Increasing Water Use Efficiency in Indian Agriculture

India has fallen into the league of water deficient nations as per Census 2011 with the fall in per capita water availability becoming alarming @15% in the first decade of 21st century. Can something be done to reverse this trend, which sectors are using excess water, what are alternatives of water use optimization- are some of the questions raised at different fora and governments and various stakeholders are mulling over.The rate of depletion, though has reduced in last few years, the consumption is still higher that replenishment by nature, not an encouraging sign for the country.

Indian agriculture consumes 82% of total water supply i and limited efforts are being made to conserve water in agriculture whereas the industry and utility sectors, which consume less than 5% of the nation’s water, are regulated by stringent laws for water conservation. Flood irrigation being the prime method for irrigating crops in the country promotes wasteful water use. Irrigation projects are not effective in reducing water stress due to prevalence of open water canals which draw 4 times more water from rivers than what is delivered to the fields (WUE < 30% or worse). The country needs to focus on improving Water Use Efficiency (WUE) in agriculture. This seems gargantuan task for a large country like India but can be achieved as proven solutions are available globally and also have been successfully used in the countryii to a small extent. One such example of Israel is mentioned here.

Israel, a water deficient country, became water surplusiii through the concerted efforts like (a) establishment of giant desalination plantsiv, (b) imposition of water rationing, (c) advertisement campaigns for creating awareness about water crisis, (d) changes in irrigation methods i.e. use of slightly brackish water (not good for human consumption) for irrigation (e) drip irrigation and (e) migration to piped water supply from open irrigation canals. This contributed to 90% of Israel’s wastewater being recycled and majority of it being used in agriculturev helping the country to become world’s highest crop producer per cubic meter of water consumptionvi .

India needs to follow such model(s) to reverse the water crisis with focus on (a) changing the recycling and (b) supply models integrating recycled water into agriculture supply. The regulatory changes and behavioral shift in stakeholders need to be brought about to implement globally proven and locally suitable model(s). This can begin at pilot scale in water stressed regions with support from government in forms of various incentives to farmers adopting such measures and then scaled up to larger geography. The promotion through various media explaining benefits of new approaches should also be conveyed effectively to all stakeholders for it be successful.

Additionally, the agricultural water usagecan be reduced by substituting open irrigation canals over a period of time with large diameter prefabricated concrete pipes like being used by China, Brazil, and Israel etc.,which are economical with the advantage that exit points can be controlled i.e. farmers will not be able to withdraw water like they do from underground water sources. Additionally, more efficient solar powered drip irrigation kits, like “Solar Pumping Programme for Irrigation” by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and similar other schemes.These seemingly small steps will go a long way in conserving the depleting water resources in the country and will improveper capita water availability in the country in the long term.

The efforts have already begun as Indian government has developed guidelines for Planning and Design of Piped Irrigation Network and states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have taken first steps in use of piped water for conveyance. The collaborations with agri-technology from Israelvii and other countries will help India improve agricultural and water use efficiency among others benefits. The consolidated and continued efforts of all stakeholders in the country will definitely help in reversing the water crisis.

vi) Alon Tal. 2007. To Make a Desert Bloom – The Israeli Agriculture Adventure and the Quest for Sustainability: Agricultural History, 81 (2): 228-257


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