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Water Woes: Shortage or Wastage?

Feb 04, 2014

The primary concern of DSDS- 2014 would be to focus on water resource use and allocation in the agricultural sector, write Dr Prodipto Ghosh, Distinguished Fellow, TERI and Dr Girija Bharat, Fellow, TERI.

India sustains nearly seventeen percent of the world’s population and, although in terms of average annual precipitation is next only to South America, is endowed with just four percent of global water resources. About fifty percent of annual precipitation is received in just about fifteen days in a year. Most of this water is not being brought to productive use, due to limited storage capacity of 36% of utilizable resources (252 BCM out of 690 BCM). Leakage and inefficiencies in the system waste nearly 50% of usable water. The groundwater level is declining at the rate of 10 cms per year. Over 70% of surface water and ground water resources are contaminated. In recent years, water availability for different sectors has reduced rapidly, leading to stiff competition among the various sectors.

The National Water Policy of India clearly recognizes the issue of wastage and overexploitation of water resources across all sectors. The agricultural sector consumes over 80% of water resources. Reduced water availability is a major challenge for both rain fed and irrigated agriculture. In order to overcome this challenge, there is a need to enhance water use efficiency (WUE) significantly. The irrigation efficiency in India is barely 35%. Only 16% of farmers are aware of irrigation efficiency techniques. Improvement in water use efficiency in the agriculture sector would result in huge overall water saving.

The National Commission for Irrigated Water Resource Development (NCIWRD) of India states that the real problem of water stress is wastage of water and lack of water demand management and not shortage. It further emphasizes that the wasteful utilization of water resources diminishes crop productivity, thereby lowering efficiency. The design of irrigation system, degree of land preparation, skills of the irrigator, and inappropriate crop choices are primary factors influencing water use efficiency.

Water use efficiency can be enhanced in irrigated agriculture by increasing the output per unit of water (agronomic, engineering, management and institutional aspects), reduce losses of water to unusable sinks, reduce water degradation (environmental aspects), and reallocate water to higher priority uses (societal aspects). Specific examples of achieving WUE can be: Agronomic Approaches for crop management by selection of optimum cropping pattern and less water intensive crops. Additionally, it is important to enhance moisture conservation or to reduce water percolation and evaporation like crop residues, conservation tillage, plant spacing, etc.; Engineering Approaches like irrigation systems design by laying hydraulically and geometrically efficient systems to  reduce application losses and/or improve distribution uniformity, lining of canals, furrow irrigation, pressurized irrigation, etc.; Management Approaches like demand-based irrigation scheduling, participatory irrigation management, multiple use of water; and Institutional Approaches like participation in an irrigation district (or scheme) operation and maintenance, appropriate water pricing, capacity building of farmers’ organizations etc.

The key challenges associated with implementation of WUE in the agriculture sector are: low level of technical awareness to adopt improved irrigation efficiency, high quantum of leakage from poor delivery network, limited storage capacity, lack of private and user participation to achieve performance competencies, and most importantly, inability to recover costs, as water resource is highly undervalued and is willfully wasted.

Sustainable management of water resource in agriculture requires a multidisciplinary approach which incorporates many important drivers that address inefficiencies and challenges associated with WUE in agriculture sector. There is an urgent need to adopt best available technologies such as micro-irrigation, drip irrigation, green house technologies, use of semi-treated sewage water for irrigation, recycling of drainage from farms containing water with unused fertilizers, adopt mulching techniques etc. The policy and governance decisions need to address the high upfront cost of adopting newer technology, by appropriate subsidy or financial engineering measures. This would make it affordable to small and marginalized farmers. There is a need to rethink the way we have addressed water loss in storage, conveyance and field applications, so as to improve on farm water use efficiency.

All of these approaches are, however, fraught with a complex political economy of water. Irrational irrigation tariffs favour well organized constituencies, who are able to profitably exploit such tariffs to undertake water intensive cropping in otherwise water stressed regions, e.g. Basmati rice in Punjab and Haryana, and sugarcane in Maharashtra. Engineering measures to ensure water use efficiency run up against long delays and cost-overruns in project implementation, in turn linked to rent-seeking by public officials. Institutional reform measures, which would ensure a modicum of equality in decision-making among water users, such as Pani-Panchayats, are stymied by those who disproportionately benefit from present inequities. All these constraints, apart from ensuring that available water resources are inefficiently utilized, make for a highly inequitious pattern of water entitlements, In turn, this manifests in social distress, such as farmer suicides.

In general, a comprehensive approach to resolving the inefficiencies of water use in the agriculture sector and the institutional reform processes that will govern them require inputs from policymakers, scientists, engineers, and farmers and all stakeholders. The Water track event on “Water Agriculture and Food Security” during the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) 2014 will provide the right platform for taking this discussion forward. This event will focus on water resource use and allocation in the agricultural sector, keeping in view the challenges associated with food security in developing nations by judicious use of water for food security and specifically deliberate on regional disparities in crop-water productivities as well as the trade dimensions of food and water security.

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