Water’s narrowing availability, haphazard use and degradation that has been an ongoing concern, is now raising a red flag. What should be done?
Water, one of the precious natural resources, is under severe stress in our country. The past few decades have witnessed a significant increase in its demand across various sectors. Consequently, India is faced with the worst water crisis in its history. It is estimated that by 2050, the per capita availability of water at the national level will drop by 40-50 per cent and water scarcity can lead to a loss of up to six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2030.
A recent study by the National Geophysical Research Institute showed that the largest depletion of groundwater in the world is happening in north India, with Delhi being the epicentre of this growing crisis. Experts say that groundwater is being pumped out 70 per cent faster than was earlier estimated. While the situation is alarming, efforts to conserve water have been negligible as the country lacks both in advocacy and implementation.
Impact on agriculture: Unmonitored use of water is causing huge loss to the farmers in drought-prone areas, who face increased production cost and extreme poverty. Approximately 78 percent of the fresh water available in the country is consumed by the agriculture sector. Inequality in water allocation for irrigation, with more than 60 percent of it being diverted for the cultivation of water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and paddy, adds to the distress. These are the two most water-intensive crops, which are being cultivated widely in some of the most water-stressed regions of the country.
Further, groundwater is increasingly being pumped out for irrigation purposes given the free or subsidised access to electricity in many States, which ultimately results in groundwater depletion. It is estimated that Indian farmers use two to four times more water to produce a unit of major food crop than what is used in China or Brazil. With a drop in the water table, there has been an increase in the cost of pumping, salination and presence of heavy metals among others. This has raised questions about the cost of crop production and quality of the produce. A water effective policy for agriculture can improve yield, thereby reducing farmer’s misery.
Need for strategic planning: India holds the capacity to become the food basket of the world if sustainable agriculture practices are adopted. Water management can be a huge game-changer over here. Over-dependence on the rain gods during the monsoon season with little effort to conserve water has been costing the growth of this sector. The spatial distribution of rain, too, has had a deep impact. Today, agriculture contributes approximately 17 per cent to the nation’s GDP. With approximately 80 percent of the country’s population being dependent on agriculture, the contribution to GDP can be increased multifold.
Besides, irrigation infrastructure has seen substantial expansion over the past few years but it is clearly not enough. Turning a blind eye to water management with no unified vision towards maintaining water resources will soon turn our country into a water-starved nation. Better water management strategies are the need of the hour.
Modern technologies and localised strategies: For sustainable agriculture growth, adoption of water-saving technologies with modern irrigation methods such as sprinkler and drip irrigation systems need to be implemented aggressively. Crop rotation should be adopted according to agro-climatic conditions of the region. Agro forestry and horticulture should be given priority in water-deficient areas. Beyond that, each State should work on long-term and sustainable solutions for water conservation. Integrated water development plans should be applied on a priority basis with effective coordination between various departments to save the situation from worsening.
Role of Government: Our country has also set a few examples of water conservation at the community level. The Niti Aayog reported that Rajasthan has strengthened its water management practices. Other States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have also shown improvement. However, 60 percent of the remaining States (15 out of 24) have been classified as low performers in terms of water conservation.
Private sector participation: It is evident that private company participation can make a big difference in changing the overall water scenario. A public-private partnership (PPP) in promoting water conservation can go a long way to recharge underground water and channelise water for agricultural purposes. All that we need is a common goal and a holistic approach. Companies must devise their own means and plans for water conservation.
For instance, leading agrochemical companies in our country have made water conservation a major plank. They are working in tandem with rural communities to help save water. Check dams filled with rainwater have been constructed in many villages across the country. Efforts like these will come a long way in benefiting the households.
Further, they have also established RO water plants with technical support from various social sector organisations to ensure safe drinking water for the villagers. Trees prevent floods, soil erosion and help in water conservation. Thousands of trees have been planted and plans are on to plant more of them with help from the local community. Initiatives like these need to be taken up by more private companies, which will benefit the local communities they work with.
Change-making models: Sustainable water management has a huge role to play in doubling the farmers’ income, a notable goal set by the Government. It will contribute to improving crop yields and enhance the quality of crops which in turn will fetch more returns for the farmers.
As the world observed the Water Day on March 22, it will be worthwhile to remind Indians that reform must begin now and it should start by first changing the mindset. Pricing water and water-related services can adequately encourage people to waste and pollute less. Water-related issues have often taken an ugly shape in the past. It is critical that the situation is eased by making best use of available technologies and resources to increase water use efficiency. Conserving water is the only way to secure our future.
(The writer is chairman of a chemical manufacturing company)
Writer: RG Agarwal
Courtesy: The Pioneer