As per the 2011 census, India falls in the category of water deficient countries; a nation is considered water deficient if the per capita water availability drops below 1700 cubic meters per person. The per capita water availability in India fell to 1545 cubic meters during the first decade of this century, and further reduced to under 1400 cubic meters in 2018.
The question is whether this per capita availability is declining only because of limited water resources or due to rampant and indiscriminate use of water? Many experts opine that the key problem is not shortage but ‘wastage’ of water.
Agriculture – the main culprit?
Agriculture emerges as the largest user of fresh water not only in India but in other major food producing nations like the US, China, Australia and Spain. Alarmingly though, most of these countries have either already reached or are close to reaching their water resource limits, generally farming practices globally involve relatively low-value, inefficient and subsidized water use.
The main reasons for wasteful and unsustainable water use in agriculture include,
1. inefficient irrigation systems and wasteful field application methods. Many irrigation systems do not use water in the most efficient way thereby leading to water wastage. Flood irrigation, popular in India, involves application/pumping of water onto the fields post which it is allowed to flow among the crops, this results in an application efficiency of just 65%, or a water loss of 35% wherein water is wasted via runoff into waterways or evapo-transpiration. Damaged or leaking water lines, pipes and other irrigation equipment contribute further to water wastage.
2. Cultivation of ‘thirsty’ crops, water intensive crops like sugarcane and paddy are grown extensively in India. It is estimated that farmers use about 15,000 litres (average) of water to produce 1 kg of paddy, though water technologists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute claim that 6,000 litres is adequate if proper water management techniques are followed. Experts also recommend shifting the cultivation of such ‘water-guzzling’ crops to more suitable environments e.g. paddy farming from Punjab to West Bengal, Assam and sugarcane from Maharashtra to UP and Bihar.
3. Misdirected subsidies, low public and political awareness of the water crisis and weak environmental legislation add to the problem. Besides, lack of awareness, excessive use of fertilizers, poor infrastructure to construct dams, reservoirs and rain-water harvesting techniques cause contamination of the (already limited) ground water.
Policy initiatives in India
Policy interventions in India have traditionally focused on ‘supply side’ solutions for dealing with increased water demand including construction of large dams, inter-basin transfer of water and small-scale solutions such as rainwater harvesting and other rural development policies. In Gujarat, for example, watershed development programs were implemented to increase water supply to arid and semi-arid regions of the state.
Such mediations however have largely not been successful, partly due to a lack of understanding of hydrologic conditions and/or poor infrastructure management. Thus, these have not alleviated the problems of rural irrigation development, in fact in some cases, these policies have even worsened water scarcity.
The lesson to be learnt for India is to address demand side management by adopting techniques to conserve water and increase ‘water use efficiency’; these are simple and can be applied to the irrigation sector. Israel, an acknowledged leader in innovative water management practices has demonstrated benchmarked water efficient techniques. Perhaps the most innovative development in water utilization has been drip irrigation (introduced in Israel many years back), a micro-irrigation technique wherein networks of pipes with small openings (for each plant) are strategically placed across fields. These have ‘drippers’ through which regulated amounts of water are pumped to the plants. According to studies, shifting from flood irrigation to drip irrigation can reduce water requirement by 30-70%. Drip irrigation not only uses water judiciously but is a precise technique that can be used to optimally apply fertilizer and pesticides to the crops.
Israel is among the world leaders in recycling of wastewater, a significant proportion of which is then used for irrigation in the country. To assuage any doubts regarding the quality of reclaimed water which was perceived to be unsuitable for irrigation, Israeli farmers have collectively formed co-operations to install effluent reuse systems.
Other changes in water-management practices, such as improved irrigation scheduling, can also deliver significant reductions in water use. Using alternative methods for aquifer recharge i.e. rainwater-harvesting and watershed development helps in curtailing excess water demand by agriculture.
Growing perennial crops helps reduce water waste from runoff, studies show that annual crops may cause five times as much water loss as perennial crops.
On the policy side, reducing the subsidies on power supply (mainly used for pumping water) will help in reducing rampant waste of water.
Water scarcity affects over 40% of the world’s population therefore controlling water wastage is vital to meet the sixth Sustainable Development Goal that aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. If a small, arid country like Israel could turn extreme water scarcity around through long term planning, transformational conservation methods and technical expertise, other developing countries such as India should resolve this problem through relevant, bold policies and innovative techniques.
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