Sustainable water usage: Agriculture & irrigation hold the key

Water the elixir of life is under stress. The world reserves of this precious resource are feeling the heat of humans thirst. The callous mismanagement has created an unnecessary and avoidable crisis.
Globally even today 92 percent of the water is used in agriculture. A major chunk of it goes to irrigation and a small portion is reserved for livestock. Most of the policy planners, marketing experts and management consultants point out to this sector as the elephant in the room which no politician wants to talk about.
They argue that when an over whelming use of water is restricted to one sector then why isn’t it being better managed or if you want to put it bluntly – priced. Personally I am not against pricing of water as I too feel that as citizens we have been pampered for far too long as far as this resource is concerned.
Let me explain by citing two examples – India and the US. While India is considered to be an emerging economy, it is still a developing country with many social and human indicators that are comparable to the least developed countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The US on the other hand is as developed a country as you can get with the highest amount of per capita consumption of about everything thing under the sun.
According to the Indian ministry of water resources irrigation accounted for more than 84 percent of the total water usage in India in 2010 and the projections for 2050 are that this share will come down marginally to 74 percent.
Even in the US, after declining share of agriculture in the national economy to insignificance the share of irrigation still stands at 37 percent.
This offers a growth curve (not mathematically rigorous but indicative of what lies ahead) to all the policy planners about how the water usage pattern will pan out over the next 40 years. Using the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) definition, the developed countries (falling in Annexe 1) account for a total of 42 out of 192 member nations. It means 150 odd nations are still in various stages of development with agriculture acting as the backbone of their economy.
The share of agriculture may have shrunk in many emerging economies but the percentage of population dependent on the sector is still huge. Hence the total usage of global water is still in the irrigation sector. So for every government this should be the priority area.
As most of the canals for irrigation are controlled by the governments they can better manage the flow of water and map those areas where water usage has shown considerable increase. If the increase in water usage is not supported by a comparable increase in per hectare yield then the farmers in those areas should be levied a tax for over use or wastage.
There will be situations where over use would be justified as increased input cost. The increased amount of water would be presented as necessity to eke out a living. In such cases agricultural scientists should be employed to find out whether the soil needs nutrient compensation or crop pattern needs to change so that water usage can be rationalised.
The water thus saved can be released in the original channels (rivers) to make them more robust. A minimum flow maintained in the rivers will take care of its pollution woes at a fraction of a cost than what is being estimated today.
Take the case of an important river in India – Yamuna. If flows for close to 1376 kilometres from the Himalayas to the city of Allahabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It only encounters two big cities – the capital of India, New Delhi and Agra, famous for the Taj Mahal.
The river is stopped 230 kilometres before Delhi. Two barrages in close succession – Tajewala and Hathinikund – practically stop all the water flow and channelize it into two canals. These are Eastern Yamuna canal and Western Yamuna canal.
In the absence of proper water flow the perennial river turns into seasonal river in this stretch. By the time it reaches Delhi it contains nothing but sewage spewed by the city.
In the last 24 years, two action plans (Yamuna Action Plan I & II) have been initiated at the cost of millions of dollars without even an iota of change in either the quality or the quantity of the river water.
However, maintaining a minimum flow in the river will not only take care of the problem of pollution but also help in recharging the ground water aquifers throughout the 230 kilometre stretch thereby increasing the hydrological health of the entire area. This would be achieved by a stroke of pen without investing millions of dollars.
Similarly, the use of underground aquifers can be managed. Under ground water is extracted with the help of bore wells and tube wells. Both of them need specialised knowledge and only a handful of companies provide these equipments. The government using its machinery and data provided by the companies can map the use of bore wells and tube wells. Many Indian states despite inefficient systems have created elaborate database on bore well and tube well installations.
Using the data, the government should immediately close down those wells which have crossed a certain depth and are extracting water that can’t be replaced. They should also close down those wells which are replenished by rainwater but right now are producing contaminated or brackish water due to over use and are severely stressed.
The ban in this category shouldn’t be permanent. Situation should be assessed periodically and if they have recouped then limited usage should be allowed and monitored.
The third thing that can be done by the governments is in the area of pesticide and fertilizer usage. Both the agricultural inputs enjoy subsidy but the monetary benefits of subsidy are not offered to the farmers. Instead they go directly to the producers. These subsidies should be withdrawn.
It will make both the inputs costly and force the farmers to use them judiciously. However, there is a slight problem in doing this. As in the case of India, most of the fertilizer producers are also media barons.
The government finds it difficult to take them on. Yet, there are precedents within India where the government with drew subsidies from many types of fertilizers like potash. However, subsidy on urea still persists. As it is now the cheapest fertilizer, it is used indiscriminately by the farmers. This has led to unnecessary input cost escalation, soil destruction and contamination of aquifers and surface water through seepage.
If the government shows the will as it has in the case of other fertilizers, the subsidy on urea can be removed leading to an initial shock but a long term benefit for the agriculture as well as water resources.
Sustainable water usage in agriculture and irrigation is doable and achievable as its infrastructure and subsidies are centrally controlled by the national governments around the world. Even in federal setups there are a handful of stakeholders which can easily be persuaded to come on board.
With its resources and huge database already available the governments can make a beginning in this sector which accounts for an over whelming percentage of the total water usage not only today but will continue to do so in most parts of the world in the foreseeable future.
Once a definitive and effective action is undertake to secure sustainable usage of water in agriculture and irrigation sector then the world governments, NGOs and corporate can turn their attention towards other sectors like industry, domestic and municipal use which would be the subject of my tomorrow’s blog entry!

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About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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