Thursday, 21 June 2007

Water Crisis

Before Water Disappears

An Australian TV journalist asked me the other day: “Rice farmers in India are drilling millions of tube wells in a desperate search for water. Isn’t such over-exploitation of groundwater going to lead to a catastrophic situation in the years to come?”

The question was loaded, and coming from an Australian journalist whose own country was reeling under a serious drought for the sixth year in a row, it clearly showed that water had already turned into a major global problem. The magnitude of the emerging water crisis is such that it transcends national borders, and even continents.

It isn’t that only rice farmers are to blame. While rice farmers in India are consuming about 5000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice, Australian farmers cannot shrug-off their role in over-exploiting the groundwater by saying that they do not produce much rice. Australia is a major beef-producing nation, and studies show that a kilo of beef requires 70,000 litres of water.

If you are rearing cattle only for milk, you are using more than 900 litres of water to produce a litre of milk. Wheat requires about 3,168 litres of water to produce one kilo of golden grain. Globally, a thousand tonnes of water is required to produce one tonne of grain.

Take the case of wheat and rice, the most common cropping pattern that is followed in the irrigated regions of the country. Both the crops require a little more than 8000 litres of water in a year to produce one kilo each of wheat and rice. This is a huge waste of water resources you will say. Now you know why the groundwater table has been steadily on the decline. There is an urgent need to change the cropping pattern goes the common refrain. Policy makers and business houses ask farmers to shift from wheat and rice to cash crops.

Shift to cotton or sugarcane or cut flowers. Somehow it is presumed that shifting the cropping pattern to these crops will ease the water crisis. The industry steps in, propagates a change in cropping pattern, without telling the nation that the alternative being suggested are going to suck the ground water supplies dry in a terribly short time. Irrigated cotton alone consumes as much water as is required by wheat and rice. Water requirement for sugarcane is four times more. And cut flower cultivation requires 20 times more water than cotton.

Over the years, first the induction of green revolution technology, including the high-yielding crop varieties, resulted in more and more mining of the underground water. Small farmers have drilled more than 22 million tube wells hundreds of meters below the surface. Water is being mined ruthlessly. As a result water table has plummeted to alarming levels. Despite the alarm bells ringing for quite sometime now, the fact remains that no one has cared to set the water balance right.

We all know that high-chemical input based technology has already exhausted the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath. With water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater aquifer dry, agriculture has collapsed. Indian farmers are drawing out 200 cubic kilolitres of water from the underground strata every year. Not even a fraction of this is being added back to the groundwater resource.

Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture has been unabashedly advocating crop diversification, mostly cut flowers. Tamil Nadu is the latest among the States beckoning farmers to have a share in the US $ 40 billion global floriculture trade. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have already done the damage. Sops are being announced to attract farmers to cultivate roses, carnations, gerbera and other cut flowers. State governments are providing attractive and handsome financial packages including subsidies, technical backstopping, extension and post-harvest management support.

What the Ministry is not telling is that the cut flower cultivation will hasten the process of water depletion leading to desertification. Rose cultivation requires on an average about 212 acre inch or 212 inches of water in an acre of land.

Let us now look at the damage already done. In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones. The level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh, the Central Ground Water board has identified 22 overexploited and critical blocks in the state, of which 19 blocks are located in western UP (comprising the sugarcane belt). Similarly, out of the 53 semi-critical blocks identified, 28 are located in western UP. Water table has already plummeted to a level that agriculture is becoming an unviable proposition.

Faulty cropping pattern is amongst the main reasons for the resulting water crisis. All these years, the dryland regions of the country, which comprise nearly 75 per cent of the total cultivable area, have increasingly come under the hybrid crop varieties. While the crop yields from the hybrid varieties was surely high, the flip side of these varieties – these varieties are water guzzlers – was very conveniently ignored. For the sake of comparison, let us take the example of rice.

The high-yielding varieties of rice normally require about 5000 litres of water under drylands to produce one kg of rice. Common sense tells us that the rice varieties cultivated in the dryland regions of the country should be those that require less amount of water. What is in reality happening is just the opposite. Large proportion of the cultivable lands in drylands are now sown with hybrid rice varieties which require still more water for growing, its requirement of water touches 7000 litres for one kilo of rice grain.

Strange that in Punjab, which has assured irrigation, only high-yielding rice varieties are cultivated which require relatively less water. In the rainfed parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, hybrid rice varieties, which require roughly twice the quantity of irrigation water (than Punjab), are grown abundantly.

Not only rice hybrids, all kind of hybrid varieties that require higher doses of water – whether it is of sorghum, maize, cotton, bajra, and vegetables are promoted in the dryland regions. In addition, agricultural scientists have misled the farmers by saying that the dryland regions were hungry for chemical fertilisers. Add to this the thrust on contract farming, which requires more chemical inputs and water will turn the dryland regions barren in the years to come. Water table will plummet beyond reachable limits, as a result of which the impact of deficient rainfall will become more pronounced forcing farmers to abandon agriculture and migrate. This is what normally leads to famines.

We want to encourage cash crops farming because we want the farmers to earn more from international trade. This makes sense only if crops (including food crops) were being hydroponically cultivated in the Indian Ocean. To produce crops for export therefore defies any sensible logic. A former Vice-Chancellor of the Punjabi University, Patiala, Dr S S Johl, puts it more succinctly. He says that when Punjab exported 18 million tonnes of surplus wheat and rice in 2003-04, it actually exported 55.5 trillion litres of water. Feeding this surplus grain to the domestic population obviously makes sense, but exporting such huge quantities of scarce water to the foreign countries comes with a huge social and environmental cost.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath will surely like to turn a deaf ear to these words of wisdom from Dr Johl. He is happy reiterating in Parliament that the speedier completion of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organisation will give a boost to agriculture exports. Unfortunately, the gains in trade are not at all being measured in terms of the water crisis ahead. The cost of production of wheat and rice (and other crops as well) does not include the cost of water. Imagine if 5000 litres of water that is required to produce one kilo of rice were to be measured as an input cost, rice would go beyond the reach of even Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal.

The urgent need therefore is to draw a cropping pattern based on the availability of groundwater and the surface water irrigation. Instead of looking up to grandiose schemes like US $ 200 billion Interlinking of Rivers to distribute water, the thrust should be to draw a balance sheet for agriculture linked to water availability. Britain had also considered inter-linking of rivers as a solution to water crisis but dropped the idea when it became know that it wouldn’t serve the purpose.

Interlinking of rivers is being pushed in the name of ushering in a second Green Revolution. A similar grandiose irrigation scheme, called the Sharada Sahayak Irrigation network was launched at the time of Mrs Indira Gandhi to bring about a green revolution in eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh. While eastern UP still is looking for that elusive green revolution, the same will be the outcome of the flawed plan to inter-link India’s rivers. The latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) for the State of Gujarat is a pointer to the shape of things to come.

The CAG report for the period ending March 31, 2006 shown that bulk of the water from the Sardar Sarovar Project meant for the drought-prone villages of Kachchh have been diverted to non-drought prone areas of the region and to the industries of Gandhinagar. The most glaring diversion was of 255 million litres per day to Gandhinagar, which was not covered under the master plan.
It is no use stressing on popular water conservation schemes without first taming the industry. Few know that to produce a tonne of steel, we require about 1 lakh litres of water. Each golf course (and there are nearly two dozen in the National Capital Region of Delhi) consumes an equivalent quantity of water daily that would have sufficed the need of 18,000 middle-class households. What is the use of saving water in the parched and arid lands of Rajasthan if we allow the marble industry, producing almost 91 per cent of total marble in India, to guzzle every hour around 2.75 million litres of water. No wonder the majestic lakes of Rajasthan have all gone dry.
But who cares?
It is easy to blame the politicians and policy makers. What we forget is that you and me too are responsible for the water crisis. As long as we don’t look beyond the statistics and analysis that appears in the newspapers, we too are part of the conspiracy of silence.

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