Millennium Post

Meeting water challenge

India wakes up in June on failing to find nimbus clouds in the barren firmament. The political establishment panics as met pundits forecast, hesitantly, deficient rainfall after finding signs of an erratic monsoon. Each government agency waits till the crisis period nears. The government postpones announcement about impending drought fearing onslaught from all.

Hoarders make hay, stashing onions and potatoes, when the sun literally shines. Farmers cry and suffer and so does the common man, while governments play politics blaming the previous regimes. Agri scientists as usual fight for one-upmanship forgetting teamwork and integration of projects. The sad state of affairs gets highlighted every few years when the spectre of drought looms large threatening foodgrain shortage and human lives. Our planners and scientists forget once the nation tides over the crisis.

Droughts have major consequences. In 1972, 1979, 1987, 2002 and 2009 droughts affected more than half of the country’s crop area and led to a huge fall in crop production. In these years, deficient monsoon rains and reports of impending drought had led to a significant increase in prices of most food grains, vegetables and fruits. Once again, the threat is emerging. There does not seem to be any concerted thought or action to find long-term solutions to problems of climate change and efficient management of dwindling water resources. Evidently, climate change has already negatively affected hundreds of millions of rice producers and consumers. Recent research indicates that monsoon rainfall became less frequent but more intense in India during the latter half of the twentieth century, thus increasing the risk of drought and flood damage to the country’s wet-season (kharif) crops, particularly rice.

Crop scientists are deeply familiar with proven farming technologies such as drip irrigation, precision farming, watershed management, water-saving technologies. They do not waste time in scoring brownie points by making presentations at international gatherings and getting their research papers published in peer-reviewed prestigious journals. But when it comes to implementation, they blame the bureaucracy.

The country is experiencing a serious and perennial water challenge due to inequitable distribution of water resources and changes in rainfall pattern. The crisis, along with declining surface and groundwater levels, inter-state water disputes, injudicious usage of water, has been crucially affecting the agricultural sector the most.  Irrigated agriculture is the dominant water user, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all consumptive use of available fresh water flow – which is a waste as it is not crop-required. Over-pumping and inefficient irrigation techniques have led to sharply declining groundwater levels, loss of wetlands and salinisation of agricultural land. Astonishingly, it takes 1,000-3,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice; 13 litres of water for a tomato; and 25 litres of water for a potato. India has the second highest net irrigated area (52 mn hectares) in the world behind China.

Prof J Srinivasan, Chairman, Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, says in most of India, borewell irrigation has been used when rains fail. ‘This will not work in the long term since groundwater resources are limited. The alternative is not to choose water guzzling crops such as rice. In semi-arid areas it is important to conserve soil moisture.’ A Karnataka farmer, P R Seshagiri Rao has shown that this approach works well. Using Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), Rao,  Jacques Panchard, at EPFL, Switzerland, and their team of agri-scientists have set up an integrated network of sensors – a computer-based Wireless Sensor Network (WSN)– at Chennekeshavapura village in Karnataka to gather, assess and disseminate data related to agriculture and water. WSNs, which support rain-fed agriculture, are a valuable decision-support tool for farmers; these provide data on environment and soil moisture.

Tools like these help in precision agriculture. Precision agriculture (PA) or satellite farming or site specific crop management (SSCM) is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops. It is four years since one heard about the launch of a dedicated agriculture satellite (Agrisat) system during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017). The Agrisat system was to provide continuous imaging for weather, periodic observation of crop conditions and damages, synoptic coverage to monitor health and imaging on demand for precision agriculture and disaster mitigation. The plan period is half way through, but there is no word from ISRO about its development.

India is still to set up another important information regime called Agri-GIS — a Geographic Information System devoted to agriculture. This will integrate natural resource features such as soils, water, fertility with the ownership/cadastral data and also with agri-facilities data that includes credit, seeds, fertilisers and provide GIS advisories to farmers. Sadly, India lags behind in using ICT-based farming techniques despite a stupendous growth in ICT.  The impending crisis is only destined to grow as industrialisation pushes changes in climate. The shadow of drought is only bound to grow if climate scientists are to be believed. By 2020, India will have to double foodgrain production. Conversely, ground water resources are bound to shrink.

It is a national shame that India, predominantly an agrarian economy, remains a cookie cutter – still, largely, following traditional farming and bending their necks backwards expecting rain gods to do their work. A holistic and scientific approach to farming techniques and farm technology is urgent required to save thousands of farmers from committing suicide.

The author is an independent journalist
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