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Finding Sustainable Solutions As Water Crisis in India’s Food Bowl Grows

(with assistance from Pooja Reddy)

With support from a $6 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation, the Columbia Water Center has been analyzing the problem of water resource deficits across India. The rapidly declining groundwater table in Punjab–one of the most agriculturally productive states and the heart of green revolution belt in northern India–is especially disturbing.

As the epicenter of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, Punjab’s agricultural fecundity earned the state a reputation as the breadbasket of India. While aggregate production of staple crops nearly doubled with the introduction of innovative agricultural methods, the cost in terms of ecological damage–further aggravated by the impact of climate change on weather patterns–is an outcome we are just beginning to scratch the surface of.

The semi-arid state of Punjab accounts for less than 2 percent of the India’s total geographic area but contributes more than a staggering 50 percent of the country’s annual national food grain reserves. While extensive irrigation networks help to buffer seasonal rainfall variations, widespread rural electrification in the state has led to extensive groundwater based irrigation. Coupled with a flat-fee electricity subsidy that has led to a dramatic increase in the number of wells, groundwater-based irrigation now far surpasses surface water use.

We estimate that the state is overdrawing its groundwater resources by a shockingly unsustainable 45 percent over that replenished by rainfall every year. Farmers who used to pump from 5 to 10 feet below the surface are now drilling to depths of 200 to 300 feet. As a result, the groundwater table is falling at approximately a rate of 1 meter per year, as opposed to just 18 cm per year during the mid-1980s. This disturbing and remarkable increase in water usage has come about from a number of changes in the agricultural economy of Punjab, including a dramatic increase in cropping intensity from the 1960s until now.

Satellite image showing the groundwater crisis in Punjab, India. Blue indicates areas with water surplus, yellow shows the beginning of a deficit. Red areas show regions experiencing severe groundwater depletion. Source: NASA.

In addition, the state has gone from growing a previously healthy mix of crops such as wheat, maize, pulses and vegetables to devoting nearly 80 percent of its crop area to rice and wheat, two of the most water-intensive crops. While the government did initiate policies to promote crop diversification in 1985, these attempts largely failed because of assured government prices offered for wheat and rice.

Overall, central and state level agriculture policy–consisting of minimum support prices, effective procurement of selected crops, input subsidies benefiting farmers in electricity, fertilizer, and irrigation and the increased availability of credit facilities over the years–has played a key role in pushing farmers to grow primarily wheat and rice–at enormous detriment to water resource sustainability in the country.

Furthermore, while the promotion of rice and wheat cropping once held the promise of ever-increasing agricultural productivity, scientists no longer predict the large growth in yield from agricultural innovation that was common in the 1960s and 1970s.

Agroeconomists point the finger at diminishing marginal returns–the economic principal that a production system with an ever-increasing input will soon start to yield smaller and smaller increases in output as the system hits a saturation point. According to a 2007 State of the Environment Report, in the last five years, the production of food grains in Punjab has increased by only 2 percent whereas the population has risen by nearly 8.6 percent. As a result, the contribution of the agricultural sector to the state GDP has declined from just over 46 percent to 37 percent.

The combination of declining farm yields and incomes due to economic and ecological factors (low soil productivity, receding water table, etc.) is increasing rural poverty rates across the state. A recent government survey showed that nearly 66 percent of farming households in Punjab are in debt. With total farmer indebtedness hovering at around Rs. 240 million, a large-scale default could cripple Punjab’s credit market, causing wide-scale repercussions throughout the nation. In a developing country where even a one percent increase in GDP translates to the economic elevation of millions of poor households, a Punjab debt-crisis can be ill afforded by India.

If Punjab is to continue as the food grain capital of India, modern agricultural practices will have take into account the reality of the water situation and create a feasible long run plan for a sustainable future.

The Columbia Water Center/Punjab Agricultural University Partnership

To address the problem of groundwater sustainability in Punjab, the Columbia Water Center has partnered with Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) to promote the use of technology and science in farming.

The CWC-PAU initiative in Punjab aims to reduce the water demands of agriculture by engaging farmers, agricultural corporations, insurance providers, and regional agencies in a field project to adapt better crop choices, irrigation practices, and insurance options. Over 500 farmers across 50 villages in Punjab have as a result implemented water-saving techniques in five of the twenty districts–Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Moga and Sangrur. The farmers continue to grow rice but utilize targeted techniques to promote water efficiency during the process. Technologies include laser leveling of fields before sowing and the use of tensiometer technology for effective irrigation scheduling.

As a result of these project interventions, a significant amount of groundwater has been saved already. The estimated total amount of water saved as a direct result of tensiometer use and direct seeding is 575 million liters–enough to meet the basic daily water consumption needs of over 100,000 individuals. The CWC-PAU team project that this early success will have a tenfold multiplier effect in each village, with the idea that the success of ten farmers using tensiometers for irrigation scheduling will motivate 100 other farmers in the village to adopt the technology over the next year. The study aims to increase the total number of villages included in the study next year to between 100 and 150.

In addition, to promote an understanding of the larger issues at stake, the CWC/PAU organized various workshops and meetings to initiate in-depth discussions with the selected farmers on water issues. The initiative intends to reduce the impact of climate uncertainty through changing water use patterns, diminishing resource depletion and reducing energy use, all while maintaining yields and income. By shifting the focus from water development to water management, the study aims to decrease pressure on rapidly disappearing groundwater reserves in the region by combining research and best practices in both economics and ecology.

Further policy and project interventions include the late transplantation of rice, direct seeding of grains, and the promotion of diversification towards more remunerative and less water-intensive crops such as basmati, sweet corn and baby corn—crops that have the potential to become increasingly profitable to farmers while consuming significantly less water than rice.

However, despite the enormous potential and profitability of vegetables and other alternative crops, past efforts to shift sizeable crop areas away from rice towards others has yielded little success–largely due to the higher risks in production and marketing associated with the cultivation of these alternative crops. Thus, an integral part of the crop-substitution project aims to build a viable supply chain and use crop insurance to promote crop diversification and reduce income risk to farmers.

Significant water can also be saved by developing crop-specific guidelines for farmers so they can readily identify whether a particular technique is actually reducing water use and by how much. The process of developing insurance plans to buffer the impact of changing crop production and patterns, the increased risk of using new technology, and the implementation of strategies to scale up interventions is also underway. On a larger scale, the CWC is designing regional climate change models using information on climate change patterns and local water storage capabilities that will forecast and evaluate the potential impacts of the business-as-usual strategy against the proposed mix of sustainable, field-tested interventions.

Last week, a British firm listed India as second, only behind Bangladesh, in the list of countries most at risk from the impact of climate change. While the climate change impacts on water are uncertain but imminent, it is clear that India, with its large population, will face serious resource and environmental challenges in the coming decades.

But if India can move early and decisively, it has the knowledge and capacity to be a game-changer within the subcontinent and turn its climate management lessons into examples for many other developing nations facing similar problems.

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Josefina Arguello
Josefina Arguello
13 years ago

Water is our most important and endangered resource.
without it nothing survives – not even the planet. The situation is very complicated for Indian people. Demand for water will exceed supply by 40% by 2030 if the government does not spend adequately on infrastructure. It’s a shame =/

13 years ago

[…] to develop an in-depth assessment of the growing water shortages in India, as discussed in an earlier post by Perveen.  At AGU she spoke about ‘Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India: […]

13 years ago

It will be interesting to see how the issue reflects on the market and consumption. Indians in America get their daily dose of wheat all the way from Punjab. Will this be a luxury in the future? We take it for granted now.It’s good to see a collaboration between Punjab university and Columbia.

12 years ago

[…] sustainable agricultural techniques or crops better suited to local conditions could lead to the development of more efficient farming practices without dimished yields or negative economic or environmental consequences. Even small improvements […]

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