State of the Planet

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Punjab Farmers Adapt to Shrinking Water Supply

Workers in Punjab pick and pack cauliflower
Workers in Punjab pick and pack cauliflower.

Often referred to as the granary of India, Punjab is now slowly drying out. And though many farmers are deeply worried over the prospects of producing enough food, some of the more entrepreneurial ones are adopting new ways to conserve water while bracing for what will be a drier future.

Back in the 1970s India underwent a “Green Revolution” and was able to dramatically increase crop yields by applying the latest in farm management practices. Punjab was the birthplace for this transformation but recently, because of rapidly depleting groundwater throughout the sub-continent and higher food prices, the state may be looked upon to lead again in another revolution.

Different techniques are use to grow wheat
Different techniques are use to grow wheat.

Driving through Punjab in early February, the green of newly sprouted wheat is all around. Trenches in between rows of stalks are being dug and linked to larger conduits where the water is flowing. Nearby an electric generator hums as water is pumped from 100 feet below. As the season goes, so does the water and herein lies the problem; the groundwater is not being replenished fast enough to match the needs of farming water intensive crops like rice and wheat. Jaspreet Singh, a young farmer with a solemn face, explains that they are digging an extra 10 feet into the ground every 4 years to reach the water. Some wells have already gone dormant and act as a reminder of depths that have dried up.

Much of what is happening comes from price supports for rice and wheat and the free electricity they receive from the government to pump water 4-6 hours a day. Farmers have little incentive to diversify into other crops because of the uncertainty over market prices. Instead most stick with what they know, that is growing wheat and rice and overall this has increased incomes.

With free electricity, famers pump water 4-6 hours a day.
With free electricity, famers pump water 4-6 hours a day.

With support from the PepsiCo Foundation, scientists and researchers at the Columbia Water Center and the Punjab Agricultural University are working closely together to help farmers adopt different ideas. Jaspreet came back to the village of Galib Khurd after spending several years overseas. With some training from PAU, he began to grow onions, a crop that requires less water than rice or wheat. Slowly his onions took up more and more land. “Prices have been good over the past two years. I believe I can make a good life here,” he said.

Avtar Singh
Avtar Singh

A short drive away, Avtar Singh is a pioneer in the village of Bara Pind. Alongside a small plot of wheat, he grows acres of  cauliflower, peas, sugar cane and eggplant, while intercropping different combinations of the crops together to take advantage of their growing cycles and their ability to replenish nitrogen and fertility in the soil. Through this method he makes two to three times what he would for wheat or rice–with much less water.

Farming is a risky venture but by diversifying his crops Avtar said he hedges his bets. Should one crop fail or the market price drop, he is protected because he can rely on other crops. He’s also seen how the water table goes down and down each year. The Water Center is hoping his innovation and business mind will be a good model and replicated throughout the region.


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