Water will continue to be scarce

SOlution: "Increased water conservation and promoting cultivation of less water-intensive crops can go a long way towards coping with the crisis." A farmer in drought-hit Ahmedabad.  

The incidence of drought can no longer be considered a rare event. Climate change has quickened the occurrence of extreme events such as > drought, floods and cyclones in different parts of India. It is alarming that the frequency and severity of such extreme events has increased in recent decades. India has experienced numerous drought years in the past, but the frequent recurrence after 1988 — in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2015 — is highly worrisome. It causes enormous hardships to resource-poor farmers, who are forced to fend themselves through sale of assets and migration to urban areas. Though the impact of drought varies across regions, it invariably affects human, livestock and natural resources.

Severe > drought conditions are being experienced in some parts of the country this year as well. The Union government has already declared that the country is grappling with severe drought conditions which are estimated to have affected a sizeable population, nearly 330 million people. More than 50 per cent of the districts across the country have had rainfall deficit, many in tandem with high temperatures of above 45 degrees Celsius. The most severely affected States include Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Telangana. Given the current scenario, the government has initiated drought relief programmes to compensate crop losses, encourage judicious use of groundwater, and has sent ‘water trains’ to the highly water-scarce areas besides extending financial help to the States to cope with the emerging crisis.

As much as these relief measures are essential to ease the > drinking water shortage, the problem is deep-rooted and has important implications for the agricultural sector that provides livelihood to almost 75 per cent of the population directly and indirectly. > Drought conditions would severely affect the production and the productivity of key crops viz. wheat and rice, which contribute substantially to India’s food basket. In a situation of a continuous decline in the level of water tables and low capacity of water reservoirs, irrigation would contribute little to help in the drought conditions.

Scaling up irrigated area

Government statistics have hardly shown any increase in the total net irrigated area, which has been hovering around 63 million hectares and constitutes only 45 per cent of the total area sown in the country. Some improvement in irrigation intensity has taken place in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in recent years. But it appears to be insignificant in view of a massive increase in real public investment in major, medium and minor irrigation from Rs.235 billion in 2004-05 to Rs.309 billion in 2013-14. While the capital expenditure in major projects increased by 3.5 times, the investment in minor irrigation increased by 2.5 times only. A virtually stagnancy in irrigated area — especially of the area under canal irrigation — raises concerns about the efficiency of the ongoing investments and the quantum of investment that is further required to scale up area under irrigation.

A study carried out by International Food Policy Research Institute shows a sharp drop in the marginal returns from additional public investment in major and medium irrigation from 1.41 per cent during the nineties to 0.12 per cent when expenditure incurred during the 2000s is also considered. Evidence also shows that the ratio of irrigation potential created from public expenditure is higher for minor irrigation projects than medium and large irrigation projects. Unfortunately, minor irrigation projects have received only scant attention from policymakers over time. Minor irrigation structures play a significant role in recharging of wells, drought mitigation and flood control.

Long-term remedial options

While the India Meteorological Department has forecast above average rainfall during the upcoming South-West monsoon and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley expressed confidence that agriculture would withstand the ongoing drought, the situation calls for long-term solutions. Increased water conservation and promoting cultivation of less water-intensive crops can go a long way towards coping with the crisis. The other remedial option could be to adopt drought-resistant crop varieties as has been done in some parts of Odisha for paddy/rice through the help of the International Rice Research Institute. This can maintain productivity and income of the farmers and also ensure price stability to the consumers. It is important for the government to sustain an increased investment in irrigation but at the same time gear up towards faster completion of the ongoing projects.

Micro irrigation system comprising drip and sprinkler irrigation has greater potential to improve water use efficiency in agriculture. Despite various promotional efforts undertaken by State governments, their level of adoption and spatial spread has remained low. Studies show that micro irrigation system helps save water, reduce cost of cultivation and improve crop yield. Various studies showed that the net return per inch of water supplied through drip irrigation was 60-80 per cent higher than that of conventional irrigation system. However, among others, high initial capital cost, suitability of designs to different soil conditions, problems in receiving subsidy and small holdings are reportedly affecting the adoption of this technology. Subsidy being an important factor influencing adoption decision of farmers, delay in disbursement and appropriation by better-off farmers seems to have affected the vast majority of resource-poor small and marginal farmers in accessing this technology.

The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana is a good policy initiative that would accelerate public investment in both micro and macro irrigation. During the recently organised India Water Week, 2016, India has also partnered with Israel, a water-scarce country, to learn and adopt innovative strategies to harness rainwater. Small vegetable-growing farmers near Solan, Himachal Pradesh, have long adopted Israel’s water-saving technology through the assistance of the Mother Dairy retail chain that procures their fresh produce. It is an opportune time to scale up technology adoption.

Finally, the shortage of drinking water can be addressed through promoting conservation and generating awareness among people to use the scarce resource with utmost care. Media reports indicate that the funds allocated by the Centre for drinking water projects have remained underutilised in many of the States hit by water scarcity. The States must act responsibly and gear up to come out of the current situation of water crisis.

Seema Bathla and Elumalai Kannan are Professor and Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at JNU, New Delhi.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 9:59:40 PM |

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