Harvesting water: Technology vs policy

Water management, Water crisis, india, domestic needs, drinking water, sewage,

A one-week delay in Indian monsoon showed how precarious our situation is on the water front. The images that BBC and CNN telecasted across the world showed thousands of Chennai residents running after water tankers to get a bucket of water for drinking. In parched lands, several people had to walk for miles to get drinking water. If this was the condition of humans, one can only imagine in what condition cattle and crops would have been. These images clearly expose that the Indian Lion, symbol of Make in India, has feet of clay.

No wonder prime minister Narendra Modi, in his first ‘Mann ki Baat’ in the Modi 2.0 innings, gave a clarion call to save every drop of water, and take water as a mass movement on the lines of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This is commendable. But he has already given commitment to deliver tap water, hopefully safe for drinking, to every household by 2024 under ‘Nal se Jal’ programme. These are commendable programmes and one hopes they can deliver results in time, and of good quality.

But, the issue that we want to dwell on here is how did we reach this situation? And, how best and how fast, we can get out of it for sustainable water use in the country.

First, let us note a few facts about water availability and use in India. India has only 4% of global freshwater resources while it has to quench the thirst of about 18% of global population. Of the total freshwater resources available in the country, as per Central Water Commission, 78% was being used for irrigation in 2010, which is likely to be reduced to 68% by 2050. For domestic use, it was just 6% in 2010, likely to go up to 9.5% by 2050 (see graphic). So, by far, agriculture will remain the biggest user of water to produce enough food, feed and fibre in the foreseeable future. And, unless this sector is geared to improve in terms of water supplies and efficiency in water use, the situation on the water front is not going to improve much.

Second, of the total of about 198 million hectares of India’s gross cropped area, roughly half is irrigated. The major source of this irrigation is groundwater (63%); canals account for 24%, tanks 2%, and all other sources for about 11%. So, groundwater bears the real burden of irrigating Indian agriculture, driven by private investments from farmers.

There is hardly any effective regulation of groundwater. The policy of cheap or free power supplies for irrigation has led to an almost anarchic situation in the use of groundwater. Power subsidies to agriculture cost the exchequer roughly `70,000 crores each year while depleting groundwater in an alarming manner. Overall, about 1,592 blocks in 256 districts are either critical or overexploited. In places like Punjab, water table has been going down by almost a metre a year for almost two decades. Almost 80% of the blocks in Punjab are overexploited or critical (see graphic). It only shows how indifferent and short-sighted we are while taking away the rights of our own future generations.

Paddy and sugarcane, both water-guzzling crops, take away almost 60% of India’s irrigation water. One kilo of rice produced in Punjab requires almost 5,000 litres of water for irrigation, and one kilo of sugar in, say Maharashtra, requires about 2,300 litres of water. Estimates vary on how much water the plant really consumes, how much evaporates, and how much percolates back into groundwater. But traditionally, say a hundred years back, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar used to be the sugarcane hub while rice was grown largely in eastern and southern India, where rainfall was high and water plentiful. All that changed with new technology and populist policies like free power.

No political party wants to touch rationalisation of power pricing for agriculture. Technological solutions, like drip, sprinklers, etc, cannot make much headway unless policies are put on the right track. Israel has perhaps the best water technologies and management systems, ranging from drips to desalinisation to recycling (87%) of urban waste water for agriculture. PM Modi also visited Israel to find solutions to our water woes. But, my interactions and visits to Israel revealed one thing very clearly: technologies can not go far enough unless pricing is put on track.

One way out is to give farmers monetary rewards for saving water and power. The existing situation can be taken as a sort of current entitlement, and if those who agree to get power supplies metered save on power consumption compared to current levels, they can be monetarily rewarded. Along with that, there could be income support on per hectare basis (say, `15,000/ha) for less water-guzzling crops, say maize or soyabean in Punjab during kharif season. This would save power subsidy and, more importantly, precious groundwater. At least one million hectares of paddy cultivation needs to shift away from the Punjab-Haryana belt to eastern India. Eastern India can develop better procurement facilities for PDS system for paddy, and procurement from Punjab-Haryana needs to be discouraged/curtailed.

Similarly, sugarcane needs to be contained in Maharashtra and Karnataka belt and expanded in UP/Bihar belt. With new Co238 varieties that give recovery rates of more than 10.5%, there is a good case that cane can be developed for ethanol from this belt. Will Modi Government 2.0 move in this direction to save water? Only time will show.