Since the 1980s’ “pumping revolution”, the water crisis across India has been grim, with huge inequalities both in term of quantity and quality, for drinking, domestic and irrigation uses. The demand-supply gap is likely to double by 2050. The Indo-French forum on water availability and access in India held at the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore on 20 and 21 November 2017, sought to highlight these issues and suggest solutions.
Groundwater overuse is exacerbating water scarcity, with agriculture being the main user (over 70%). The sanitation situation too is worsening both in the urban (uncontrolled flow of untreated waste water) and rural areas. Even though the water table has plummeted in many parts of India, overuse hasn’t slowed down. And when farmers don’t get enough water, they just dig deeper! More sustainable water management in agriculture together with choosing the right food systems will play a key role in solving the water crisis in India. Irrigation access is crucial for raising the productivity of smallholder agriculture while the focus is often on “blue water”.
Speaking at the forum, Dr Suhas Wani, Research Program Director – Asia Program, ICRISAT, pointed out that rainfed agriculture which still represents over half the farming population and acreage, could triple productivity with the right support in terms of capacity building, better seeds and farming practices. Citing the example of the 12 million hectares of rice fallows, he highlighted how simple tools like the water impact calculator can save 25-30% water and improve yields thanks to better irrigation decisions.
According to Nicolas Faysse, socioeconomist at CIRAD Bangkok, the different water policies in place to reduce agriculture’s water footprint (such as the Jyotigram Yojana in Gujarat that splits the power grid between agri and non-agri usages; electricity metering; large infrastructure investments to harvest surface water and recharge the water table; and shifting to a less water intensive irrigation) have not yet had clear impact because of the rebound effect. This means that whatever water resources saved or gained would ultimately be pumped to irrigate more. The emergence of solar pumping will increase pressure. How people’s interest in farming is changing needs to be documented since it will be a big driver in the use of natural resources in the years to come.
Thanks to advances in hydrology and high resolution remote sensing, scientists can now monitor and map in real time groundwater flows and pollution levels at the watershed level, provide projections, and map soil moisture on a daily basis, says Dr Sat Kumar Tomer from Aapah Innovations Ltd. Farm level technologies developed by innovation brokers (Bosch center Bangalore), such as drones, irrigation automation, and moisture sensors can help improve the productivity of water per drop. Such advances could get to the last mile with the right business model (contract farming with farmer group).
Yet, the hurdle to initiating collective action remains the lack of data on water resources. Social sciences have a robust role to play; yet they are often forgotten and underfunded in current large initiatives. INRA researcher Dr Laurent Ruiz, team leader of ATCHA project on integrated models to assess future water management scenarios, questioned how Indian society envisions future agriculture. Donors and governments still prefer to look at the issue from the point of water supply and technological approaches, which may not necessarily address the huge inequalities in water access. To encourage and promote more sustainable water management, knowledge has to go down to the local watershed scale. Farmers should know their aquifers and barefoot hydrologists must foster debates on more smart and collective decisions. Efforts should be made on participatory modelling (to capture narratives of each stakeholder group) and decision-makers at different levels must be engaged in the process. Communication and education could be the links to break silos (between disciplines and between stakeholders), raise awareness (on the health impacts of exposure to polluted water) and initiate action.