India’s Thirsty Arguments for Water Woes
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Jul 2018
“Water is the driving force of all nature.”
— Leonardo Da Vinci
India has long undervalued one of its most precious resources—water. The country’s chronic mismanagement of water is staring at it now. Over 600 million Indians rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable. The country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the monsoon is delayed. Despite these alarming signals we continue to abuse and use water so profligately. The country is home to nearly a sixth of the world’s population, but has only 2.4 percent of the world surface and gets only four percent of the Earth’s fresh water.
More than half of the country faces high water scarcity. Out of the 1.2 billion people living in the country, about 742 million live and farm in agricultural heartlands. Rainfall accounts for 68 percent recharge to groundwater, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32 percent.
While climate change has caused rains to become more erratic, most parts of the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall. Water harvesting and management, though required, remains little more than a fad. Many of the areas that are prone to flooding are the same ones that face drought months.
The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50 per cent. The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the country’s current water requirements to be around 1100 billion cubic metres per year, which is estimated to be around 1200 billion cubic metres for the year 2025 and 1447 billion cubic metres for 2050. The average Indian had access to 5,200 cubic metres of water a year in 1951, when the population was 350 million. By 2010, that had dropped to 1,600 cubic metres, a level regarded as “water-stressed” by international organizations. Today it is at about 1,400 cubic metres and analysts say it is likely to fall below the 1,000 cubic metre “water scarcity” limit in the next two to three decades.
India’s rivers are drying and are symptomatic of the dire state of the water crisis. The per capita water availability in 1951 was 5177 cubic metres. By 2011, this had fallen to 1545 cubic metres. Further, according to the National Institute of Hydrology, most of this water is not suitable for human use. It estimates that the per capita availability of usable water was a mere 938 cubic metres. This is expected to decline further, reaching 814 cubic metres by 2025.
India ranks in the top 38 percent of countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world and the least ready to adapt, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Rural communities dependent on farming to make a living will struggle to grow food and feed livestock amid soaring temperatures, and women—typically responsible for collecting water—may have to walk even greater distances during prolonged dry seasons.
India is not a water-scarce country. Apart from the major rivers, it receives an average annual rainfall of 1170 millimeters. It boasts renewable water reserves of 1,608 billion cubic meters a year. Given this robust back-up and with the world’s ninth largest freshwater reserves, India’s water woes reflect inefficient management, and not scarcity. Most parts of the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall. Many of the areas that are prone to flooding are usually the same ones that face drought months later.
Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Despite constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters, a relatively small achievement when compared to Russia’s 6,103 cubic meters, Australia’s 4,733, and China’s 1,111.
During the last three decades, there has been an explosive growth of private tube-wells because of a lack of reliable surface irrigation. Some farmers in parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 metres) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 metres) in the 1960. They’ve been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock–700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down.
India extracts 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year constituting about one-quarter of the world’s total. Farmers using groundwater obtain twice the crop yields compared to surface water. This is because groundwater irrigation gives the farmers more flexibility as to when to irrigate.
India was not the highest extractor of groundwater in the 1960s and 70s; the Green Revolution changed that. At independence the share of groundwater in agriculture was 35 percent; today it is a startling 70 percent. At 260 cubic km per year, our country is the highest user of groundwater in the world–we use 25 percent of all groundwater extracted globally.
Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn, but contributes only 15 percent to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89 percent of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 percent, with industrial use accounting for 2 percent of groundwater use).
Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset India’s water balance are the farming practices in some of its provincial states, particularly Maharashtra, Punjab, and Haryana. The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum, and other cereals have turned to sugarcane in Maharashtra, which fetches more money but is a very thirsty crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, two parched states where the groundwater has sunk even further.
Maharashtra is the epicentre of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is in a miserable state. Farmers drawn to the region by government incentives began cultivating sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that is ill-suited to Marathwada’s semi-arid climate. Sugarcane consumes about 22.5 million litres of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just four million litres over four months for chickpeas, commonly grown in India and called gram locally
The area under sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada grew from to 1m hectares from 2004. Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis irrigation potential in the state. Of the potential land that could be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 percent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is at 76 percent. The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 percent lower than the rest of Maharashtra. Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine.
Buoyed by the monetary bonanza, farmers put up a race for sugarcane cultivation. The land area under sugarcane cultivation in the state has gone up from 167,000 hectares in 1970-71 and 300,000 hectares in 2002-2004 to 1,022,000 hectares in 2011-12 taking 70% of the region’s irrigation water. Tragically Marahwada accounts for just four percent of cultivated land in the state. Maharashtra is India’s second-biggest producer of sugarcane, despite being one of the country’s drier states. A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, but with rice replacing sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, which was 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighbouring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all crops, India still produces more rice, wheat, and sugar than it consumes.
The government currently asks farmers to switch from rice to oilseeds and pulses but does little to support such a change. Moreover, in order to pander to the political class, the government supplies free or subsidised power. Even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat, and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of these water-intensive crops
Most of India’s traditional water management has been at the community level; relying upon diverse, imaginative and effective methods for harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flow. These were abandoned when we introduced reforms which we attributed to so-called superior knowledge compared to traditional wisdom. However, they continue to remain viable and cost-effective alternatives for replenishing depleted groundwater aquifers. With government support, they could be revived, upgraded and productively combined with modern techniques. India is currently using only 35 percent of the rainwater it receives. Effective implementation of rainwater harvesting can harness the rainfall water that goes waste.
Realizing its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and introduced revolutionary innovations to make 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 replicate Israeli practices. It needs to summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and experimenting new ideas will all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast. The time to act is now.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Jul 2018.
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