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#WednesdaysForWater: Interrelationship between water and sustainable farming


By Megha Gupta, Mansee Bal Bhargava*
Water as a commodity cannot be ignored as a critical input into agriculture in nearly all aspects of determining effect on the eventual yield. Around 70% of freshwater withdrawals go into the agriculture sector and of it nearly 70% is the groundwater. The water uses within the agriculture sector are very diverse including irrigation, pesticides, fertilizer application, livestock, poultry, fishing, etc. Further along the value chain, water is used for food preservation like crop cooling and food processing. At Wednesdays for Water we were keen to get an overview on the relationship of water and agriculture particularly on how that can be more sustainable on the ground and what is needed in the policy to do so.
The session organized on, ‘Water and Agriculture’ invited Dr. Muthiah Muruganandam and Dr Shreekumar S as speakers. Dr. Muruganandam is a Principal Scientist (Fisheries and Aquaculture) OIC at ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil & Water Conservation, Department of Agricultural Research and Education, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. Dr Shreekumar S. is a Chemical Engineer turned organic farmer and an activist with practicing sustainable farming for nearly 15 years. His initiative ‘Sangatya Commune’ is located in Nakre village near Karkala in south Karnataka where he is experimenting with creating spaces for sustainable farming and living. Ms. Prutha Machiwal joined as a young discussant into her MSc. in Water Science and Governance at the TERI School of Advanced Studies.
Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava moderated the session by starting with seeking responses from Dr. Muruganandam on how the government, as well as the scientific community, understand the correlation of water and the agricultural practices in the country and from Dr Shreekumar on how people envisage and emancipate this relationship.

Water uses in Agriculture

Dr. Muruganandam highlighted the fact that water on earth can be (almost) found everywhere including above the Earth in the air and clouds, on the surface of the Earth in rivers, oceans, ice, plants, in living organisms, and inside the Earth in the top few miles of the ground. Most parts of India receive an above-average rainfall which is higher than the world average, however there is still an issue of mismanagement of water resources in the agriculture sector. Then, India’s water availability varies substantially across the regions, and over time. Of the total rainfall of about 4,000 BCM (Billion Cubic Meter), 1260 BCM are estimated to be available as the Internally Renewable Water Resources (IRWR).
The IRWR is the average annual flow of rivers and recharge of aquifers generated from the endogenous precipitation including the net inflows to the country and is estimated to be about 1,953 BCM based on the Central Water Commission reports (GOI 1999; CWC 1998). The neglect of the problem is one of the core issues in addressing the water struggle of the country. In spite of the large total TRWR potentially utilizable water resources (PUWR) are only a fraction of it. Most basins, especially those in the peninsular, receive their IRWR from the 2 to 3 months of monsoonal rains. As a result, some basins have a very low PUWR. In fact, each of as many as eight basins in India, had a per capita PUWR less than 1,000 cubic meter of water per person in the year 2000, a level indicating severe regional water scarcity.
Water use in agriculture not only consumes resources quantitatively but also pollutes the valuable resource with pesticides and fertilizers. To manage scarce water and water excess situations we need to devise managerial strategies to conserve and use them effectively. The Indian Institute of Soil & Water Conservation (IISWC) institute has come up with various water conservation technologies so that soil loss and water runoff can be conserved through various technologies including moisture conservation. So, water can be conserved where it falls and can be used for different purposes.

Increasing agricultural production

Increasing agricultural production with minimum water or conserved water is being studied across many institutes. Conserving soil moisture for the increasing agricultural production in the water scarce scenario is under development. The approach towards water harvesting and conservation is seen differently for arable and non-arable land like, forest and degraded land. Various bioengineering methods like punting, trenching and others as per situation are being studied and suggested based on the use. Besides, the agronomic methods are suggested to conserve and promote less water demanding crops so that production is maximized with minimum water availability and promoting integrated farming systems & components.
Muruganandam’s team are also evolving various components and interventions and technologies and testing in the farmer’s field and advocating the primary stack holders like the farmers, executives and field functionaries at the various government and state departments.
The constant increase in population and the aim to meet the minimum needed nutritional demand and increasing food supply adds challenge on the already scarce water resources. On the one hand, the increasing population, climate change and natural phenomena are putting pressure on the water resources and depleting the groundwater stock for purposes like agriculture. On the other hand, the increasing urbanization and development are causing stress on the surface water bodies resulting in their shrinking and contamination besides rendering several of them unusable. The rate of water usage and wastage are much faster than the rate of water regeneration. The surface water drain off has reduced due to urbanization and extraction has increased. We are not allowing the groundwater to replenish its potential so that it can be sustainable on its own for our time to come.
There are indeed many farmers who still practice indigenous water harvesting systems and traditional ways of farming. However, we need to take action to avoid using unproductive or low productive or unsustainable water delivery and water usage practices in the agriculture and allied sectors. Majority of the agriculture depends on rainfed agricultural farming and therefore the rainwater harvesting, and conservation become crucial to put under practice to be more beneficial. About 20% of our agriculture that still depends on the irrigated water supply of which the data on water supplied and its efficient use are still not available for improvised actions. There is also a reluctance within the farming community to adopt advanced technologies of watering crops like, the drip irrigation or the sprinklers instead, flooding the crops is more preferred method of farming.
This is where technological institutes like IISWC come into picture to engage in dialogues with the farmers, youths, NGOs and other supporting organizations. Together all of them with the support of policy, the farming communities can adopt advanced water conservation with effective usage of available water so that maximum crop can be produced without affecting or degrading the soil resources.
There are many types of soil amendments like particularly nano-zeolite and nano-composite and nano clay which can improve soil moisture levels for a longer period. Further, products like biological beasts or seaweeds, biopolymers that can absorb excess nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, other pollutants and heavy metals from the water make the water portable and irrigable for the field. Then the usage of Hydrogel in farming helps retain water and water moisture in the soil for a longer period and retains moisture in the crops for a longer period supporting the idea of limited water usage in the entire process. Practices like the Biofloc technology of fish farming are also rising in the imbalanced person-land ratio i.e., the availability of land and resources are continuously under strain.
Muruganandam concluded by adding emphasis on farmers involvement in the advanced technologies with convincing the youth also to take up farming. Educating the farmers is a major thrust to go ahead in this journey of water conservation. India has 18% of the world population, having 4% of the world’s fresh water, out of which 80% is used in agriculture. Agriculture is a crucial sector of the Indian economy as it provides social and ecological progress besides its contribution to nearly 52% of the jobs available in the country. It is one of the major contributors of around 20.2% to the GDP. It is important that in this vast and diverse country, we work towards forming an extensive army of youth and designing dynamic resilient courses that can educate the farming communities. The gap of learning new technologies can be filled by the youth by educating them and encouraging them to work as mediators to bridge the science and the society.
Adding to the points raised above, Dr. Shreekumar reflected on the challenges and opportunities that farmers face. India being a nation with above-average rainfall but emphasized that the rainy season is restricted to only four months of the year and so an equally important part is to manage that water for the rest of the year. The way we manage the water on our agricultural land is crucial to the availability of water to all of life forms. With the farm productivity and income decreasing, farming is under crisis and the pressure is resulting in one of the major reasons for farmers’ suicide in India. Maharashtra continues to be at the top in this dubious list of suicides in the farm sector followed by Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. For example, in 2020, a total of 10,677 suicides are registered. One of the prominent causes of farmers’ suicides has been ‘Failure of Crop’ (16.8%) with largely affects female farmers.
The fall in productivity of agriculture is also due to the practice of unsustainable farming practices. Factors like loss of soil fertility, climate change, water scarcity etc., which create the crisis in agriculture are part of a larger problem of an unsustainable economy. Our economy is driven by profit maximization and there is an endless pursuit of growth. We know that the capacity of the earth is limited and demand for perpetual growth cannot be sustained.
We have technologies that are extractive i.e., using non-renewable energy resources or using renewable energy resources at a rate greater than their renewal rate. Such technologies can give us a lot in the present at the cost of our future. As long as we don’t come to a consensus, that we will check extraction, profit maximization will always encourage extraction, because extraction is more profitable than sustainable harvest. Now agriculture itself being a part of this economy has become extractive and the capacity of extraction has only increased after the industrial revolution due to access to fossil fuels.
As long as fossil fuel is present the gains of extraction in the non-agricultural sector will remain much higher than in the agricultural sector. Our workforce therefore has shifted from the agricultural sector to other sectors, adding pressure on the few remaining farmers to provide for the increasing population. This amongst many other things including mechanization of farming have led to the loss of ecological consciousness. Since a smaller number of people has to produce for larger non-participating people, productivity at any cost has become urgent policy. Governments are seen encouraging unsustainable practices in agriculture like all other sectors as in the pursuit of profit and growth. Technology gives us a lot of power and with power comes a lot of responsibility however, with this endless pursuit, the responsibility is getting disregarded.

Perennial and short-duration crops against cash crops

One of the major factors of sustainable farming is to integrate ‘water security’ with different ways of farming, in other words, ecological farming. One of the principles that should be adopted in ecological farming is growing crops that are suitable to the local ecosystem. The water currently irrigated in farming travels miles through the canal networks resulting in the priority shifting to the growth of cash crops that require less labor rather than food crops. For example, the growth of Areca cultivation is only a traditional form of agriculture in coastal parts of Karnataka, but in recent years it extended to plain lands as they are blessed with irrigation projects and channel water. Many arid, dry or semi-dried areas previously used to cultivate millets but have now turned to grow rice due to the easy availability of irrigated water or drawing out groundwater.
One needs to understand that groundwater should not be used and importantly that it does not belong to any individual because of the presence of borewell on their owned land. Monitoring the and limiting the usage of groundwater by collective group action should be actively practiced like taken up in few places of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and many other states under the Ministry of Jal Shakti initiated Participatory Ground Water Management. The case of Hiware Bazaar in Ahmednagar stands out as a good example to adapt as a collective model of state and central governments initiative (2012) to establish national-level centre for training in the Panchayati raj system for watershed development, sanitation and capacity building of the villages.
As a part of the project, rainwater harvesting, digging trenches around the hill contours to trap water, afforestation and building percolation tanks were undertaken. The people of Hiware Bazaar avoided cultivating crops like sugarcane and bananas, which require high use of water instead moved to local-seasonal cropping. The initiatives greatly improved the socio-economic conditions in the village and was declared as an ‘Ideal Village’ and received the ‘National Water Award’ by the Government of India.
In nature, diversity is the rule. Opting to grow locally suited crops along with multi-cropping or crop rotation also helps in pest management. Cultivating with crop rotation provides actual biodiversity. By encouraging the growth of a pest that likes a particular crop, creates a balance and helps avoid the proliferation of a single pest.

Integrating water harvesting with farming

Integrating water harvesting with farming needs to be adopted in principle by all at the soonest possible. In dry areas, one may aim to grow crops that support the percolation of 90-95% of water in-ground and also have means of slowing down the surface water flow when it rains. This can be done by incorporating the growth of vegetation with the natural contours of the area and having multiple small water storages like farm tanks or percolation ponds.
In heavy to extremely heavy rainfall areas, one needs to concentrate on rainwater harvesting system that can support farming all throughout the year with a rainfall of 4 months. The challenge here is to grow crops integrated with proper drainage that let water flow slowly and not carry any agricultural soil with it. For example, in the southern India, the rainfall is high and with close proximity to the sea the rainwater easily runs off via various shorter rivers. These rivers have the possibility to build vented dams over them to hold water for some time. These dams can be kept open during the monsoons while water can be impounded during the dry season resulting in retaining water level and in the process recharge the groundwater naturally.
Shreekumar emphasized that to incorporate farming with any water harvesting system, one should also take into consideration the land-use planning taking micro-watersheds as a unit simultaneously. So, then we can decide which part of the land can be used for growing trees and which can be used for water harvesting. Given the land ownership pattern we have in the country, implementing this is a problem. This calls for land reforms that can make sustainable use of land a priority rather than land ownership. Agricultural land should be a ‘common-property resource’ and not as a commodity that one needs to purchase to practice farming. It is difficult to sincerely practice sustainable farming along with bearing the land cost at an individual level and collective farming in the land ownership shall remain challenging.
Shreekumar concluded with stress on delimiting agriculture to food production. Agriculture should be diverse in nature and not limited to crop for food and fodder, but should extend to fuel, fiber, medicines etc. This will help society to be less dependent on nonrenewable resources. This process can only be effective with government support in form of policies that support and empower agriculture and plant dependence, unlike the current policies that promote the usage of fossil fuels.

Interactions

Prutha reflecting on the speakers shares her motivation to improve the shortcoming of water use efficiency in agriculture and food security adding on her study on the growing culture of farming under Polyhouse culture in India. She highlights the CROPWAT model developed with NDC Partnership which is a computer program designed for the calculation of crop water and irrigation requirements based on soil, climate and crop data. For example, in Karnataka where a crop shift is being observed with an increasing move towards water-intensive crops, the CROPWAT program is helpful in making irrigation schedules for different management conditions and the calculation of water supply scheme for varying crop patterns.
On a question of ease of implementation of all the technologies available, Muruganandam reflected that our technology generation and dissemination are not well-coordinated and coherent with the discrepancy lying between the research and application. Further, more efficient coordination between different stakeholders and actors is required to fill out the gaps in communications and to monitor transparency in intentions. Shreekumar emphasized that the technology available should also be thoroughly studied, tested and understood before its adaption or rejection in all regions. This is required to get better understanding of the technology so that the minor changes required to optimize the mechanics as per the region or outcome intended can be adapted. Many times, these changes are not done before mass application of a technology irrespective of the crop or geographical conditions which causes losses and mistrust between farmers over science and is not helpful in the long term.
This discussion on sustainable farming and its dependence on water emphasized the importance of institutions, policies, and the need for creating awareness interrelation of water and sustainable farming. To sum up, there are certainly many benefits from restoring soil, conserving water and engaging in advanced technologies. However, there are no magic bullets that can increase water availability as well as agricultural production especially for making large profits. There are trade-offs in a net-zero sum game, which appears to be the case in the agricultural sector in India.
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Wednesdays for Water is a think tank and communication series initiated as a Citizens Collective. The idea is to connect the water worries, wisdoms, and the warriors through dialogues, discussions, debates. The objective is to engage with policy makers, practitioner, researchers, academicians besides the youth, our future generation to explore the multi-dimensional issues associated with water problems and solutions. The Wednesdays.for.Water can be reached at wednesday.for.water@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. Other team members of the Wednesdays for Water are: Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Prof. Fawzia Tarannum (Teri-SAS), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Megha Sanjaliwala Gupta, Vasantha Subbiah, Shrinivas M R, Manisha Sharma, Jagpreet Singh, Pooja Choudhary, and counting. We are available on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. The sessions are available on YouTube Channel.
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*Respectively: Independent Scholar and Fellow at Eco Development and Research Cell Ahmedabad;  Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker, Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad

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