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Surinder Sud: How water conservation can save money in drought-ridden India

Adopting a slew of easy, cost-effective technologies and farm practices can raise output with less water

Surinder Sud 

Surinder Sud

Per drop, more crop" is not just a fanciful slogan; it is a dire necessity. In fact, this motto ideally needs to be expanded to "per drop, more crop - more reward" to add an income element to it as well. This objective can be realised through easy-to-adopt and cost-effective technologies and agronomic practices that can raise farm output with less water.

India is not an inherently water-short country. Its average total annual rainfall of around 1,200 mm, including pre-monsoon and winter showers, is higher than the world average of 990 mm. This should normally suffice to meet the country's critical needs. That, unfortunately, is not the case. The reasons are well known. The bulk of this rainfall (nearly 890 mm) is received in the four-month monsoon season (June to September). The spatial spread of the rains, too, is highly skewed - from a mere 100 mm in western Rajasthan to 11,000 mm in Meghalaya's Cherrapunji. This necessitates better management of water in terms of its storage, distribution and economical use. Otherwise, a sizeable part of the rainwater will continue to flow down wastefully to the seas, eroding precious soil in its trail.

There are at least two more water-related factors that are worrisome. First, the rainfall pattern seems to be undergoing a perceptible change in recent years. Extreme weather events such as downpours, hailstorms and cloud bursts, which are injurious to crops, are becoming more frequent. The number of rainy spells, on the other hand, is tending to decline, thus causing relatively longer dry or drought-like phases even during the monsoon season. As many as 219 districts have been identified, which are now affected by drought more frequently than in the past. The agrarian distress in these tracts is relatively more predominant than elsewhere.

The second, and even more disquieting, factor is the rapidly receding water table, especially in the agriculturally progressive belts, due to indiscriminate extraction of groundwater. The Central Ground Water Board has identified 1,071 blocks and talukas where sub-surface water has been over-exploited. Urgent interventions are needed to curb excessive tapping of groundwater and to regularly recharge this vital water reserve.

To achieve the goal of more crop per drop, it is imperative to conserve water received through rains and snow melting and prevent its wastage. That will help irrigate more area with available water. Thankfully, the newly launched Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana has this as one of its objectives. The scheme aims at making at least life-saving irrigation available to as many fields as possible. It also has a component to promote more efficient use of water. At present, the water-use efficiency under most irrigation projects is far below the desirable level of 50 per cent. Even a 10 per cent increase in efficiency can irrigate 14 million hectares more with the available water.

Equally vital is to promote technologies and crop varieties that can ensure maximum output with minimum water. Fortunately, there is no dearth of such technologies and, hopefully, more are underway. These include, among others, micro irrigation systems like drip and sprinkler irrigation; conservation agriculture involving minimum disturbance of soil, raised-bed seed planting and furrow irrigation; and system of rice intensification, which helps nearly double the paddy yield with 50 per cent less water. Micro-irrigation should be made compulsory for other water-guzzling crops, notably sugarcane, to save water without affecting production. At present, water-saving techniques are deployed only on a fraction of the total cropped area though many states offer subsidies to promote their use. Obviously, more needs to be done for this, particularly in the water-deficient areas.

This apart, efforts to improve the photosynthetic capacity of crop plants and shorten their growing period to reduce their water uptake need to be redoubled. Major successes have already been achieved in shortening the maturity period of several key crops. However, the progress on enhancing photosynthesis efficiency of crop plants is still meagre and needs to be hastened.

First Published: Mon, September 07 2015. 21:48 IST