Dry days: a seven part series on water scarcity in South India

Drops of water better than the gush

Fertile imagination: Progressive farmer N. Mohan Reddy used drip irrigation technology and mulching paper to significantly improve crop yields in the arid Kothagadi village, Vikarabad district, Telangana.

In the Northern reaches of Karnataka State, where arid land stretches to the horizon and droughts and floods are frequent, it is little drops of water that have helped Basavraj Patil Bardabad’s farm in Bidar district remain green. The 55-year-old had purchased a farm around eight years ago, and before “drip irrigation” was a buzz word in policy, he ensured that 5.5 acres were irrigated through an intricate series of pipes. The investment of ₹1.5 lakh paid off immediately. In the first year, he sold ₹5.5 lakh worth of watermelon, and then decided to expand it to 40 acres, where he grew ginger, turmeric, mango, and red gram. “Earlier, I had to run my bore wells for seven hours to irrigate one acre. Now, I can irrigate three acres in the same time with lesser water,” said Mr. Patil.

Micro, not major irrigation

In the face of unprecedented water stress – 13 major reservoirs are seeing 16% lesser water storage than the “drought year” last year – government policy seems to have finally caught on to the opportunities of drip irrigation. Bagalakot district, a network of pipes is being installed  that envisages drip irrigation for 24,000 hectares of farmland by diverting 5.84 TMC of water from Narayanapura Reservoir on River Krishna. The Ramthal (Marol) Lift Irrigation Scheme – touted as the largest micro-irrigation project in Asia – is slated to be launched in June. Over 15,000 farmers are expected to benefit.

Precision farming

“Precision agriculture” may be the only way to reduce agrarian water dependency, says the University of Agricultural Sciences-Bengaluru which has demonstrated that water-intensive sugarcane can be cultivated using 40-50% lesser water through drip irrigation. UAS-B will be testing these technologies, including sub-surface irrigation, on the fields of about 400 farmers for four years. Initial results show that yields have gone up by around 40%. “Though farmers were not keen on water conservation in the beginning, the series of drought and water shortage has seen their interest increase,” says K. V. Keshavaiah, Principal Investigator of Precision Agriculture Project. 


Telangana - Drip irrigation and mulching help enhance yield for Telangana farmer

  N. Mohan Reddy, farmer of an eight-acre land at Kothagadi village abutting the Vikarabad district headquarters, is hopeful of achieving a 40-tonnes-per-acre tomato crop this season. Unlike farmers in the neighbourhood, he opted for extensive drip irrigation and mulching sheets across his farm. This enabled him to improve the yield, from the around six tonnes per acre that he could generate using conventional irrigation. “There was an acute shortage of water and over half a dozen borewells dug at different points across the field failed. I had come across drip irrigation and mulching sheets through Internet/newspapers and tried the method. The yield has improved significantly,” says Mr. Mohan Reddy, a graduate.

Costs and constraints Given the constraints relating to water availability, he had to opt for short duration crops such as tomato and chilli whose crop cycle lasts from about 60 to 120 days, depending on the variety transplanted.  The input cost is close to ₹80,000 per acre and a major portion of this is for the purchase of mulching sheets (close to ₹16,000 an acre), and labour charges. “Mulching sheets covering the drip system will ensure that there is no run off or evaporation besides bringing down incidence of pests. The drip put in place ensures that water just sufficient to the particular variety sown is given,” he said.


Andhra Pradesh -  Rain guns reaching  far and wide

In Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, farm ponds are being combined with “rain guns,” which shoot harvested rainfall through a high-pressure jet into the air, and it lands on precious crops as natural rain would. The State government opted for this innovation, wiser from the failed implementation of previous programmes under the Desert Development Programme. Those schemes concentrated primarily on creating check-dams to retain water. Today, the focus is on a systematic expansion of farm ponds. “The idea is that once the farm ponds are filled up by rains, the stored water could be used through rain guns or sprinklers to give protective wettings to the groundnut crop once or twice, during long dry spells, until the next rain spell takes over the task,” Joint Director of Agriculture in Anantapur P.V. Sreerama Murthy said. During the last agricultural season, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu travelled to Anantapur to personally inspect rain gun operations, after wilting of groundnut crop due to long dry spells was reported. Sprinkler success After four days, Mr. Naidu declared victory over drought saying that the crop in over 4 lakh acres under mission-1 of the programme had been saved. A total of 3.7 lakh acres of estimated crop benefited from the artificial showers created using rain guns and sprinklers, out of a drought-stressed crop area of 5.32 lakh acres. In all 6,239 rain guns and 5,813 sprinklers were used to spray 0.52  TMC of water. While the programme wasn’t completely successful, given the wide scope and insufficient time to implement it, there were notable success stories that  reinforce the promise of the programme if planning could be improved.


Micro irrigation movement underway

The vast stretches of land in drought-hit Prakasam district are barren, with one exception: the village of Chinnakothapalle, near Addanki, abutting the Hyderabad-Ongole expressway. This village is an oasis in the rain shadow region as most of the 300 farmers here have adopted drip irrigation, even though their district was reeling under the impact of severe drought in all the 56 mandals. Their transition from conventional flood irrigation to micro irrigation (MI) was not smooth. Some harboured doubts about its feasibility, said M. Sambasiva Rao, an MI pioneer in the village. “Many used to ridicule me when I opted for the MI system a couple of years ago. But after seeing the results for themselves, other farmers have followed suit now,” explains farmer Ch. Swamyulu, who cultivates twice the area of land that he used to, with the same quantity of water, sometimes adding water-soluble fertilisers through the MI system for better yields. Cost savings Another farmer, T. Venkateswarlu, explains the MI system saved them around 40% of production costs and increased productivity by 20%, by allowing water to drip slowly to the root zone through a network of valves, pipes, and tubes. “As many as 188 farmers were provided with subsidised MI system to grow crops in about 400 acres. Rest of the eligible farmers will be covered before start of Kharif season,” says AP Micro Irrigation project director Y. Vidya Shankar. The department proposes to bring more than 20,000 hectares into the MI system under the flagship NTR Jala Siri programme in 2017-18, he adds.  

Drip irrigation helps to not only cutback the usage of water but also increases the yield of crucial crops  

Source: Agricultural Engineering Data Book 2008, Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering


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