MODERATING INDIA’S THIRSTY CROPS

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By Moin Qazi

India must gather the political will to respond before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money; and new technologies will take time. We must act fast.

With about 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, India supports 15 per cent of the world’s population, but has only four per cent of the world’s water resources. World Bank data shows that only 35 per cent of India’s agricultural land is irrigated (artificial application of water to land or soil). This means that a huge 65 per cent of the farming community in the country depends on rains. And Indian Governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use.

Sadly, despite the construction of 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters; compared to 6,103 cubic meters by Russia; 4,733 cubic meters by Australia; 1,964 cubic meters by the US; and China’s 1,111 cubic meters.

The 2016 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report, ‘Water and Jobs’, published jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and UN-Water, emphasised on the need for improving water resources management system and realising the importance of water in job creation. The report noted that water scarcity manifests itself through a combination of hydrological variability and unsustainable human use. In terms of per capita availability of renewable water, the statistics reveal that South Asian and African countries are typically facing greater water stress.

According to the report, 25 per cent to 60 per cent of India’s renewable fresh water capacity has been depleted. Access to water, hit by successive droughts and erratic monsoons, also paints a worrying picture with over nine-tenth of the country experiencing either physical or economic water stress. There is a clear divide between the water stress experienced in south India, which is physical stress due to water shortages, and that in north India, where access to water is limited by a lack of capital and resources.

Agriculture consumes 83 per cent of India’s national freshwater resources. A staggering $52.7 billion has been expended on major and medium irrigation projects from the first Five-Year Plan (1951-1956) to the 11th plan (2007-12) periods, but irrigation has reached only 45 per cent of India’s net sown area.

Israel has been the candleholder to the world in matters of water management. The state preached water conservation backed by the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: Drip irrigation. Israel has set a template for re-using wastewater for irrigation purposes. It treats 80 per cent of its domestic wastewater which is recycled for agricultural use and constitutes nearly 50 per cent of the total water used for agriculture. India is now actively seeking Israel’s mentorship for addressing its water woes.

Ancient Indians too understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals must be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state, the king and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British changed all this by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.

Rainwater is the primary source of irrigation for crops around the world. Water harvesting techniques have been employed for thousands of years to get more water to the fields in order to improve crop production. This is the primary traditional use of rainwater harvesting.

Watershed development is not a new concept in India and a peak into history shows that the people of India have survived by either living along river banks or by harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flows. Most of India’s water management has been at the community level, relying upon diverse, imaginative and effective methods for harvesting rainwater in tanks and small underground storage.

Given the enormity of India’s water issues, encouraging single villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can see  a feeble response to a national crisis. But compared with controversial top-down, Government-led efforts to build big dams and regulate the wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroot effort to manage water locally can be both sensible and sustainable.

The idea behind watershed development is simple: If people cut fewer trees, increase plant cover on the land, and build a well-planned series of dams and earthen terraces to divert and slow the downhill flow of rainwater, the soil has more time to absorb moisture. The terracing and new vegetation also control erosion, which keeps nutrient-rich top soil from washing or blowing away, and this in turn boosts the productivity of agricultural land.

Realising its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent from mother nature. Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But India  must summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies all take time and the climactic stresses are mounting fast.

(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector)

Source: Daily Pioneer

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