are working on water use efficiencies.

Needless to say, all these efforts will require a great deal of demonstration, communication, and a nudge for effective adoption. The suggestions above are by no means exhaustive. A lot has already been done by way of innovation as well as implementation. The challenge now is to scale. We need to galvanise all players, including civil society, cooperatives, FPOs, and private sector players, and not expect the government to be the solution provider for every problem. The water challenge is too big and urgent and needs to be addressed here and now. We at DCM Shriram Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm, have made "Enhancing Water Efficacy in Agriculture" our prime objective.

Also Read: The role of governance in curbing the water crisis

Therefore, the Foundation has launched the "DCM Shriram AgWater Challenge" with NUDGE Foundation as a partner to encourage scalable innovations within India's agri-water ecosystem. The challenge is expected to throw up ideas to enhance water efficiency and bring prosperity to smallholder farmers. At the same time, develop and scale demonstrable smallholder farmer (SHF) specific solutions for India that improve cropping water efficiencies or reduce water consumption for fine cereals, improve farmer productivity, and offer affordable water-efficient technology. The learnings would help increase farmers' incomes as well as provide a platform where knowledge will be shared freely for the benefit of all communities.

The writer is chairman and Sr managing director, DCM Shriram Ltd. and Board Member, DCM Shriram Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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